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Follow Your Thumb: Does Good Thumb Position Really Matter?

thumb position bass guitarThumb Position for Bass Guitar Considered

Thumb position when playing bass guitar is something bassists have debated for a long time. Specifically, does it matter where you actually place your thumb and does where you put your thumb really affect your playing and if so in what capacity.

The thumb is very important to bass players more so than guitar players. Because of the larger neck and overall build of the bass guitar, being able to use your thumb as a pivot point rather than just as another finger that wraps over the neck like you might among guitar players’ playing form

The main reason among bassists just as much as guitar players and pianists suffer wrist pains comes from poor form either from left hand, right hand or both. For bassists and guitar players, however, the left hand serves a different function than the left hand of the piano. The left hand in this case is is responsible for gripping and fretting the instrument and poor form in this case can lead to long term physical issues. But good left hand form, can keep those problems away and, more importantly, open up a whole new range of dexterity and playing capabilities.

Left Thumb Position On Bass Guitar: Try Pivoting

The “proper” way of positioning the left hand on the neck is to have it so the left thumb is on the middle of the back of the neck, straight between where the first through fourth fingers will be on the fretboard. The thumb should also be placed at or just below the middle of the neck to create an anchor point around which the rest of the hand will move as needed.

The benefit of this form is that it allows you the ability to pivot on your thumb.

Why does pivoting matter?

Pivoting matters because it transfers all of your playing to your fingers rather than to your wrist. If you find yourself palming the neck or “baseball bat gripping” the neck you might notice that your hand is not perpendicular to the strings or evenly laid across all 4 (or 5 or 6) strings of the neck. Rather, your hand is somewhat angled.

In this baseball bat grip you also might notice that it’s very difficult to play fast lines or move around the neck with fluidity and ease.  By positioning your thumb center to the back of the neck (see the image above),

You can also check out this lesson for a more in-depth look at what positioning the left thumb in this way gets you and how it can dramatically improve your playing.

In a Nutshell: Here’s 3 Reasons Why Positioning Your Left Thumb on the Back of the Neck is The Best Way to Play:

1. The pinky is kept in a downward-to-the-fretboard angle. This is something that is still possible, but much harder to achieve consistently without this kind of positioning.
2. The wrist is kept straight. This is the central argument for developing this kind of left hand positioning. This kind of positioning is your main tool against developing wrist related injuries and strains.
3. The hand will move easier and more of your playing will come from finger movement versus wrist movement. This is my favorite reason behind this playing grip. More often than not when bassists point out that they are having difficulty playing fast, dexterous lines like those akin to Jaco or Hadrien Feraud, one of the roots of this is likely to be because of how your hand is positioned. In a “baseball grip”, you loose a tremendous amount of mobility in your left hand and rely more on your wrist to move around the neck than your fingers.

What About Your Right Hand Thumb Position on Bass?

While we’re talking about thumb position, it’s worth looking at the right thumb as well and what are some playing options with this finger. We’ll look at 3 different ways you can position your right thumb and some of the pros and cons of each positioning form.

The Floating Thumb Technique

The floating thumb technique is when your thumb is, well, floating. It’s not planted or anchored to any one point on the bass and your hand floats freely as you play.

The Anchored Thumb Technique

The Moving Thumb Technique

Does It Really Matter Where You Put Your Thumb?
I’ve seen form sticklers loose their minds when they watch players like Flea and Geddy Lee play. Both players are powerhouses in the world of bass for their playing abilities and their legacies established from their playing, but from a form perspective – they have bad form! They both grip the neck like a baseball bat and don’t bat an eye about it!
So now we arrive at this question: does this form aspect really matter? The answer is that it’s up to you. What feels best for you? What gets the job done for you? If you’re someone who is fine with one grip over another and you’re not getting any ill health problems – then keep going! But if the flip side is true, maybe consider changing grips for health reasons not because its “proper”.

Check out this video of Rush playing Tom Sawyer (of course) for enjoyment but also keep an eye out on Geddy Lee’s left hand: