First GJ Guitar and thumb technique

Hello all,

Like a lot of folks I've taken a long route to get to GJ guitar, playing rock, bluegrass, straight ahead jazz, and classical guitar along the way. I'm interested in picking up my first GJ-specific instrument, and I want to commit to the techniques that are particular to this style, including the extensive use of the fretting hand thumb. This is new to me as my general approach to the fretting hand is more classical - my early attempts have been... challenging.

My question: I have an opportunity to pick up a used Gitane D-500 at a decent price, but I'm wondering whether this is a good idea, particularly considering the 1 7/8 nut width. The thumb-over-the-top technique is challenging on my dreadnought with a 1 3/4 nut, so I'm wondering if you all think that moving to an even wider fretboard would be a mistake. I'll have the opportunity to try before I buy. In your more practiced opinions, should I write off the Gitane if my thumb says "no, thank you" or should I buy the guitar and hope that my technique (and tendons) adapt?



  • ChrisMartinChrisMartin Shellharbour NSW Australia✭✭ Di Mauro x2, Petrarca, Genovesi, Burns, Kremona Zornitsa & Paul Beuscher resonator.
    Posts: 959

    Others may question this but I am not sure the left thumb fretting is a necessary part of the Gypsy Jazz style anyway. Sure the right hand picking technique is quite specific and learning the quick strum/mute trick of the left hand to achieve the right sound for rhythm, known as la pompe, should be your first concern. If you are then able to use the left thumb, well done, go for it, but I don't think it is deal breaker. Some do it, but many don't.

    As for the guitar, Gitanes used to be popular but some on here now say they sound too 'wet' even though they continue to sell in large numbers; maybe it is that ubiquity that has turned people against them.....too common? A more valid criticism might be the slimmer necks which some say are suited to those coming to GJ from playing other mainstream styles, rock, blues, jazz etc. For my part, a Gitane feels more comfortable than my old Di Mauro (but obviously has far less vintage cred) but I am not advanced enough to pass on playing tips, there are many better qualified on here to do that.

  • pdgpdg ✭✭
    Posts: 472

    Just my personal view, but I would be careful with the left thumb thing. I agree it's not a deal breaker, though a few chords are all but impossible without it (if you want to include fretting the 6th string for those chords). It might require a lower or otherwise different guitar position than what you're used to, so that the hand approaches the guitar more horizontally. And there's the possibility it could screw up your hand (not to be alarmist). And everyone's hands are different. Also, depending on your age, it might be better not to push the envelope (e.g., by trying to stretch your tendons).

  • billyshakesbillyshakes NoVA✭✭✭ Park Avance - Dupont Nomade - Dupont DM-50E
    Posts: 1,337

    When I started many moons ago, learning from Robin Nolan's books, none of the chord shapes were using the thumb. Then I started with a teacher who showed it to me. It has its advantages and disadvantages. Playing a dominant 7 chord with 6th string root is just like playing an open D chord shape with your thumb wrapped around to give you the bass note. Alternatively, using your first finger for the bass note causes your other fingers to learn new shapes and can be awkward at first. Yet, many play that shape without the thumb and move in and out of it just fine. If you've been playing straight ahead jazz with all the crazy chords and no thumb, you may already have good dexterity in your fingers and chord fluency.

    I will augment what pdg says above. About 3-4 years ago, I did something to that thumb while playing that it really didn't like. It was painful and still can be if not properly warmed up. Whereas I would almost always form chords with my thumb, now I do so sparingly. Playing things like a ii-V-I are really nice with the thumb as the rest of your fingers stay the same shape on the same fret and just move down the strings (5x55xx to 5x455x to 355455) and the thumb grabs the G. So, as a system it can really work....but it is also not necessary.

    We can see from the J'attendrai video that Django, Joseph, and Baro are all using the thumb on some of their chords. Django's use was certainly due to his hand limitations. When I was younger, I thought it was more "authentic" to play with the thumb. Now I realize that the striving for "authenticity" is a false choice. Just play what you like and what sounds good to your ears.

  • JasonSJasonS New
    Posts: 58

    I can't think of any commonly played voicings that necessitate the use of the thumb. The case for playing the root on the low E becomes even more dubious if you're playing with a bassist.

