Less than maximum hand strength from reduced leverage of the thumb (pics)


Senior member
Thank you for your interest in this topic. Here goes nothin... :doh:

I am so happy with my latest Warmoth combination of electric guitar neck and electric guitar body parts, that I could not help but think how and why this new guitar pleases me so much more than many of my others (including my first Warmoth Strath Spring 2005 which needs to be refretted/new neck/tremsetter etc.). This train of thought went beyond quality of construction, personal customization, tone, aesthetics, affordability and ultimately led to playability and comfort. Not just how a guitar should play, but how I should feel when playing electric guitar. No, forget "me" how my body should feel when playing my instrument.

Much of the physical nature required of the left hand to "fret" or "finger" notes, doublestops, triads or chords (open, barre, 7th, Jazz, Tetra etc.)  requires some form of grabbing and/or closing of the hand.
A cup or glass might be a good example or something common that everyone could hopefully easily obtain which should fit very easily in their hand.


Notice the direction the thumb points when it grabs.
Also take notice of how much hand strength you might be able to apply. You might assign yourself a percentage of the total available amount of hand strength you might be able to apply such as 100% or less than 100% should you decide to do so. For now however, let the cup or similar held object, rest in your hand, and instead imagine what percentage of potential strength you might be able to bring to bear when closing your hand.

Now...to speed things up a little and get right to the point...notice the direction the thumb points when grasping the neck of a guitar while playing a barre chord.

In this picture I am fretting a simple F Major Barre Chord in 1st position. My thumb is pointing in the opposite direction!

Hand strength is greatly reduced because the thumb is unable to leverage the full strength of the muscle to bear.  Prolonged exertion of the thumb in this UN-ergonomic position may lead to cramps and or pain. This happened to me just this morning when I was playing along to "Dani California" of which I had played live before. My hand was cramping up unexpectedly, and causing me pain. I thought to myself 'Nevermind the pain, this is going to be embarrassing if someone asks me to play for them, and I can barely hold onto these power chords while crying like a little girl because I am in so much pain.' It might not have been until 10-15 minutes until the pain subsided (after some massaging) but playing barre chords and power chords still felt very awkward because of the pressure exerted on my thumb. Not just the pain, but the inability to bring the full strength of my hand to bear to maintain the necessary pressure to hold the strings down in these chord shapes (5ths & Octaves).

Here is a picture demonstrating the amount of space between the neck (1 11/16" width nut, Wolfgang back contour, 6100, Full Scallop)  and my thumb while holding an open "D" chord.

To emphasize this point, of jamming the thumb into an uncomfortable position, here is a picture I took earlier today playing a commonly known "F9" chord in root position, while holding a lacrosse ball in the same hand.

I was able to successfully strum and pluck the notes of the chord while holding the lacrosse ball in the same hand.

This picture was taken with the neck of my new Warmoth guitar resting in the crook of my thumb in the same way the thumb should want to close naturally.

If *ALL* of the space between the tips of my fingers and the neck/fingerboard were filled with wood it would be difficult to wrap my fingers around, but still there is much room left.

Case in point, I think that maybe if some of the space were filled in with a thick, fatter neck (but still asymmetrical back contour for greater ergonomics) these barre chords would be easier to play.

Well, I hope they were only cramps in the muscles around my thumb, but time and time again, and especially with true acoustic guitars, it just seems like I'm not getting full power out of my hand strength because of the way my thumb is contorted from the necessary pressure required to play barre chords

Anybody else experiencing this? I've been playing for like 17 years, Berklee College of Music Alumni 2006. Maybe you have some solutions or ideas...

I counter the "So don't play guitar" or "So don't play barre chords" with I LIKE playing guitar and I like playing barre chords :icon_tongue:, except for the cramps and the  :sad: pain (See Blue, Yellow, and/or White):


Thanks again for your time. I wasn't sure who to present this to as many of my former professors are busy with their own work, many of my musician friends have families or are similarly busy, and no one in my family plays guitar and doesn't really understand. And after those 10-15 minutes (first 3 songs) my hand did feel better and I could play without pain, but still with a squashed thumb  :icon_scratch:


P.S. Since when did barre chords get so hard to play? seriously...
DustyCat said:
time and time again, and especially with true acoustic guitars, it just seems like I'm not getting full power out of my hand strength because of the way my thumb is contorted from the necessary pressure required to play barre chords

