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Learning Proper Left Hand Position

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(@fretsource)
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Joined: 16 years ago
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STORY: :D

I do know that I'll never convince a die-hard Classical enthusiast though.

I have a friend who was classically trained at the local Conservatorium. Played Bach and so forth in a duo for a while. Now plays a bit of occasional classic electric rock with some of his mates.

We had this discussion before and I had shifted his view of the rockers not one milimetre! So when I lent him a video of Jeff Beck (who he admires - I had trouble getting the video back..) I couldn't resist pointing out how Beck frequently appears to be throttling his guitar, yet still gets some very nice noises out of it.

“Ah yes” he said “but he could do better still if he used my techniques”

“Cut him some slack” said I “He's got millions of devoted fans and is highly respected by other musicians. Surely his style is proven to work”. (I was tempted to add “ While you're driving an ambulance for a living” but I'm not quite that cruel...).

Nope. Wouldn't budge.

I hope your friend never meets Jeff Beck and persuades him to play what he thinks is the proper way that every guitarist should play. Not only would it be completely arrogant, it would be completely wrong. Ask him if he's ever heard John Williams attempt to play rock. It just doesn't work (as he himself readily admits). It's very precise and technically fluent but it ain't rock. I saw him play a charity duet with Pete Townshend (playing a Townshend song) and he looked completely out of his comfort zone and took a back seat (in the text book classical position) while Townshend expressed the song with complete musicality, using his guitar and whole body in the way that was needed to express the song musically. If that required his thumb to be somewhere other than behind the neck, then that's where it would be. John Williams, sitting in the classic position with far greater technical fluency than Townshend, could never have played it the way it's meant to be played with those self imposed restrictions.

Keith Moon once joked that he was the best Keith Moon type drummer in the world. It's an amusing but brilliant quote and it could easily apply to guitarists like Jeff Beck who are masters of their style. Jeff Beck is the best Jeff Beck style guitarist in the world. He has arrived at that enviable position by doing exactly what has to be done and that includes such insignificant details such as where he puts his thumb. Wherever Jeff Beck puts his thumb is exactly where it's supposed to be at that moment in time.


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(@s1120)
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Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 849
 

Chris, I gotta say man.... as a guy with pretty big hands myself... dam...you got some big hands!!! :D

And agean... Ill post this from a farly new players point of view... It always seems to be a good starting point.... and not a bad habbit to get into... BUT like anything... you need to adapt your style to what your playing at the time. But if you never learn to be comfortable with it, you dont have that in your tool box when you DO get to the stuff thats realy complex. if you learn it, and get that memery ingraved in your fingers... when you need it its there.

Paul B


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(@noteboat)
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Joined: 18 years ago
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Chris, like most 'rules of thumb' :) keeping the thumb behind the neck is subject to variation. When you watch the McLaughlin video, focus on his solo, which starts at about 1:13 in the video. Notice a couple of things:

1. Although you can SEE his thumb, it's clearly staying behind the neck. He's never bending the thumb over the top (which is what many guitarists do, and that's the position that will limit the range of your fingers.

2. Notice how seldom he MOVES his thumb. When you're trying to play difficult lines, your hand is constantly shifting back and forth as you reach for notes that are out of position, or momentarily shift to a new position. In lessons, I demonstrate the thumb as an 'anchor' by turning the back of my guitar towards a student and playing a line where my hand is moving around a lot - my thumb stays in one place, and serves as a guide to where the frets are, so I never need to look at the guitar (when I demonstrate this, I'm always looking at my student, so my head is turned 90º+ away from the guitar).

When you do that, and you move your hand a fret or two up the neck (e.g. you start in 5th position, but have a bit of the run in 7th) your thumb has to turn - it's no longer parallel to the frets. So for a brief bit you're in "bad" position. But that's really the whole point of having "good" position to start with - by improving the range of frets you can play without moving your thumb, you improve your accuracy on those passages. The alternative would be more frequent position shifts, and each movement of your full hand is a slight risk - you might end up a hair off, which can mean poor tone, or even a wrong note.