  • Posts: 283

    You should also be aware that Django had very large hands. So using the thumb was likely easier for him than someone with smaller hands. Similarly Jimi Hendrix hard large hands.

    I wouldn't worry so much about using the thumb over technique. You can slowly add it in as you progress.

  • FretbuzzardFretbuzzard Wisconsin, USANew
    edited January 2023 Posts: 3

    This is helpful. I just picked up the first volume of the Debarre/Daussat/Roux method, and one of the first things it confronts you with is a few pages of chords, many of which use this technique, and some of which cannot be fingered differently. I'll give them a shot because some of the voicings look useful (especially when it is NOT the root that is in the bass), but I won't obsess over it.

    Any other thoughts on the 1 7/8 nut width on the Gitane? Pros and cons for this style of music? I've played classical guitars with 2 inch+ nuts and Strats as small as 1 5/8. All manageable, but quite different!

  • JSantaJSanta NY✭✭✭ Dupont, Gaffiero, AJL
    Posts: 262

    I don't have any thoughts on the nut width, but having played a vintage Busato and Selmer, those massive necks (especially on the Busato) made me approach using my thumb a bit different, but not impossible. I think that the thick neck of those vintage builds in some ways contributes to the unique tone of those guitars. I am having a Dupont built with a copy of a 1953 Selmer neck.

    For my playing, using the thumb on chords is 100% necessary. I find that playing almost anything major with the root on the low E is fundamental to the tone of the chords I hear when playing rhythm, and that's the way the chords have been taught to me.

  • DeuxDoigts_TonnerreDeuxDoigts_Tonnerre Lawrenceville GA USANew Stringphonic #503 Basic, Altamira M30D, Eastman AR810CE, Giannini Craviola
    Posts: 56

    I had a Gitane D-500 years ago and I remember the neck was a tad wide (and thin-ish). The sound was loud, very wet, and a bit tubby-sounding. My impression was that the D-500 would make great instrument for unaccompanied delta blues. I could create a real Robert Johnsonesque mood with that guitar. It was a nice-looking guitar but I don't recommend the D-500 model if you are going for the classic gypsy jazz sound and style.

    If you are going to dedicate yourself to the technique of Django, then I would suggest getting a guitar that is as close to OG original specs as possible. Forget the Gitanes and Ciganos. The current Altamira, Eastman, and Stringphonic models should be the top contenders unless you want to spend more money for a luthier-built or a vintage instrument.

    Don't worry about the thumb-over-the-neck technique right now. I still find it a challenge to thumb a chord consistently no matter what guitar I use. With a few exceptions, I have found that I don't really use my thumb for most of my rhythm playing. It doesn't require much pressure to fret with the thumb so it should be done lightly so as not to make the bass sharp in pitch. If I really want to add the low E-string bass note there are chords that don't require the thumb, or I will use my thumb sparingly.

    In other words, you can totally get by (as a rhythm or lead player) without using or placing too much focus on the thumb-over-the-neck technique. Eventually you will find out which chord voicings sound good to you, they may or may not require fretting with the thumb.

    If you can find a guitar that plays like butter, and has "the sound" then you are 2/3 of the way to getting there. The rest is in the technique, which should develop easily if you have the right equipment and guidance. Good luck.

  • Russell LetsonRussell Letson Prodigy
    Posts: 360

    It's worth thinking long-term about left-hand technique. For 50 years, I used my left thumb extensively--on some guitars, I could thumb both the E and A strings. But sometime after turning 70, that became uncomfortable (a bit of arthritis in the base thumb joint), especially on wide, low-profile necks. As a result, there are a couple guitars I can't play for long.

    Two results: I have identified which guitars are comfortable for my 78-year-old hands; and I have adjusted my fingerings to minimize stress on that thumb joint. I recall some recommended all-strings gypsy-rhythm fingerings that seemed stressful even when my hands were fine--so I didn't use them. And I can still thumb the sixth string when I need to, though my default fingerings are based on shell chords. But then, I'm not going for an authentic early-Hot-Club sound.

  • pdgpdg ✭✭
    Posts: 472

    I once played an F7 chord -- 1 3 x x 4 5 (fret nos. from 6th to 1st string), with four fingers (no thumb). A hand doctor made me stop playing guitar for five months.

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