A Short History of the use of the left-hand thumb

Published by Legacy of Matanya Ophee on

Editor’s Note: This article is based on the text and pictures of a lecture I delivered at the 2007 IARGUS conference in Iowa City. My audience at that conference was rather small, but the subject matter, it seems to  me, is of great interest to many who could not have come to Iowa. Hence, I am posting this on line, in the hope that it will be useful to those who are venturing now into this exciting old/new field of guitar music.

Some considerations of its practical use in performance today.

By Matanya Ophee

This famous picture was printed in a curious book titled La Guitaromanie, by one Charles de Marescot, a Parisian guitarist of questionable merits whose only claim to fame is that Hector Berlioz mentioned him at quite some length in his Les Soirées de l’Orchestre of 1852. La Guitaromanie was published in Paris in 1829,[1]This book was listed in Bibliographie de la France on 21 Nov. 1829. I am indebted to Erik Stenstadvold for this information. and it contained several pictures about the guitar in social encounters and some fairly pedestrian music. The original subtitle of this picture says:

A discussion between the Carullists and the Molinists,

presumably a reference to followers and disciples of both Ferdinando Carulli and Francesco Molino. The question that first comes to mind is this: What the Pluck these people were actually talking about, while exhibiting such passion and anger, using their Lacote guitars as conversation tools?

I do not know of any historical record of any major conflicts between Carulli and Molino, and one is hard pressed to understand Maresco’s insinuation of such a conflict. What we can do, is examine the several guitar methods published by both guitarists, and see if there are any major differences between them. The obvious main difference in teaching guitar technique by both Carulli and Molino is that Carulli was using the LH thumb and Molino was not.

The use of the left-hand thumb on fretted-plucked instruments is an ancient practice, dating back to the dawn of history of these instruments. Here is, for example, a sixteenth century picture by Giulio Campi, presumable depicting Francesco da Milano.

As we can see from the detail, the player does not actually press the bass strings with his thumb, but merely holds the neck in the manner of violinists.

Not so ambiguous is this angel’s left-hand thumb. There are virtually hundreds of ancient paintings of renaissance lute players with various degrees of left-hand thumb’s curvature over the fingerboard. Even though there is no recorded instance of actual tablature which indicates the use of the left-hand thumb to stop the bass strings, scholars seem to be of the opinion that at least as long as the lute was limited to six courses, practicing lutenists could have very well used the technique. All of which is to say that this technique did not originate with Carulli and his contemporaries, but must have trickled down to them from the preceding generations of instrumentalists. 

Opinions were not at all unanimous on this question. In his Principes Généraux de la Guitare published in 1801,

Charles Doisy had this to say on the use of the LH thumb:

One uses four fingers in order to play the guitar. Some persons also enter the LH thumb into service sometimes; but, in this instrument, as in many other, one finds a bit of charlatanism sometimes mixed in, and since this is a subject I cannot deal with, I will only speak of four fingers, first, second, third and fourth.

This strong and curt language, certainly reflects an on-going debate among guitarists in France, a good couple of decades before the “Discussion” between the Carullists and the Molinists caricatured by Maresco. So what was this all about?

In his first guitar method of 1810, his op. 27, Carulli does not actually advocate the technique, but simply uses it in a few isolated places, usually on the bass F, indicating it verbally in small print with the word pouce (thumb). The same notation was repeated unchanged in the next 3 issues of the method. In the fifth edition of the method, now bearing op, 241 and published circa 1829, Carulli says this:

In some methods, the authors absolutely forbid the pupils to make use of the left-hand thumb, by the side opposite the other fingers, on the sixth string and sometimes on the fifth. As music is more agreeable when it is richer with harmony, 4 fingers are not enough for its execution, and at the same time, a melody requires its bass notes in different keys, thus one must necessarily use the thumb; therefore, I invite all those who wish to play with a greater facility, to use it.

It should be noted that Carulli was not the only method writer of the time who taught the LH thumb technique. This was quite common. So who was Carulli talking about? I would like to suggest that he was talking about Molino.

In the last known guitar method by this musician published in Paris at about the same time, we find this footnote:

I advise the students to never use the LH thumb because one can produce on the guitar all the harmony of which it is capable, without using the thumb, because in order to use it, it is necessary to entirely disturb the position of the hand; besides, the use of the thumb is very uncomfortable for those with small hands. Consider the music of Mr. Sor, so full of harmony that it can be taken for piano music, and at the same time he performs it without the use of the thumb.

Obviously, this was a controversial subject among guitarists in the early nineteenth century in Paris, and the Maresco caricature thus begins to make sense. By the time Molino published this method, the one by Fernando Sor was already in print.