/\/\ This.
I can play for hours and not get hand fatigue, if I'm on my own guitars. Using someone elses generally isn't comfortable.  I use very light strings though .009-.042 or .009-.045.
I tried my best to follow what was going on but my brain ceases to process information when it sees music theory terms like F Major Barre, Triad, tetra, doublestop, F9 in root, etc.

something simple? http://www.livestrong.com/article/89783-finger-strengthening-exercises/
Dusty Cat, an interested topic you have raised. The reason for my first Warmoth build currently in progress is because I can't find many affordable guitars with baseball bat necks. I love the huge necks on the Les Paul 50's Custom Shop reissues but I'm not spending that sort of money for the neck carve I want.

It is commonly accepted that "fast" thin shred necks are tiring on the hand after prolonged use. This is due to the smaller distance between the thumb and fingers when playing. Fat necks create a larger distance between thumb and fingers, which is much less taxing on the large muscle at the base of the thumb. The smaller the distance between thumb and fingers, the more contracted the muscle at the base of the thumb is, causing fatigue.

BTW, I never understood the "fast" concept applied to thin necks. Jazz guys like Herb Ellis could shred with the best of them on their big neck Gibson jazz guitars. Maybe I am missing something.

I recently sold my Maton acoustic which had a warm full sound because of the thin neck. I discovered Seagull guitars a few years ago and I wont play anything else now. The 1.8" nut width and fatter neck are a dream to play on.

As far as your sideways thumb position on the barre chord, I think that is something you need to change. When I play a barre chord my thumb is not pointing along the neck as your picture shows, but it is pointing up to the ceiling along with the first finger doing the barre (much like your cup picture). In this position I can "pinch" the guitar neck with my thumb and first finger, while relaxing my arm from the shoulder all the way to the hand, therefore using gravity to do most of the work of pressing the strings to the frets. The weight of the arm pulls the fingers down onto the strings. This is a technique not talked about much in the popular realm of guitar playing. It is a technique routinely taught in classical guitar studies.

From reading your comments, I think you would be interested in the The Guitar Principles website  and teaching system (run by Jamie Andreas). It is all about solving the physical and mental problems associated with guitar playing. It has changed the way I play for sure. 


Hope this makes sense and helps you out.

Interesting topic. I have always been strength challenged in my fretting hand little finger; it gives me fits when doing blues licks. Other fingers are okay (especially the ring finger) but that pinky just doesn't like reaching out to hammer on the B string in the pentatonic scale. I have tried practicing, doing strength exercises, all to no avail. I'll keep trying :)

One thing I can offer is on major chords, like the F major you picture -- I don't hold down the complete chord unless I *have* to. Just the lower 1st (root), 3rd and 5th (power chord) which usually fits the bill (depends on the song). Reduces fatigue a lot. I’m also playing with more inversions of chords to avoid traditional barre, which has the added benefit of some interesting voicing’s that I rather like.

I have noticed, since I finished my Warmoth Tele build a week ago, I am finding that is it less tiresome to play, perhaps the SRV contour on the neck. My Strat neck (Fender) just feel too thin now. Perhaps that was a problem for me for 20+ years and I am just now finding out about it :doh:
Interesting topic, though it was a little tough to figure out where you were going with your analysis.
I'm kinda surprised you got through Berkelee and the amount of playing you had to do only to find that NOW your hand is cramping up playing barre chords.  It sounds like this is a new thing, and by inference that your new Warmoth necks are implicated, no?
What were you playing at Berkelee?

I've found that I adapt pretty well to different neck sizes.  Having small hands, I've always loved thin Ibanez necks.  Not the flat ones, mind you, but ones with some radius.
I was gifted (really!!) with a 1957 Gibson ES225t a couple of years ago, by a friend who was encouraging my journey into playing jazz.  The neck felt like a ball bat, and incredibly awkward.  Now, it just disappears in my hand.
Meanwhile, I'd commissioned an archtop by a luthier in Philly by the name of Victor Baker.  He asked what kind of necks I liked.  I told him thin, D-shaped necks, with a flat spot for my thumb in the back.
That's what he made me.
Two necks that couldn't have been more different.  The Gibson's probably got a 12" radius, the Baker a 9" radius.
My hand only aches a little, on either guitar, after a long period of playing the same damn chord over and over, like in some church song I remember from a couple of years ago.  Hated that song....
But really, I expect that examining your hand position again might help you adapt to whatever neck you find yourself on.
The Baker...

