Duck Baker–Thumbs of Fury

Since I often talk about right hand technique on this Blog, you might think ‘Thumbs of Fury’ refers to the right hand thumb.* Yes, the fingerpicker’s Jedi force surely resides in the right hand thumb, but in the case of long-time fingerstyle master Duck Baker, there’s a lot going on with the left hand thumb. Baker uses that thumb to fret notes on the low E string by reaching over the top of the neck, while simultaneously fretting notes on the treble strings in the normal fashion with his other fingers.

Baker’s ‘thumb over‘ technique is certainly powerful (hmm, your kung fu is pretty good,) but he really takes the technique to the extreme, virtually replacing any use of the other left hand fingers on the lowest guitar string. In today’s world, venerable techniques like the ‘thumb over’ have all but disappeared. It has been kept alive mostly by boomer generation players who had direct contact with the early fingerpickers–or learned from those who did. These players of the earlier generation who survived into the 1960s inspired the fingerstyle renaissance that caught up many seminal guitarists of the era like Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen and Stephan Grossman.

At that time, the thumb over was pretty much de rigueur, used to create classic arrangements by older players like Doc Watson. Perhaps the main proponent of the technique was the Piedmont style guitar master Reverend Gary Davis, who directly taught many folkies of the boomer generation like Jorma and Van Ronk. Many of the Reverend’s arrangements are impossible to reproduce without using the thumb on the fretboard. I caught a workshop by Duck Baker when he came through the Bay Area recently, and got to see how he uses it up close, as well as gain some insight into his overall approach to the complex fingerstyle he plays.

The workshop was focused on Celtic fingerstyle playing, but Baker employs the same left hand techniques on Ragtime, Folk Blues and Jazz. I was a little intimidated, because I realized as soon as we began that Baker’s approach revolves entirely around the use of the left hand thumb to fret notes. In fact a lot of what he was teaching is impossible without it. I had been introduced to the technique as a youth when I first started picking–like I said, it was considered standard operating procedure for the 60s folkies I was learning from, but, having smaller hands, it is virtually undo-able for me, so I’ve never relied on it. I looked at Baker’s gigantic hands, and then at my dinky things, and resolved to get as much as could out of the class. I have developed what I consider an admirable ability to ‘fake’ the chords I know are made using the thumb, but I was pretty much hitting a wall right away as Baker’s style takes such thorough advantage of the reach afforded by thumb over playing. And reach is what it’s all about.

For those unfamiliar, imagine a standard barre chord (E shape.) You are barring with your index finger, and using the three remaining fingers for the ‘E’ shape, using up all your fingers. In thumb over, you barre only the top two treble strings (or the four top strings) and then fret the lowest note of the chord with your thumb by bringing it over the top of the neck. Commonly, pickers will then abandon the note on the fifth string. This is where thumb over starts to take off. By losing the fifth string note you have freed up the pinky, which is now able to play melody notes over the chord. In the case of Duck Baker, you have done a lot more, especially since, for Duck, the index is the “smartest” finger, which he considers too important to waste on barring all the time. In ‘G’ position, Baker can play alternating bass on a G note on the bass string fretted with his thumb, and an open D on the third string, and achieve an already full sounding accompaniment, leaving all four fingers free to play melody. He can play above the third fret all the way to the high B, and below the third fret as well. Here’s a video of Duck Baker explaining how this is so powerful. Ironically this lesson hosted on the Guitar Workshop‘s YouTube page is called  “The guitar is not your friend“, and no, he’s not referring to the pain of guitar player’s wives watching their future vacation disappear into their husband’s guitar collection. He’s referring to the aspect of the guitar which requires strategic planning to be able to produce a certain chord or riff, especially in the face of where on the neck one is coming from and where one is going to next. Fingering on the fretboard is all important in fingerstyle (to the point where afficionados get enjoyment from watching good fingering choices that civilians would not even notice.) Thumb over is a strategic response to the problem of confusing fingering possibilities. It provides certain solutions, and opens up some different possibilities. In the above excerpt from Duck’s DVD “Guitar Aerobics Exercises For The Advanced Contemporary & Traditional Fingerpicking Guitarist” he explains some of how he developed his left hand to be able to get his incredible reach. He shows how he can pick a melody while maintaining a moving bass line with his thumb fretting over the neck. The example at the end the clip shows a neat little fingerpicking riff over a III7, II7, V7 change that is of interest to any picker wanting to bring in more jazzy harmonization. I can easily play it without using the thumb over, but it becomes a real workout using my fretting hand thumb over the neck. A word of caution here, as with any new technique, it is important to bring it online slowly over time to avoid injury. Here’s more from “Guitar Aerobics” with Duck showing some finger stretches to help you get there.