Even though this picture shows the player using the left-hand thumb, the discussion by Sor regarding this picture is not about the thumb, but on the general sitting position used by French and Italian players. Sor finds this position as detrimental to playing, because it places the guitar way too far to the left. In his opinion, a proper position is one which emulates the position of piano players, where both hands have the same distance to travel away from the body. A pianist sits in the middle of the piano, and the guitarist should sit in the middle of the guitar. Like this:

The idea is that the guitar is placed with the 12th fret, the middle of the guitar, in the middle of the player’s body. Thus, Sor says, both hands are given equal access to the instrument. In the next chapter, Sor discusses the left-hand.

He says:

I saw that the majority of guitarists had only half of the hand in front of the neck, since the hand supported the neck with the top of the angle formed by the thumb and the index; that in this position it was necessary for me to give to the index an excessively violent contraction to press the lowest string on the first fret; that this did not allow the end of my fingers to fall perpendicularly on the strings, I was compelled to make more effort to press them, and that, consequently, it was almost inevitable to touch the neighboring string and to choke off a sound which I could need; that when I had a note to make, a semitone higher than that which was within the range of my small finger, all the hand had to be moved, which I could only make by also moving the front forearm; and that I could not acquire a perfect assurance to find the point which would be appropriate for me…

Bear in mind that Sor’s point of view is not to say what anybody else should or should not do. As in the entire book, Sor only describes his own personal approach to technique, and only relates what he personally found easy or difficult to do. Those who shared his sentiments will have accept his doctrines, and those who did not agree, will have ignore them. And indeed, from that time on, the majority of players of classical guitar adopted Sor’s point of view and the use of the LH thumb became anathema in guitar pedagogy. Even those teachers who used the Carulli method in their work, my own first teacher did, usually ignored his LH thumb indications. The technique, as we well know, did not die out, but became associated mainly with guitarists in the popular traditions of the acoustic guitar, jazz and rock’n’roll.

Meanwhile, back in Russia, it seems that seveners [2]I coined the terms sevener and sixer to simplify the reference to players of the seven-string guitar and players of the six-string guitar. This is equivalent to the Russian terms … Continue reading used the technique right from the very beginning of the introduction of the seven-string guitar to that country. In the earliest known guitar method, published in St. Petersburg by Ignac von Held in 1797,

the author seems to preclude the use of the LH thumb. In the explanation of the fingering symbology used in his method, von Held says:

The numbers that are found close to the notes would indicate the fingers to be used to play them. As the thumb is not counted among the playing fingers, it is not designated as the first finger, and for this reason it is convenient to use another finger as the first, and so forth.

But already a few pages later in the same book, von Held had second thoughts on the subject.

The original fingering in this example, the second chord in bar 1 and the chord in bar 3, are clearly fingered with a barré. At the same time, the bass notes have also an arrow indicating a LH thumb, a symbol that was used by many Russian guitarists since. Von Held explains:

As this manner of playing with the left-hand thumb is not quite profitable, particularly to the ladies, the above symbol is offered. To be used ad libitum, that is, as required.

I would like to make one comment on the graphic appearance of this symbol. Obviously it was etched by hand on the original plates, not using a standard engraving stamp. The arrows are of different shapes and different sizes. That means that at the time this book was being prepared for publication, the type of symbology offered was not yet standard practice.

It certainly became standard practice throughout much of the nineteenth century, not only in method books and printed music for the Russian seven-string guitar, but also in Russian method books and printed music for the Spanish guitar. Perhaps the culmination of Russian seven-string pedagogical work in the nineteenth century, was the 1906 publication of the first volume of the guitar method by Valerian Alexeevich Rusanov.

This is a large book, 140 pages, which contains as much theoretical text as musical examples, very much in the format practiced in previous generations by writers such as Sor and Aguado. It should be noted that Rusanov, who was the founder and chief editor of the Russian guitar journal Gitarist under which auspices this method was printed, was very well familiar with the Sor method. He even began publishing a Russian translation of the Sor method in the early issues of the magazine. The subtitle of this page actually states that this work is based on the best Russian and foreign methods. When discussing the LH thumb, Rusanov says:

The left-hand thumb supports from below, the other fingers which are placed above the fingerboard stopping the strings. It is placed on the highest point of the curvature of the neck, never rising above it. The exception consists of those instances when the thumb is needed to be placed on top of the strings, in those chords and passages when it is not possible to perform without it.

One wonders what was Mr. Rusanov’s idea of guitar technique, when every single instance of the use of the LH thumb in his book, and there are many of them, all correctly noted with the same arrow used by von Held a century before him, could be easily fingered in normal, standard fingering, without the LH thumb. Valerian Rusanov died in 1918, without publishing the second part of his method.