The Gibson...
I have been a teacher full time for over 25 years. I notice that some peoples thumbs look more comfortable on the side (like ur pic) or pointed more straight up. Its as common as being double jointed but the latter (thub up) have an easier time with fatigue.
Simple fix, if your hands cramping but the neck seems thick enough that the neck shape is ruled out as a factor then you need to change your technique.....sounds easier done than it is as no doubt you've become accustomed to playing certain chords with the thumb cocked sideways etc.etc.

also if your vice gripping the neck your already off course, you should proceed gently between chord changes and exert string pressure only once your fingers are in position to fret the chord.....sometimes while learning new chords arpeggios etc. its Not uncommon to find yourself "trying too hard" which of course can lead to increased pressure and hand fatigue.

often you'll find after a break of a day or two or week etc.....you'll come back to a chord change or pattern you were previously struggling with only to find its become easier and smoother.....such is the nature of progression....two steps forward, three steps back, 5 steps forward...follow that ?

Changing your technique is a slow and tedious process as it warrants alot of attention and means getting over lazy habits and really addressing your weaknesses which means cramps and stuttering through stuff you previously had no problem moving through but using proper technique etc., so you have to really say to yourself.....does playing guitar well register high on my list of things to do....because if it does...you'll want to spend more time soaking your hands in some nice hot water before and after practice and alot more time on techniques such as relaxing your hand between changes, by using a more fluid relaxed approach to chording and changes......throwing in more lead runs and licks etc.  especially if these are areas your neglecting....then you'll find that the only cramping issues you might have will be based on age or aggression as a factor...in which case....work on your technique ....

Use it or lose it
Wow thanks for the support everybody!

:icon_scratch: I was really quite unsure of how to approach this topic, and even less enthusiastic about posting it. And my new guitar was exactly what I wanted too and it kills! (and it's killing me lol! no it was just that one time) But this rare episode that happened the other day just got me thinking more about what I may have needed ("if only...")

I'm leaving very soon for a couple of days of rare vacation time at the beach. I will try to provide worthy responses some of the insightful information posted here when I come back.

Thanks again!
To the ocean! 
If *ALL* of the space between the tips of my fingers and the neck/fingerboard were filled

Now we're getting somewhere! JK.

My Ibanez wizard neck was one of the most fatiguing guitars I've ever played. I just didn't realize how much more thickness was desirable. I thought my Zion had a fatter than normal neck, so I ordered the fatback. Not really, it's an ESP from the early 80's. I'm loving the fatback, happy misktake.

I think the 80's classically trained shredders and SRV wannabes influence has still saddled us with a nearly industry wide perception that you need a flatter neck radius too. I think my next neck, unless some showcase item grabs me, is going to have a lot more radius.  I llike the sound of the radius options across town, (but the wood selection is extremely limited, and theyre overpriced for garden variety maple )
Interestingly, my thumb position is very similar to what you show where the tip of my thumb is almost pointed to the headstock. Maybe a 45 degree angle to the centerline of the neck, but still pointed more 'North' toward the headstock than 'East' toward the sky. I play the thinnest necks available (Wizard, Jackson, Charvel and Standard Thin) and never experience hand fatigue until I've been playing for more than a couple hours straight.

In contrast to what swarfrat mentions above, it's been my experience that thicker necks fatigue my hand much faster than thinner necks do. That extends to fretboard radius as well; I've found that the flatter the better. Of course, YMMV.
Yeah. In my experience, pain and cramps are due more to inadequate muscle tone than anything else. There really aren't huge differences in neck dimensions. Pretty small, really. The greatest difference in thickness from the thinnest to thickest neck at the first fret is only .200", less at the 12th. I know it feels like a lot, but relative to hand dimensions, it's nothing.
I've always had a bit more trouble with a thicker neck than a thinner one personally, but I tend to wrap my thumb, not rest it on the back.  :dontknow:
I put my thumb all over the place depending on what I'm playing.

Not acting that's a good thing, mind. Probably the opposite.

