UD#111 The Adventures of Mr. Thumb

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UD#111 The Adventures of Mr. Thumb
Ukulele in the Dark with Guido Heistek

Thumbs are important! As ukulele players, we use them for picking, strumming and fretting. Many of my students complain about pain in their thumbs. So, today, let’s take a little look at these vital digits!

If are having trouble with your thumbs in your uke playing, it may be helpful to examine how you are using them in other areas in your life. Maybe it is possible to make different choices!

These days, our thumbs are often called into duty for texting purposes: 

I often encourage students to experiment with using their finger to input text on a cell phone, as opposed to using their thumbs. Like this!

This will be slower, surely, but your thumbs may thank you. Give this a try, and see if you can notice a difference. Where do you notice a change? 


Let’s look at how we use our thumbs in ukulele playing. But first, some simple anatomical information about thumbs.

There are three main joints in the thumb. Here is a picture of my right thumb, can you identify where the three joints are? Also, see if you can identify them on your own thumb. Scroll down when you are done. The answer is below. 

Where are the joints of the thumb?

Here are the locations of the three main joints of the thumb (approximately). Do you notice where the base of the thumb is? Hint: It’s joint number 1. 

Three Joints!

Picking With the Thumb

If we don’t allow movement from the base of the thumb (Joint 1), it can cause strain. This is particularly true in picking a note with the right hand. Often, people pick with the movement primarily coming from either the third or second joint. Something like this:

It can be very different to allow this movement to come from the base of the thumb. Something more like this:

Give it a try. What do you notice?

Fretting Hand

The job of your thumb on your fretting hand is to provide leverage and stability so that you can fret notes and chords with your fingers. 

A lot of the habits we see in picking notes with the right hand can also be seen in the left hand. These movements are not particularly troublesome if they are momentary. However, like with any habit, enough frequency and duration can cause problems. 

Let’s take a look at some common left-hand thumb habits. 

There may be a tendency to flex the first segment of the thumb against the neck of the ukulele, like this:


Or, you may be extending your thumb like this:

Also, you may notice a tendency to bend your thumb from the second joint, where many people think the base of the thumb actually is. Like this:

Generally, we want the thumb to be “at length”, and this involves allowing it to move from its base so that it can be on a different plane than the fingers. Something like this:


This is NOT a position that you are meant to hold or maintain. Consider it more of a guiding principle. Of course, when you are playing the relationship of thumb and fingers will be very dynamic! You’ll find yourself making all kinds of different shapes!

I hope you find today’s lesson helpful. Wishing you all the very best and you’re playing.


NOTE: Today’s lesson was heavily informed by my experience as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, a century old system of postural self-management which is helpful to performers and non-performers alike. Let me know if you are interested in a lesson sometime on Zoom or in-person. As always, private music lessons are also available. Also, if you have any comments or questions, I am always happy to hear from you. I can be reached at moc.kradehtnielelukunull@ofni.


P.S. I am regularly adding new lessons to Ukulele in the Dark. Please subscribe to my mailing list below to receive every lesson right when it comes out. Be sure not to miss a thing!