The “Bloody Thumb” Exercise for Thumb Position Playing

Thumb position is an essential technique for upright bass. Players like Steve Bailey and Brian Bromberg have even adapted it for use on the electric bass. However, when people first start using their left hand thumb to stop a note (i.e. play in thumb position) they often experience discomfort. This is sometimes due to their inexperience with the new hand position, and sometimes due to a lack of callouses. Oftentimes it is a bit of both.

My favorite exercise to help someone quickly become comfortable using the thumb to press the string is called the “bloody thumb” exercise. It should be noted that, despite the name, no blood should ever be involved in this exercise! The exercise below is simple but effective in helping people get started with thumb position playing.

Points to remember:

  1. Play this exercise with the bow.
  2. Balance the weight of the arm/hand so that gravity pushes the string to the board, rather than using your hand muscles.
  3. Keep the fingers loose.
  4. Shift slowly. Emphasize the glissando effect.
  5. Do not lift your thumb or lighten the pressure during the shift. Make sure you hear every microtone between the notes.
  6. Each time you work on it, perform this exercise on all strings,
  7. Play the exercise between 1 and 5 times each day until you can comfortably perform it without discomfort
  8. Despite the name, at no time should you break the skin or actually draw blood! If you do, you’ve greatly overdone it!

The “Bloody Thumb” Exercise

Remember to play this on each string (including your lowest!) each time you do the exercise. When you can perform it on the E string, the G string will seem like a cakewalk!

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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  1. Anyone seriously interested in thumb position needs to refer to “Simplified Higher Technique” by Franco Petracchi. Accept and use it or not, one NEEDS to know about it.

  2. is that D the D on plays on 3 position?( sorry im new at this)