That task fell to his student and disciple, Vladimir Mashkevich. Rusanov must have left Mashkevich a great deal of material for the second volume, including many ideas that he transmitted to him in private correspondence and in personal talks. Mashkevich was a most meticulous compiler of guitar related material. The large collection of his papers, now at the Glinka Museum in Moscow, was the basis of the Yablokov Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Guitarists.

In the years following the Russian Revolution, Mashkevich, then living in Donetsk, the Ukraine, started a guitar magazine called Gitara i Gitaristi.

These were difficult times in the young Soviet Union, and the magazine was produced in small number of typewritten copies, and the music written by hand, and mimeographed. One of Mashkevich’ main editorial concerns in producing the magazine, was to eulogize and promote the memory of his teacher Rusanov. The magazine was short lived, only 12 issues are known to have been published. Concurrent with the second issue of the magazine, in February of 1925, Mashkevich began planning the publication of an anthology of guitar music by Rusanov. In the manuscript of his Preface to that anthology, Mashkevich who by this time moved to Kharkov, said:

Ah, this is too difficult to read. Three years later, in 1928, Mashkevich typed the same text, obviously, still planning to publish the anthology. It says:

Fingering is indicated without the use of the LH thumb.

To understand this drastic departure from the teachings of Rusanov, actually attempting to edit the music according to a different point of view, we need to examine the Mashkevich manuscript for the second volume of the Rusanov method, which he prepared for publication in the same year, 1928. This is also a large volume, 140 pages of typescript and music manuscripts, titled A Palette of Guitar Colors, presumably based on Rusanov’s original plan for the volume. In his preface to this volume, Mashkevich says that besides using the writings of Rusanov himself and all the material he received from him, he also consulted the guitar methods of Fernando Sor, Heinrich Albert, Erwin Schwartz-Reiflingen, and the extended article by Emilio Pujol published in 1922 in Lavignac’s Diccionaire du Conservatoire (which was the basis for his Escuela Razonada). There isn’t a single instance of the use of the LH thumb in the entire volume.

In other words, the new approach to guitar technique now preached by Mashkevich, avoiding the traditional Russian use of the LH thumb, was based on Western sources for the classical guitar, and influenced in no small part, one suspects,  by the performances of Andrés Segovia in the Soviet Union in 1926-27.

But it did not work. The Mashkevich edition of his proposed anthology of the music of Rusanov, as well as the second part of the Rusanov method, were never published. Besides the few individuals who owned copies of this manuscript, guitarists like Miron Papchenko, Jan Puchalsky, Vladislav Musatov and others, the great majority of Russian seveners had never been exposed to Mashkevich’s ideas. The majority of guitar methods published during the Soviet era by players of the seven-string guitar, Mikhail Ivanov, Vasilii Iuriev, Romuald Meleshko and Vladimir Sazonov, teach the traditional Russian way of using the LH thumb. 

Last year, I spoke here about the conflicts between Russian sixers and seveners over the last two and half centuries. I noted then that during the nineteenth century, these two groups co-existed peacefully, and only after the appearance of Segovia in the Soviet Union in 1926, the atmosphere changed into open warfare. As we all sadly know, the sixers won, and the majority of Russian guitarists today, play the six-string guitar, mainly playing the standard Western repertoire and using the standard Western approaches to technique. The few seveners that persisted, had to change, if they expected to be survive. Towards the end of the Soviet era, when economic conditions and employment opportunities became harder to come by, the major teachers of the Russian seven-string guitar employed in the state schools, were required to also teach the six-string guitar. Obviously, they could not possibly employ two different techniques in their teaching. So teachers like Lev Menro and Anatolii Shirialin seem to have abandoned the LH thumb. In their method, published in 1990, they used exclusively the same standard LH technique as that used by the sixers, i.e., no LH thumb anymore.

That is the history as we know it today. Where do we go from here?

I realize that many of the leading lights in our little movement prefer to use the old technique. John, Oleg, Igor Golger and a few others. The argument I mostly hear on the reasons for adopting this technique today, is that as musicians who are conscious of HIP (Historically Informed Performance,) we have to abide by the wishes of the original composers, particularly when they indicated so clearly in their published compositions that some bass notes on the 7th, 6th and sometimes 5th strings, must be stopped with the LH thumb. Hence, a performance is more authentic, if it follows the original sources to the letter. Personally, I don’t buy it. As a listener, I do not care if you stop the bass strings with the LH thumb, with your nose or with your chin. When I buy a ticket to your concert, I consider that ticket as a contract between you and me which says only one thing: make me happy!

