In general, blues guitar is relatively easy to play. You just need to learn the 12-bar form, identify the key you’re playing in, and you're off to the races.
But the forefathers of the blues – like Robert Johnson – didn’t stop there. Some of the most revered blues players either picked out complex patterns with their fingers, or used a “hybrid” technique in which they used their pick and their fingers simultaneously.
The dead thumb technique is the foundation of many fingerstyle blues songs. If you don’t master it, you’re going to have a hard time getting a hang of more complex patterns.
So let’s get into this lesson.
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Start By Training Your Guitar Thumb
Before you attempt anything else, it will be necessary to train your thumb. The exercise I’m about to show you isn’t hard to do, but the moment you add in new elements, it suddenly becomes much more complex.
Learning the dead thumb technique is a lot like learning to play your instrument and sing at the same time. You have to practice the parts separately, and then gradually bring them together. It’s the same way with the dead thumb – you have to get the basics down before you can add in other elements.
So, to get started, we’re just going to play the sixth string with our thumb (on the picking hand). You don’t need to fret any notes. All you need to do is keep a steady beat. Blues songs are typically in 12/8 time, and all that really means is that you’re playing a repetitive long-short-long-short pattern. For now, we won’t worry too much about the meter and just pick the sixth string on the first, second, third, and fourth beats (the long ones). Here’s how it looks:
Again, I know, this is basically child’s play, even for beginner guitarists. But without getting a handle on this, you’ll never be able to master the dead thumb.
Add In A New Note
I’m sure exercise #1 wasn’t much of a problem, and #2 won’t be terribly difficult either. But we’re breaking down a bigger goal into smaller, achievable steps. You’ll be better prepared to try harder examples and exercises having gone through the process of adding just one layer of complexity at a time.
In this exercise, in addition to your thumb, you’re also going to use your ring finger. We’ll be picking two notes (the sixth string and the first string) at the same time, so this isn’t very difficult either. But it is a crucial stepping stone onto cooler patterns and sequences.
Let’s give this a try. Again, we’re just picking on beats one, two, three, and four, letting the notes ring out as they are picked. Take a look:
Ready to move on? Great.
Mix Up The Rhythm – Dead Thumb Technique
Here’s a little variation on the same exercise. The idea here is to pick on the &s and not just the beats.
When you’re swinging the beat (like you do with the blues), you’re basically just counting eighth notes, except that they alternate between long and short. So you would still count like this:
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
But the numbered beats would all be long, and the in between &s would all be short.
You’re still going to be using your thumb and your ring finger for this exercise, but instead of picking at the same time, you’ll be picking the notes individually or sequentially – the sixth string on the numbered beats, and the first string on the &s.
Let’s take a look:
Now we’re starting to get somewhere. The idea with the dead thumb technique is to keep your thumb steady and consistent, no matter what’s happening with the higher notes. Only then can you truly say you’ve mastered it. We’re definitely not there yet, but we’ve just taken a significant step forward.
Add Another Note
Are you ready to throw another string into the mix? No big deal, right?
Either way, I’ll keep this simple. So far, you’ve been working with the sixth string and the first string. Now we’re going to add a fretted note on the fourth string, namely the second fret. This is another E note.
Again, the goal of the dead thumb technique is to be able to keep a steady beat no matter what’s happening on the higher strings, so you’ll need to learn how to do that. This next exercise helps us progress in that direction.
All you need to do now is alternate between the fourth string and the first string on the &s. The fourth string can be picked with either your thumb or your index, but keep in mind that even if you give your thumb more work to do, it still has to keep a steady beat on the sixth string. Let’s give this a try:
Great. Let’s try one last thing, and we’ll have covered the basics of the dead thumb technique.
Now we're going to take what we've learned and put it all together. You’ll be picking some higher notes on the beat (not just with your thumb), and you’ll be picking some notes on the &s, which is what we’ve been focusing on with the last couple of examples.
Fingerstyle blues can get a lot more complicated than this, so if you can’t play what follows, you’re not going to be able to delve into full-on songs.
Here’s the final example in this lesson:
Learning the dead thumb technique can be a frustrating process, which is why I just walked you through several simple, straightforward examples. With regular practice, you’ll begin to feel more comfortable with the technique, but there isn’t necessarily a timeline for completion. If you keep at it, you’ll begin to get the hang of it, but you probably won’t be able to pinpoint the exact time or day that you mastered it.
The dead thumb technique ultimately requires a bit of finger independence, because you’re really getting your fingers to do two or three things at the same time – bass, chording, and melody/leads. So don’t give up if you can’t do it right away. You’re basically learning to become three guitarists in one!