As with any strategic choice, thumb over is only another option and carries with it it’s own limitations. Of course, once the desired bass note is not on the low E string, game over (though some do fret with the thumb on other strings, mostly in open tuning). In many cases the fretting thumb will need to hang all the way over to mute the fifth string, a function normally carried out by the side of the index finger when playing partial chords. (Or, as Rev. Gary dealt with this problem, his fingers were so huge, he would just do a ‘double-stop’ and fret the fourth and fifth strings with one finger, leaving two fingers free for riffing.) Often, I’ll have to discourage a beginner from lazily hanging their thumb over the top of the neck and kind of dangling their hand from it, because it’s causing them to not clear the strings correctly when fretting. Also, that habit can really slow a player down when playing solos up the neck. In any case, making sure you’re not unintentionally damping strings while attempting thumb over is important.

Yet, if you want to play a classic Mississippi John Hurt C blues and play the riff on the F chord, you’re going to be doing some pretty fancy math to make it happen without the thumb fretting the low note. Barring the chord and trying to riff will mean a hard to mute Bb will be resonating in the bass (the reason for the Reverend’s double-stop). Here’s another clip of Duck Baker from his DVD “Classic American Folk Blues” showing how it’s really done, going off on a John Hurt tune in first position. Now that’s some ‘Thumbs of Fury’.

* When I refer to right hand I mean the picking hand and left hand refers to the fretting hand; southpaws will have to deal.

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3 Responses to Duck Baker–Thumbs of Fury

  1. Theo January 18, 2010 at 4:12 PM #

    Hey Mokai !

    So many positions, so little time.

    Personally I’ve always tried to avoid “thumberstyle” playing. Thumb-over positions limit the freedom and mobility of my left hand. But I suppose it all depends what you’re trying to do.

    Manouche players that do comping in Django style gypsy swing use a lot of thumb-over chord positions. Sometimes the combination of voices aren’t attainable without it.

    Fred Sokolow, who has written a ton of instructional books in many styles, has an intro DVD on “Playing and Understanding Jazz Guitar” in which he introduces chord-melody fingerpicking using thumb-over playing. None of the thumb-over positions I’ve found to be really necessary though. They can always be substituted with some combination of fingerings.

    For me, the “finger” in “fingerpicking” applies to the fretting hand too. So in general, aside from some Gypsy swing positions, I’m giving “thumb-over” playing the finger.

  2. Stevie Coyle January 18, 2010 at 5:27 PM #

    Wonderful stuff, Mokai. I especially like your British-esque use of bolding. That really helps the flow .

    As regards the left thumb, though, it seems a pity not to use it if one at all can, and – small hands and all – I wonder if you have tried using just the bony inside corner of the knuckle left thumb for fretting, rather than the meaty flat bit.

    The implied wisdom of what is generally considered good left-hand technique is that the tip or the flat of the digit in question is what is best used. And whereas Duck’s mitts are, indeed, pretty huge, and he can probably use the meat of his thumb, I wonder if you’d be able to do what so many of the rest of use Mere Mortals do, and fret using the inside edge of the knuckle of the left thumb. Right by the crease, there, just a bit toward the tip end of the thumb. That’s where my thumb callus is, anyway.

    This position makes your left thumb look like it’s pointing more up the neck than across it, but, heck, if you get a nice thump out of the low string and free up yer pinky, well, what the heck? By my lights, that’s more than a fair trade. I often palm mute the bass strings with my right hand anyway, so getting a bell tone out of notes on the 6th string is not often anything I’m going for at all.

    Just an idear …. your mileage may vary.

    Stevie Coyle

    • Mokai January 31, 2010 at 4:21 PM #

      Talk about British-esque! I don’t even want to touch that ‘meaty flat bit’ with a ten foot pole (did I just say that?). Thumb callus? Well, I never really thought about it, but yes, you’d get one, wouldn’t you?

      But I’m left wondering about your description, just to be clear: are you saying your left thumb pointing more up the neck towards the right hand, or up the neck towards the headstock?

      And yes, it’s all about getting that ‘thump’ out of the low string, so in addition to palm muting, sometimes you only need to hit the lower string with your left hand thumb on the fretboard just enough to give some harmonic content to the ‘thump’.

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