There is more to a musical performance than this or that finger movement. Expression, emotions, passions, conviction. So the question is this: what is wrong if a performer today is capable of delivering a convincing musical performance while using an off-the-wall technical device?

Nothing wrong with that and I have greatly enjoyed , and often have been moved to tears by performances of players who use the LH thumb, Sergei Orekhov, for example. But consider what we are doing here in this seminar. We are trying to introduce in the Unites States, and hopefully, in the rest of the world, an instrument and a repertoire that is little known. We must recognize that the target audience for our efforts are not beginner students who do not know any better, but intermediate to advanced players who already have considerable experience in playing the standard repertoire for the six-string guitar, having been taught and indoctrinated by teachers who were trained in modern classical guitar technique, by generations of professors who, to this day, regard the use of the LH thumb, just as Charles Doisy did in 1801, as charlatanism. 

I believe it would be a mistake to aim for a full conversion of a newcomer into our little world from a sixer to a  sevener. That would create the same double-ghetto which brought the seven-string guitar to its humble position today in Russia . We should aim to simply ADD the seven-string guitar and its repertoire to that already practiced by classical guitarists, particularly to those who already play multi-string guitars for whom the LH thumb is not an option.

Introducing these players to a technique that is frowned upon by the mainstream, on the feeble pretense that it is authentic, and at the same time hope to make them learn a new instrument with a different tuning and a different number of strings, is to my mind a fool’s errand. A double whammy! It won’t work. Surely, a few converts will accept the new technique, but the majority of potential players will reject this idea, and walk away from us laughing. Lev Menro and Anatolii Shirialin have understood this principle, and accepted the judgment of history. I think we ought to pay attention to it ourselves.

That is the extent of the formal lecture as delivered in IARGUS 2007. Obviously, the subject generated a lively discussion. I expected some reservations to the ideas expressed here, particularly by those players, mentioned above, who use the LH thumb. The main objection was to the idea that we can alter the original compositions where the use of the LH thumb is indicated by the composer, and re-finger the music according to our own twenty-first century accepted guitar technique. My point of view is that what matters to us to day, is that in order to pay homage to the original composers, it is more important to have this music performed, to have it made known to our audiences, and to endeavor to make it part and parcel of the repertoire, than to adhere to a technical device that was common at the time, but is no longer accepted today. While there can be little argument against changing the fingering in those instances where the music can be performed either way with no alterations of the musical text, one could strenuously object to changing the music itself, where a different, standard, fingering, is not possible. For example, in playing chords that require five different fingers to stop the chord as written. The perfect example for this is found in Andrei Sychra’s Concert Etude No. 1, in b minor, at mm. 49-50.

The three chords where the symbol for the LH thumb is indicated, a vertical small arrow, can be easily re-fingered. The last chord in this sequence, however, cannot be played with only 4 fingers and the LH thumb must be used. Here is my solution:

As you can see, I thinned out the chord by deleting the octave doubling. In my view, such an alteration does not change the harmony or affect in anyway the aural perception of the passage. Here is, for example, a recording of this Etude by the Swedish guitarist Mårten Falk.

The passage in question occurs at the 2:52>2:56 time segment on the recording. While I do not know for a fact what precise fingering was used by Mårten here, I know that he performed this piece on an 8-string guitar where the first 7 strings are tuned a la russe, i.e., in an open G Major chord. A LH thumb use is not an option on such an instrument, and the way it sounds to me is that the chord was thinned out exactly as I suggest here. I would happily provide another recording of the same piece in which the thinning out did not occur, but the only such recording at my disposal, the one by the young Russian sevener Vladimir Markushevich, a LH thumb user, does not provide me with any indication how this passage was actually fingered.

Copyright © 2008 by Editions Orphée, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


1 This book was listed in Bibliographie de la France on 21 Nov. 1829. I am indebted to Erik Stenstadvold for this information.
2 I coined the terms sevener and sixer to simplify the reference to players of the seven-string guitar and players of the six-string guitar. This is equivalent to the Russian terms семиструнник [semistrunnink] and шестиструнник [shestistrunnik]. The terminology, as practiced in Russia, assumes that one is either a sevener or a sixer, but cannot be both, even though some of the better known players in Russia, play both instruments equally well, and so do many players world wide.


Walter · February 7, 2022 at 8:21 pm

I believe the first picture from La Guitaromanie may simply be a cartoon punning the theo-philosphical conflict between Calvinists and Molinists (i.e. followers of Luis de Molina).

    Robert Coldwell · February 7, 2022 at 9:23 pm

    Was this such an important topic of the 1820s that Marescot would commission an engraving disguised as a topic of the guitar? What about the other five engravings in La Guitaromanie?

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