Thumb War! Four Innovative Ways Guitarists Are Using Their Thumbs to Enhance Their Guitar Playing

October 04, 2019 3 min read

Thumb War! Four Innovative Ways Guitarists Are Using Their Thumbs to Enhance Their Guitar Playing

Bass players and have been using their thumbs to slap and pound out bass lines for years, but slapping and other amazing thumb-work has become more common among guitar players only quite recently. In this article we are going to take a look at some of the ways today’s players are using their thumbs to their advantage, making their playing fresher and more interesting!

Those of us who took guitar lessons are likely to remember being told to keep our thumbs behind the fretboard when playing and to only use the thumb on your frethand to pluck the bass notes in chords and melodies. But since the days of Hendrix, guitarists have been finding ways to work their thumbs into their playing, often to amazing affect. Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn both used their thumbs routinely to hold down the bass notes in chords rather than play tired old barre chord shapes, and you may rememberJake E. Lee using his thumbs on the fretboard to create orchestral sounding wide interval chords. 

Today, guitarists like John Mayer, Guthrie Govan, Paul Gilbert and Tosin Abasi inspired by slap bass, classical, flamenco and jazz music are taking thumb use to an entirely new level. Read and watch below as we take you on a short journey through several approaches to using the thumb in innovative and creative ways. 

John Mayer - Fretting basslines, slapping, and just about anything else you can imagine!

John Mayer, whose freakishly large thumbs seem to spill over onto the fretboard on every other note, puts his lengthy thumbs to amazing use doing everything from slapping, thumping, fretting chord tones and even fretting moving basslines. Mayer’s amazing thumb use is the talk of numerous online discussions and the subject of countless Youtube videos. In the following video we’ll take a look at some of the most amazing ways that Mayer uses his thumbs to enhance his playing. (Pay close attention around 1:28 of the video, where Mayer uses his thumb to fret a moving bassline to accompany his melodic and chord playing!)

Amazing John Mayer Outakes

We couldn’t find a video of Mayer explaining his guitar techniques, but here is a video of guitar teacher Tyler Lawson taking a look at some of John Mayer’s most unique habits.

Habits of John Mayer

Paul Gilbert - Using Your Thumb for Power and Precision

Paul Gilbert Bending Lesson:

Like John Mayer, Paul Gilbert is known for his large hands and amazing fretboard abilities, and there are literally hundreds of videos online that perfectly illustrate why Gilbert is known as a modern master of rock guitar and shred. Playing for such legendary acts as Racer X and Mr. Big, Gilbert has also embarked on a successful career as a guitar teacher and soloist and in the video above Gilbert explains why the thumb is the most important finger on the fret hand, and why he depends on thumb placement to dampen strings, fret bass notes and give his bends and vibrato power and precision

Guthrie Govan - Bringing Slap to Rock Guitar -- and then some!

Wonderful Slippery Thing

Govan, known as ‘The Professor of Shred,’ is a one man innovation factory, setting the world of guitar music on fire a decade ago with his instrumental albumErotic Cakes and since with his work with The Aristocrats. In this video above Govan improvises his way through an impressive live version of his classic tune “Wonderful Slippery Thing.” And below, Govan shows us how we can master slap technique and integrate it into our own playing.

Guthrie Govan Slap Lesson:

Tosin Abasi - Djent Style Thump

Tosin Abasi Thump Lesson:

Tosin Abasi is one of the leading djent style guitarists in the world and a member of the progressive metal bandAnimals as Leaders. Djent is a sub-genre of progressive metal that features a distinctive use of low end guitar tones, usually featuring 7 and 8 string guitars, wild meter changes, frequent forays into odd time signatures, and sudden shifts between shimmering glassy clean tones and face melting shred. As a leader in this genre, Abasi has pioneered the use of thump-guitar in nearly impossible-sounding, high speed slap riffs that boggle the mind! 

Animals as Leaders: The Woven Web (Checkout 1:35 for incredible thumb-thumping)

Of course, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of innovative slapping, thumping and other amazing thumb-work. It has been going on since before Hendrix, and we've all heard of Bluegrass, Flamenco and Classical players who have been applying unorthodox techniques like this for decades! In the comments below please share your favorite innovative guitar techniques and the artists who most blow your mind!

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