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How Evolution and the Opposable Thumb Shaped Iconic Guitar Tone

About a million years ago, the evolutionary process of humans involved the development of a fully opposable thumb. In short, this is what allowed us to go from strictly giving high fives to firmly grasped handshakes. Fast-forward almost as many years and you find a unique application of this evolutionary feat: the abandonment of boring bar chords for the fretted thumb. So who are the players that championed this style and how can it evolve your tone and extend playing prospects?

Arguably the most famous, and most likely first, electric guitar wielding artist to pioneer this approach was Jimi Hendrix. If you watch any concert footage or photos of Hendrix, keep an eye on the position of
his right hand—almost always, his thumb is wrapped over the top of the fret board to bar or mute the low E and, at times, the A string. Shortly after, Stevie Ray Vaughan is also hailed as a thoroughly thumbyplayer. Perhaps not surprising given his regular homage to both these players, John Mayer too is an unapologetic fan of the thumb-fretted chord approach.

Typically in guitar teaching, you’re thumb is assigned to the back stage as a utilitarian tool for holding the neck and keeping good posture for your four fingers who take care of the fretting. Yet Hendrix, Vaughan, and Mayer exploded out of this traditional role and reimagined both playing styles and pioneered musical genres. If in your playing journey you’ve nailed the standard bar chords using E and A shapes but have plateaued and are looking for ways to develop your writing and improvisation skills, here’s three ways getting your thumb into the game will (r)evolutionize your approach to the guitar.

Rhythm-Plus-Riffs

The thumb fretting approaches of Hendrix, Vaughan, and Mayer is an essential ingredient in how their playing blurs the lines between rhythm and lead lines. Seldom are any of these gents strumming away until it’s their turn to break out into a riff. Rather, there is chordal expression and movement within their rhythm lines that, in many ways, is only possible with thumb fretting. Once that posable thumb is wed with the low strings of the instrument, there’s endless prospects for how you can add color and texture to chordal structures and transitions.

Bend, Hammer-Ons, and Pull-Offs

So how do you overlay rhythm and riffs thanks to your thumb? One of the hacks shared by all three of the above players was their rhythmic approach to chords and transitions occasioned by bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. To do this, however, you’ve got to find an extra finger. So either wait another million years to grow a sixth, or optimize the five you have by repositioning them. By using your palm to hold the neck and redeploying your thumb to anchor the low strings, your ring and pinky fingers are suddenly freed up for more movement and ornamentation.

Triad Manipulations and Bass Notes

Another advantage of becoming thumb-savvy in your playing is that it opens up chord formations that are at once simpler and more expressive. For example, once you nail down a few basic triad shapes and understand how to shift these up or down the neck for difference voicings, tossing your thumb on the root, or shifting it to alternate roots, can help break your playing out of the well-worn ruts of stand E or A-based bar chords. Whether it is bends, hammers, and pulls or toying with triads, the thumb fret approach also makes it easier to see how your simplified chord structures relate to Pentatonic shapes and boxes. In this way, then, giving the thumbs up means breaking down the barrier between the typically separate cognitive categories of scales and chords so you can optimize both.

No matter which guitar gods in the pantheon of blues and rock history inspire you, I’m willing to bet it’s almost always players who broke the rules, abandoned the traditional, and exploded the expected had the deepest impact. In these cases, something as simple as rethinking the underused thumb meant evolving from basic to brilliant.

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