Anyway I've got loads of standard Fender necks, and a Wizard, and a Gibson LP with 50s neck. I like them all.
I broke my left thumb a few years ago.  After that I had trouble with fatigue and cramping of my left hand during the third set until...

until I got my boatneck warmoths!    These are the most comfortable guitars for me - and I can play them literally all night with no problems.  I don't seem to have an issue playing fast either.

Fat necks are the way to go IMHO - for all the reasons you point out.

Now pass me my fat wood.....
Something that tends to get completely over looked is warming up. You said it gets better after a few songs so I would kind of look there. Stretching everything out and loosened up does wonders. It's helped a lot in my old age.
I have a pretty much ridiculously strong left hand, just from playing bass and guitar since the age 13 (41 years now). But the angles and approaches are everything. Put your fingertips and the tip of your thumb together, and see how far you can spread your fingers apart with the tip of your thumb and middle finger held together. Then start pulling your thumb away, and observe how far the fingers can spread. WoW! You've solved everything! Well, no... while you're still geeking on your left hand (really - do this alone) take your right hand and start to apply pressure to your left hand fingertips, at various degrees of extension.

You want to be careful with this, it's not a contest between the Mighty OGG on the left and the Massive BRUNO on the right. Everybody's wired a little different, but you should be able to see and feel which tendons and muscles go where through your palm and up into the wrist and forearm. You know there are no "finger muscles", right? That's all just tendons, so if you hurt your finger, it's a joint or tendon... and you sure can't make them stronger by "playing through the pain." You should notice at the very least that your little finger and ring finger are "wired" together on a quite different set of muscles than your index and middle finger, which - with just a bit further amount of thought - may throw into question the worth of those "total finger independence!" kinds of exercises. Maybe the "easy way" is the safer way, sometimes?

I was forced into this when the discs in my neck started going wonky  a decade ago, followed by some carpal tunnel stuff, a trigger finger... largely a result of using strength improperly. One thing I looked at was how people who have been playing very well, for a very long time, play -  I noticed that people like Jeff Beck, Steve Morse and John McLaughlin never, ever do the big showy stretches for notes. Given a choice between stretching for a single note or skipping strings, they'll always skip strings, given a choice between hammering a cluster of notes on and off, they'll actually float positions back and forth, keeping the hand in relatively the same plane in relation to the fingerboard. It looks really easy when they do it.  :laughing3: It will be interesting to see if Steve Vai and Paul Gilbert are still doing the huge stretches 10 years from now, even with the spiderfingers that they have and all.

And there are many people who ran into early hand troubles and just experimented and researched and worked their way out of them, Chris Thile ran into tendon problems 11 or 12 years ago, but seems to have figured it out.
Read what Billy Sheehan (59 years old) has to say about diet:
And if you're still up around Berklee, say Hey to Julien Kasper for me - I knew him when he was a little 18-year-old hotshot in Tallahassee, I used to bribe my way into Crosscut Saw gigs with a few handmade plexiglass guitar picks - this was pre-Tortex days, ridin' around on dinosaurs and shit. He probably beat you up some, huh?

This is an excellent topic and ironically, some of the info is also helping me out, especially with my acoustic playing.

I just got myself a real nice Taylor 414ce about two weeks ago and have been very frustrated with how much more difficult it is to play than my electric.  Well, come to find out, my technique left a lot to be desired, especially in terms of where to place my thumb and how to place my thumb.  I also found my thumb straying off to the side instead of pointing upwards.  This is a really poor habit I'd gotten myself into and it's an absolute b*tch trying to break it.  I really have to pay attention to what I'm doing until I just get used to placing my thumb differently.
I'm surprised no one has mentioned wrist angle yet.  You lose a tremendous amount of hand strength by having extreme bends in your wrist.  Do you keep your guitar slung low and/or do you keep the neck closer to parallel with the floor? 
Wyliee said:
I'm surprised no one has mentioned wrist angle yet.  You lose a tremendous amount of hand strength by having extreme bends in your wrist.  Do you keep your guitar slung low and/or do you keep the neck closer to parallel with the floor?

Excellent point.  I find that I need my 12 string up higher just to reduce wrist angle to get more strength.

But once I get my Jr finished I plan to have that sucker hung way down low  :headbang: