Thumb behind vs over the neck

baconsalad

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Some say that just like classical guitar, thumb on the back of the neck is supposed to be the 'proper' way to play. I'd really like to know why. I can play for maybe five minutes like this before my hand cramps up. So just like guitar, I hang my thumb over so I can play comfortably for more than a few minutes. On guitar I actually thumb 6/1 to do F Major too. I really only put my thumb behind to do barre chords. For those who do strict thumb on back, was it simply a matter of building the right muscle group over time? I've given up trying it on acoustic guitar (arthritis), but since uke is lighter strung, and I've only been playing for a year, I wonder if I should suffer and try to habituate with 'proper' technique. I found this video of The Ohtas playing together. Sr , being a trained jazz musician keeps thumb behind the whole time. Jr. however has thumb over.
 
My thumb is going to go wherever it needs to go to comfortably play whatever I'm playing, I have no concern whether it is the "proper" technique or not. Like you, the only time I use "proper" technique with the thumb behind the neck is when I do barre chords. It reminds me of the story I read in one of Tom Petty's biographies. He was taking guitar lessons where the instructor insisted that he use proper technique with his thumb behind the neck of the guitar. It was because of that he quit taking lessons because he wanted to play with his thumb over the top of the neck which was more comfortable and because that was how a certain guitarist he admired played.
 
The "proper" technique -for me- is the one that works for me. I like to see how other players position themselves for the same/similar cord OR cord progression, but that only offers ideas, not prescriptive....for me.
 
How to hold your ukulele. From the Ukulele Underground YouTube channel. James Hill and Craig Chee have very similar videos on YouTube. I think keeping your thumb behind the neck all the time really only works if you rely on a strap to hold the neck up and you are mostly playing first-position chords.
 
I'm pretty sure this is coming from the classical guitar players who have added the ukulele to their repertoire. With a classical guitar, you have a 2-inch-wide neck/fretboard. If you hook your thumb over the top, it's going to be difficult to play certain chord and finger positions. A ukulele has a much narrower neck (and fewer strings) so the classical guitar "rules" really don't apply. Do whatever makes you comfortable and facilitates making music.
 
I think keeping your thumb behind the neck all the time really only works if you rely on a strap to hold the neck up and you are mostly playing first-position chords.
I always play with my thumb behind the neck and it feels really awkward to do it the other way. It may be the size of my hands or what I am used to. I think as some say, whatever works for you. I would add- as long as it does not negatively affect your playing. FWIW- I play up and down the neck on soprano and don't use a strap, although I generally play seated.

Having been a musician for many years, I have come to believe that whatever works for the individual player is right. It is all about the music coming out of the instrument, not how it looks or what the "rules" are. Dizzy Gillespie played trumpet with a rather unorthodox embouchure, but it worked for him.
 
I am self-taught and have great admiration for players who had proper training and ability to play everything in the way it is supposed to be. But I am ignorant of many of these ways so unfortunately am stuck in doing things the way they work for for me, so sometimes thumb is behind the neck, sometimes it sticks way up, and sometimes it even wraps around to press the g string.
 
I teach thumb behind the neck, and here’s why:

1. This is ukulele and not guitar, meaning we don’t need our thumb to ever fret the bass string.

2. We can get a better hand shape by using thumb behind the neck, resulting a C shape, that effectively gives you more finger flexibility when fretting complicated chords, or wide stretches, such as from frets 2-10 in fingerstyle.

3. It’s easier to rotate your wrist to allow for more hand/wrist flexibility.

4. It makes it easier to traverse the neck.

5. You can do as you like and whatever works for you is probably best for you, but for those pedagogical reasons, I teach that in my classroom, and I'm quite the stickler about it.
 
that effectively gives you more finger flexibility when fretting complicated chords, or wide stretches, such as from frets 2-10 in fingerstyle.

As you mention flexibility, I am curious whether some of the various issues of thumb/hand position has any effect on comfort when it comes to string spacing, nut and neck width, neck depth, fretboard radius, etc. Some people are very particular about some of these dimensions while others seem to be comfortable with a wide range of specs.
 
How to hold your ukulele. From the Ukulele Underground YouTube channel. James Hill and Craig Chee have very similar videos on YouTube. I think keeping your thumb behind the neck all the time really only works if you rely on a strap to hold the neck up and you are mostly playing first-position chords.


I get the relying on a strap thing, a lot of technique becomes impossible if you want to do a traditional strapless hold. But the first position chords thing? The thumb behind is particularly good for barre chords.

I have my thumb behind, and use a strap.
Before my ukuleles I had an old Höfner travel guitar, which had a narrow fretboard but nylon strings. What I played on that was mostly self taught, never learned any classical playing - just a few chords and arpeggios. Once my father had told me that he was told you are supposed to keep the thumb behind, even though he doesnt on his own steel string. I guess I just got that to work for me and never thought of changing it. Not on ukuleles either.
 
As you mention flexibility, I am curious whether some of the various issues of thumb/hand position has any effect on comfort when it comes to string spacing, nut and neck width, neck depth, fretboard radius, etc. Some people are very particular about some of these dimensions while others seem to be comfortable with a wide range of specs.
I think it depends on the player. I have quite a wide variety of brands of instruments, and so they’re all different. I tend to use a strap when teaching as I walk around a lot, but I can also play with “my technique” while sitting. I’m also of the mindset, that by focusing on my technique it will help me play it better and easier after subsequent repetitions. (I hesitate to say outside of my classroom that “good technique is thumb behind the neck”)
 
Learning to hold my thumb behind the neck is among my goals, for one admittedly oddball reason: Even before I learned basic uke chord shapes. I subconsciously noticed a difference in perceived “flow” when watching videos of professional musicians whose fretting hand thumbs were unseen. Though I don’t fault anyone for playing with the thumb visible above the bass edge of the fingerboard (as I presently do), IMHO, it is quite pleasant to watch an accomplished musician play with an “invisible” thumb.
 
Most (probably all) of us will never play as many hours per year as Jake Shimabukuro, but if you are interested, here is the advice from his Masterclass: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/jake-shimabukuros-tips-for-holding-a-ukulele
When Jake began his ukulele journey, he would put his thumb against the back of the ukulele neck, but eventually this began to cause him discomfort. So then, he started to play with his thumb above the neck. “I found that when I put my thumb over the neck and I hold a chord, it allows my wrist to stay in a neutral straight position. It took a while to get used to, but I feel like I have more endurance. I feel like my hand doesn't get tired as quickly. And I don't have any pain anymore.”
"Above the neck" means on the side of the fretboard, next to the G-string.
 
One related point about the “thumb behind the neck” technique used by classical guitarists is that they also keep the neck about 20 degrees from vertical. Which makes the thumb behind technique more comfortable than if the neck is horizontal.
 
I didn't know this was a point of controversy. I always play with thumb in the middle of the back. I thought everyone did. I always play with a strap and the neck is 20-45 degrees from vertical. My ukes are custom and I have the neck flattened a bit to provide a level platform upon which to rest the thumb.
 
I teach thumb behind the neck, and here’s why:

1. This is ukulele and not guitar, meaning we don’t need our thumb to ever fret the bass string.

2. We can get a better hand shape by using thumb behind the neck, resulting a C shape, that effectively gives you more finger flexibility when fretting complicated chords, or wide stretches, such as from frets 2-10 in fingerstyle.

3. It’s easier to rotate your wrist to allow for more hand/wrist flexibility.

4. It makes it easier to traverse the neck.

5. You can do as you like and whatever works for you is probably best for you, but for those pedagogical reasons, I teach that in my classroom, and I'm quite the stickler about it.
I gave you a love. From my first guitar lesson in 1965 when I was 15, on an electric guitar, the teacher stressed keeping the thumb behind the neck so your wrist is not bent back, which is not ergonomic, like you said. I relate it to typing, it's not ergonomic to to have the back of your keyboard higher than the front, it causes your hand to be bent back in unnatural way. When I bought an ergonomic keyboard that is split a bit and the back lower than the front, I could immediately feel how much more comfortable that is with my hand in a C position as you detailed.

I always use a strap, makes playing the uke so much more efficient. Whenever the question comes up in my 50 member uke group, I tell them the wrist needs to be bent a little forward, not back.
 
Some say that just like classical guitar, thumb on the back of the neck is supposed to be the 'proper' way to play. I'd really like to know why. I can play for maybe five minutes like this before my hand cramps up. So just like guitar, I hang my thumb over so I can play comfortably for more than a few minutes. On guitar I actually thumb 6/1 to do F Major too. I really only put my thumb behind to do barre chords. For those who do strict thumb on back, was it simply a matter of building the right muscle group over time? I've given up trying it on acoustic guitar (arthritis), but since uke is lighter strung, and I've only been playing for a year, I wonder if I should suffer and try to habituate with 'proper' technique. I found this video of The Ohtas playing together. Sr , being a trained jazz musician keeps thumb behind the whole time. Jr. however has thumb over.

I am of the belief that there is no universal "proper" or "correct" way to play the ukulele, including when it comes to the thumb placement. The video of the Ohta father and son using different placements would support this since Sr. would have insisted (early on) that Jr. place the thumb as the father/teacher did if it were critically important. That they are demonstrating completely different techniques support that both are acceptable techniques. One thing I noticed is that the thumb placement affects wrist bend. The bend on Sr.'s wrist changes more than on Jr.'s as the thumb "over" forces the wrist to be straighter. (And see man0a's post on Jake S):

When Jake began his ukulele journey, he would put his thumb against the back of the ukulele neck, but eventually this began to cause him discomfort. So then, he started to play with his thumb above the neck. “I found that when I put my thumb over the neck and I hold a chord, it allows my wrist to stay in a neutral straight position. It took a while to get used to, but I feel like I have more endurance. I feel like my hand doesn't get tired as quickly. And I don't have any pain anymore.”
Note that Jake had his thumb on the back of the neck before he found advantages to over the neck and changed. He found the advantages of over, liked it, and changed. Before he had thumb behind, which in no way meant he was not doing it the "proper" way.
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This thread got me curious as to what I do (good or bad, right or wrong, ...). I find that I do both. Barre chords has me putting the thumb behind the neck. And my wrist is bent quite a bit. But there are many chords where my thumb goes over as my hand position changes so my hand makes contact with the side of the neck (and can support it). This is influenced by the fingering of the chord: some are easier one way than the other or the habit of doing it causes it to happen one way or the other.

If I play a C (0003) F G progression, my thumb is over and I am touching the side of the neck. If I start with a barre chord C (4322), my thumb is behind and I do not rotate my hand/fingers to move my thumb over for the F and G, and I do not touch the neck. Likely an economy of motion habit to sometimes play the same chords one way or the other.
 
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I was thinking about thumb position a few months ago and made this video. The cramping issue you raised is addressed (to some extent) in the video starting somewhere around the 3:26 mark. I am using thumb position to get a more comfortable grip on barre chords (rather than gripping harder with my thumb placed directly behind the barre finger) and to create more space for the hand to finger the chords. See what you think...

 
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