If I have to play a 3 octave line in C, my thumb will be in just three places: behind the 2nd, 6th, and 9th frets (or behind the 6th, 9th, and 14th depending on the register of the line). So I might be spending some time in 12th position with my thumb behind the 9th fret...that limits my upper range (I'll have a hard time hitting a 17th fret note), but the overall position gives me the MOST range (I've got the 7th to 13th frets covered with minimal effort). How high you keep your thumb - i.e., whether you can see it peeking out over the neck - will vary with the guitarist's hand size.

Your conservatory friend's comments on Beck's technique are actually a pretty good illustration of how I think about the guitar. There are the black-and-white "rules" of position (conservatory teaching), which are the result of a lot of thinking about the best way to do something. But the best execution of a musical idea puts that 'something' into a context... and there will be exceptions, because the rules are general guidelines that might actually hamper you in a few situations. When you're faced with a choice between doing something because it's the way you were taught to do it and doing something because it gets the most musical result, you should go for the result.

On the flip side of things, he's also got a point that could be better stated this way: we can only perform well what we practice. If you practice "proper" technique enough to have it at your command whenever you want it, you'll likely become a better guitarist.

Earlier I said Tommy Emmanuel has great technique. You'll find yourself unconsciously doing what you woodshed most of the time. Like Tommy Emmanuel, "best" practice becomes your default. When you want something else, it becomes a choice.

The way I see it, it's not a choice of either/or... it's a choice of either/AND. If you practice only what's comfortable, you'll be able to do only what's comfortable. If you practice what's "correct" (but uncomfortable), you'll be able to do both.

Do you need both? That's a personal decision. But I'd make an observation about technique before you decide:

We've all got limited practice time. Within that time, there are things we do that are 'strategic' (they will affect everything we choose to play, like hand position), and there are things we do that are 'tactical' (we'll use them some of the time, like sweep picking). Because habits are hard to break, you want to make the strategic choices as carefully as you can - they will establish your overall limits.

What you do tactically will define your sound. BB's vibrato, Santana's control of feedback, Beck's use of the vibrato arm... the tactics you focus on will ultimately shape your music. But they must fall within the limits of the strategic decisions you've made. Beck's hand position isn't ideal, but it isn't awful either. So your friend is right - he could be "better" (at some things) with different hand position. But his strategic choices are good enough for the tactics he's using.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


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(@trguitar)
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Joined: 15 years ago
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I never worried about it but my thumb is all over the neck. Happy accident and lucky for being self taught I suppose but I am doing what Noteboat is describing. My bad thumb position is always for a reason and when I need to play a clean chord involving many strings I find my thumb is in the back of the neck on center where it should be. I wrap it for leverage on bends, have it off the same side of the neck as my fingers when climbing high on the fingerboard of my LesPauls and even wrap it to fret notes with it. Definitely if you are trying to play a chord cleanly that involves many strings the correct position makes it a lot easier. I can do both and my playing is difinitely better for it.

"Work hard, rock hard, eat hard, sleep hard,
grow big, wear glasses if you need 'em."
-- The Webb Wilder Credo --


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(@chris-c)
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Keith Moon once joked that he was the best Keith Moon type drummer in the world. It's an amusing but brilliant quote and it could easily apply to guitarists like Jeff Beck who are masters of their style. Jeff Beck is the best Jeff Beck style guitarist in the world. He has arrived at that enviable position by doing exactly what has to be done and that includes such insignificant details such as where he puts his thumb. Wherever Jeff Beck puts his thumb is exactly where it's supposed to be at that moment in time.

Great Keith Moon quote! :D

I support the idea that there is a valid place for individual styles, whether it's compositional (clearly we don't all necessarily want to write like Shakespeare or compose like Bach) or technical style either. One of the weirdest styles I've seen is Richie Havens', who tunes his guitar in open D and then uses his thumb to do barres... Very unusual, and it would feel bizarre to me, but it works for him. :)

Click on the top line where it says 'How I Play', for some interesting pictures

He adds a variety of additional notes to get 7ths, 9ths etc.

I actually met Keith Moon briefly back in the early 1970s when he came to Melbourne to play Wicked Old Uncle Ernie in the Australian production of Tommy. At the time, the studio that I co-owned was doing publicity photos, album covers, etc for local record companies and magazines and I went to the airport with a journalist who was going to interview him on arrival. Moon disembarked looking surprisingly neat, and smartly dressed in a long leather coat. The Moon touch was provided by sporting a stuffed seagull perched on his shoulder.

Later, when attending a rehearsal at the Myer Music Bowl, I saw a little of his more well publicised side. He was reeling round the stage, in character, swigging brandy from a bottle and cackling away. But the drunken Uncle Ernie didn't seem to be all acting, and the bottle slipped from his fingers, rolled across the stage and smashed in the orchestra pit. I remember feeling not amused or even shocked, but just sad that he seemed to have such a self destructive steak.


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(@chris-c)
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Joined: 16 years ago
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Chris, like most 'rules of thumb' :) keeping the thumb behind the neck is subject to variation. When you watch the McLaughlin video, focus on his solo, which starts at about 1:13 in the video. Notice a couple of things:

1. Although you can SEE his thumb, it's clearly staying behind the neck. He's never bending the thumb over the top (which is what many guitarists do, and that's the position that will limit the range of your fingers.

2. Notice how seldom he MOVES his thumb.

Well, if the main thing is to keep a fairly consistent position then I'm probably doing reasonably OK.

The default position for my thumb is alongside the neck but not sticking well above it. Usually the base of my thumbnail is pretty much parallel with the binding/top of the fretboard. It feels very comfortable there and my fingers have all the range that I need. I do occasionally move it up to mute or fret the bass E, but not that often. I also do move the thumb right round to the back for barres.

Despite the deliberately exaggerated look in the photos, my hands are reasonably normal sized. I like to keep my wrist pretty straight and all the digits relaxed and comfortable. The comfortable and controlled physical feel of it all is the most important thing for me. If it ever starts to feel awkward I will stop and work out what can be changed. It might be a positional adjustment or improvement, but it might also be a change in note selection instead. I have no interest in playing technically hard performances pieces just for the sake of it, so I'm completely happy with devising arrangements that suit what feels right to me. If it doesn't feel right then it doesn't usually sound right either. :)
Your conservatory friend's comments on Beck's technique are actually a pretty good illustration of how I think about the guitar. There are the black-and-white "rules" of position (conservatory teaching), which are the result of a lot of thinking about the best way to do something. But the best execution of a musical idea puts that 'something' into a context... and there will be exceptions, because the rules are general guidelines that might actually hamper you in a few situations. When you're faced with a choice between doing something because it's the way you were taught to do it and doing something because it gets the most musical result, you should go for the result.
That's it for me - I go for the result that I want. I do understand what my friend is doing, and why, but I'm not wanting to play like he does. My approach gives clear advantages to me (or I wouldn't use it) as his do to him. It's like two different athletes - a sprinter and a distance runner. They train differently and use different techniques, but one isn't 'wrong' because the other is 'right'. Both can be right for the purpose.

I do understand why classical types are keen on their techniques. It just gets up my nose when they get snooty about the 'bad habits' or 'poor technique' of people who play some other way, despite the huge body of evidence to show that you can make excellent noises using other methods. Rock technique doesn't have to be 'bad' just because it differs from Classical. Music is about what you hear, not what you see. :) I'm not having a shot at you there, but at a couple of early teachers that I tried. The guy I currently see (not so much for lessons as "adventures in music" ) has had a successful performing career for 40 years, and - as Fretsource mentioned - puts his thumb wherever it feels right at the time.

Cheers,

Chris


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(@trguitar)
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OK, because of this thread when I was playing last night I decided to see where my hand was. Correct position for root 6 barre chords all the way. It rolls a little towards me around the neck for root 5's. Standard open chords, correct position. Cheater versions of these chords, (one and two finger versions) it moves to the side. I think I am keeping the vector of the force of my thumb opposite that of my fretting fingers. Makes sense doesn't it?

"Work hard, rock hard, eat hard, sleep hard,
grow big, wear glasses if you need 'em."
-- The Webb Wilder Credo --


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(@dave-t)
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Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 239
Topic starter  

Wow, now I'm really conflicted! But, amazed(or maybe not) at the depth of insight and thought put into this discussion.

Since I play only on acoustic, I've made a wee study the last week or so of other players I know or saw live. Seems the field is split but towards the more aggressive grip. Prevailing attitude is "use what works best for you". I think I'll work on using the thumb behind when I can and sliding it up/over when it feels right.

Thanks people!


