It is important to know when and why to break the rules of your playing hand position on the guitar. There are many myths and rules of how you are supposed to hold your fretting hand. The truth is they are both wright and wrong! There are many correct positions depending on what you are playing and there is not one perfect position for everything. This is important to learn as one progresses past the beginning stages of the guitar. As teachers, we always teach the basic proper left hand position first. This is fine and necessary but far from complete. Truthfully, one size does not fit all, the left hand position should change drastically depending what you are playing.
For example, in the basic hand position we are taught that the thumb should be placed in the middle of the back of the neck. This is good but it should change depending on the difficulty of the chord. For the easier open position chords like D, G Am, C etc.. it is better to let your thumb hang over the top of the neck with the neck resting in the curve between your thumb and forefinger. This is a comfortable position as it takes an awkward bend out of your wrist and also because the thumb can be bent over the top of the neck at the 1st joint in order to mute notes on chords that don’t use the Low E and A strings. Have you ever wondered how good players are able to strum a D chord with out hitting the low E and A strings? Well, the truth is, they bend their thumbs over the top of the neck and mute the lower 2 strings, this keeps it clean.
On the contrary, if I was to switch from a D to an F barre chord you would see my thumb position drastically change. If I left it hanging over the top of the neck I wouldn’t even be able to grab my barred F chord. The reason for this is that when you place your thumb over the top it also pulls the majority of your hand behind the neck with it. As a result you will not not be able to spread your fingers far enough apart to grab a bulky barre chord like this. What you need to do is, move your thumb to around the middle point or lower now pushing the majority of the hand out in front of the fretboard. In combination with bending the wrist more and pushing the forearm forward, the hand can be further pushed out in front of the neck. This puts the hand in a better position to spread wide and form a more involved chord like an F barre chord.
Barre chords like this also bring up the issue of where to place your thumb horizontally along the length of the neck. On open position chords it works well right in the middle behind your chord shape but, on barre chords, it is more comfortable and necessary to have it behind the barring finger because it needs the most support to get multiple strings pressed down.
We are also taught that in our basic hand position we should play on the tips of our fingers and stand them up tall. This is true when playing open position chords so that you don’t accidentally lean on the strings and mute out notes in the chord. On the other hand, you often need to lean the fingers in order to purposely mute out open strings or notes you don’t want in a chord. This is crucial when playing power chords where you’re only playing 2 or 3 notes. This is the only way to stum a 2 note chord with out sounding all the adjacent open strings that aren’t part of the chord. It would otherwise be very difficult to strum only two strings with out accidentally hitting at least a couple of the adjacent open strings.
Some of the reasons for not playing on the tips of your finger are when barring multiple notes or doing what I call “lifts”. This is when you grab a single note on one string with the note not on the tip but the finger pad. Then stand it up on the same fret of string above the one your on. This makes for a smooth string crossing with out having to lift the finger up off of the starting string.
Another amendment worth noting, and almost never discussed, is your arm position. When playing in open position the elbow will tend to be in towards your body. This is true as you move up to the higher frets but as you start to get higher up there is a point where it gets crowded and the need arises to pull the elbow out away from the body in order to comfortably reach the higher frets. There is even a point at the highest frets where it’s ok to take thumb off of the back of the neck and bring it out above the fretboard with the fingers.
One of the rules that is generally not broken is the open space between the palm on the bottom of the neck. There is no reason, that I know of that allows you to lay the bottom of the neck into the palm of your fretting hand. It makes it very difficult to play thehigh E and B strings. What is important to note about the palm is the way one holds it in relation to the bottom of the neck. It is important to hold it parallel to the neck for chords with a wide fret span. This helps in reaching the farther frets. On the other hand, it is important open the hand up for chords with numerous fingers in the same fret. This makes the hand width smaller and allows you to fit multiple fingers in a small space.
As you can see, one hand position does not fit all! Know your basic hand position well and view these tips as adjustments or deviations from home base. Nevertheless, as you grow as a player so will your hand position.