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(@dogbite)
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Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 6353
 

very good topic and thread.
all I can add is my experiences.
when I play full barre chords my thumb is behind the neck and pointing toward the headstock; parallel with the skunk strip on my strat.
when I play fills and licks my thumb is over the top of the neck.
when I play some chords, particularly the movable shape chords, my thumb is over the top of the neck.

I feel that one should develop proper techniques, but be open to one's own style.
when I use a pick, I hold with the thumb and index finger. pretty common. however, I also use my middle finger when picking simultaneous with the pick.

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http://www.soundclick.com/couleerockinvaders


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(@chris-c)
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all I can add is my experiences.
when I play full barre chords my thumb is behind the neck and pointing toward the headstock; parallel with the skunk strip on my strat.
when I play fills and licks my thumb is over the top of the neck.
when I play some chords, particularly the movable shape chords, my thumb is over the top of the neck.

Interesting. That sounds similar to my style, and a lot like many of the players in the Youtube videos.

I feel that one should develop proper techniques, but be open to one's own style.

Amen to that. :D

My default position is pretty much what you'd get if you closed your hand in a natural fist shape and then partly opened it up and stuck a guitar neck in between.

I suppose you could call my thumb an anchor, but it feels more like a 'centre of balance' as it does more than just provide a reference point for the fingers. In one way it's a bit like a tennis umpire sitting up there and keeping a watchful eye on the fingers scurrying round the court.... But it's also a sort of 'comfort zone', rather like Grandma watching the kids - a centre of quiet and balance whilst the rest of the gang races round the garden...

Here's a six string C

and a full G

Leaving the thumb where it is I can easily switch between the two, even though all fingers are completely moving their positions. The music that I mostly play doesn't demand a lot of fast changes - mostly one or two per bar. Very occasionally there might be a different chord on each beat - i.e. 4 changes in a 4/4 bar. At 120 bpm that would mean 2 chord changes per second. If my thumb position was going to limit my ability to move quickly then it should show up there. But I have no trouble doing those full C to G chords at 2 per second. In fact I can manage it at 180 bpm, which is 3 changes per second. However, I never actually need to do that. I just tried it out of interest.

By contrast, here's a barre

A D with an extra A (DADA)

And an idea of the general reach. If I'm playing melodies, scales or whatever I can comfortably reach across plenty of frets. For instance, if the thumb was at fret 5 I can reach back down to 3 and 4 comfortably with the index, and up to 8 with the pinky. The pinky can also reach 9 but it doesn't seem to need to. Of course, moving the whole hand isn't that much of a big deal anyway. The thumb knows where to go.

As Fretsource and Keith Moon might have said "I'm the best Chris C style player in the world.... and that's how I do it.."..

Cheers,

Chris


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(@dave-t)
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Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 239
Topic starter  

Chris:

It looks like when you play the C and G your palm or at least the web between the thumb and index finger is contacting the neck and providing the resitance for the fretting fingers as opposed to the thumb doing it. Which is the way i was playing. Any problem with the palm contacting the high E?


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(@chris-c)
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Hi Dave,

Good points. :)

BTW, thanks for posted this thread - it's something that has intrigued me ever since I began

It's very difficult to show exactly what's happening in a photo, because the camera foreshortens things. It's like the old trick of taking a photo where somebody appears to be standing on your hand, when they're actually well back. I was also holding the camera with my right hand and trying to see what's in the frame at the same time, which distorted my overall posture and made it very hard to hold everything exactly right. But in general, the answer to your question about the E string is "It's only a problem if your hand is in the wrong position".

When I started out I was trying at least two different styles - what you might call the 'correct classical' style and the more casual looking 'rock style'. Without going into why I didn't like the 'classical' for all occasions, two of the initial problems I had with the rock style were exactly what you described - gripping too tightly and therefore getting rather too much palm against the neck, and a tendency to touch the high E.

The answer to why I now don't have those problems isn't easy to describe, as it mostly just subtle changes in way it's done. Part of it is small differences in the gaps, but (perhaps surprisingly) part of it is in the overall posture (a word you don't expect to hear much in rock! ) or positioning of the guitar. You might call it the overall balance. A classical player will sit in a very deliberate and considered angle and position, with the guitar held just so with various parts of their body helping to maintain the balance. I also use parts of my body to help balance things up - but with the important addition of a well adjusted strap. It's a different arrangement, but the goal is the same - to be comfortable and efficient..

When I first started out I had a lot of trouble with all the usual things - balance, grip, posture, angles etc. Because my fingers were so untrained (and were nearly 60, stiff and achy) I had great difficulty landing anything accurately. So, like many beginners, I gripped everything far too tightly and squeezed way too hard, in an attempt to use sheer pressure and strength to stop everything buzzing and clattering. In my book, over-using force instead of balance and control IS the main seat of the dreaded Bad Habits!

But I soon realised that if I stopped trying to play in a hurry that I could fret a note cleanly with almost no ‘force' at all. My pinky (which I could hardly move initially) laid lightly on the string was enough - provided that it was in exactly the right position. It seemed as if I already had enough ‘strength' and that what I really needed was more control and accuracy, and more stamina. A bit like a distance runner as opposed to a sprinter, perhaps.

This didn't come easily of course - it rarely does. But over time I found that everything adjusted - not just my hands but the whole body. I now rarely require as much directly opposing force for the fingers as I first thought that I needed, because:

  • a) I have a lighter, more controlled and more accurate touch now, and

    b) The balance is spread across all the points of contact between me and the guitar. That includes my ribs where the body of the guitar rests, the point where my right arm touches the guitar body, my shoulders(via the strap) and parts of my fretting hand. No one point takes all the work, and most of them may have occasions where they contribute little or nothing for a while. It's quite a magical process really, as much of music is. I really can't say precisely why I can play so much better now than I could 5 years ago.


  • I've spend a fair while watching good players on Youtube and asking the question “Why do they play like that?”. It seems pointless to say that some of the world's best players are “incorrect” or have “bad habits” when it so obviously works for them. It seems to make more sense to say that what is “classically correct” is not essential - or even the best method - for all kinds of music or all situations. As Fretsource pointed out, John Williams can't ‘rock' like Pete Townsend can and branding Townsend as “incorrect” smacks of arrogance.

    I believe that there are good classical techniques (proved over centuries) that work well for the purpose for which they were developed, and good rock and blues techniques that work equally well their genres.

    When I watch a good player on Youtube I don't try and pick holes in their style or say if it's ‘wrong' - I simply try and see what advantages it gives them and what the trade-offs are in possible disadvantages. These people aren't too dumb or lazy to work out how to do it “correctly” (as some one-eyed critics would have you believe) - they do it because they find that there is some advantage to them in doing it that way. It may be something technical, or it might be because it just feels better that way and helps get the right music out for them. Certainly, it may potentially limit them in some other way (as any fixed style will to some degree) but they either don't ever go there, or else they have more than one tool in the kit when they need it. To me, it usually it looks like a mixture of the two.

    Good luck with developing the right style for yourself. :)

    Cheers,

    Chris


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    (@trguitar)
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    Chris, i'm a firm believer, if it works .... do it!

    "Work hard, rock hard, eat hard, sleep hard,
    grow big, wear glasses if you need 'em."
    -- The Webb Wilder Credo --


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    (@chris-c)
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    Chris, i'm a firm believer, if it works .... do it!

    Thanks mate, that nails it for me too. :D

    I like the quote by Sir Richard Branson the 'self made' billionaire boss of Virgin:

    "You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over."

    I bet he knows what many of the so-called 'rules' of the games he's involved in are though. He just chooses not to be constrained by them, or let them stop him from exploring other options. I'm the same. I learned most of the really useful things I know by a mixture of observation, experimentation and improvisation. It's served me very well over the years too. :D

    Cheers,

    Chris


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     cnev
    (@cnev)
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    This is very similar to a golf swing. If you were to go get instructions pretty all instructors are going to show you the "standard" or supposedly correct way of setting up and swinging, but all you have to do is watch a professional golf tournament and see there are alot of differrent swings on tour and all these guys are playing at the highest level of their sport.

    Jim Furyk is one of the better example his swing goes so against the "standard" swing yet he's a top teir player.

    One size never fits all, like everyone posted you can start with a more proper way and adjust to your own needs.

    It's not about how you hold a guitar it's about the music that comes out.

    "It's all about stickin it to the man!"
    It's a long way to the top if you want to rock n roll!


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