Using a Claw Hand to Avoid Ukulele Injuries

I take ukulele lessons with a fantastic teacher, Kevin Carroll. I have some pain in my fingers so this week we discussed how to keep my fretting hand healthy. Kevin hypothesizes that my left hand playing position contributes to the pain. At Kevin’s suggestion, I’m blogging about our discussion so that others can learn as well. The ukulele community is a welcoming and supportive place! Also, as with everything else on this blog, I’m teaching in order to enhance my own learning.

I get tingling and numbness on the side of the first finger of my fretting hand. It’s particularly triggered when I play bar chords like Bm. (I bar the second fret with the pointer finger and put my ring finger on G3.) Unfortunately, I’ve been playing a lot of songs with Bm recently so I was getting a very cranky finger. I started to worry about nerve damage so I took a break from playing bar chords for a week. It’s feeling better but I want to take steps to avoid it coming back.

The Claw

Kevin and I spent an hour talking about the fundamentals of left hand placement and technique. What started as a ukulele lesson turned into a yoga class for my left hand! My thumb stretched and contorted it in new ways. When playing the viola, I used an open hand to give my fingers plenty of mobility to reach up the neck and over to the low strings. However for ukulele, the formation Kevin advocates is “claw” shaped. Although it doesn’t feel natural now, Kevin says once I get more fluent with the position, it will give me more leverage, be less work for my fingers, and allow my thumb to pivot as I move around the neck.

Before I describe how to form the claw, let’s coordinate on terminology. Take a look at this picture.

Parts of the hand
  • finger one – pointer finger
  • finger two – middle finger
  • finger three – ring finger
  • finger four – pinkie finger
  • metacarpophalangeal joint (MCP) – the joint at the base of the hand
  • proximal interphalangeal joint (PIP) – the joint in the middle of the finger
  • distal interphalangeal joint (DIP) – the joint closest to the fingertip

I’ll use the finger numbers and the joint abbreviations in my descriptions below.

How to form the claw

DON’T use a “C”
DO keep fingers close like a “claw”

The key to forming the claw is to keep your thumb and fingers close to the palm of your hand. See the “DO” picture on the right. To form the claw, first get your thumb into the proper position. The thumb should rest in the middle of your palm with the thumbnail pointing up in line with your middle finger. (See pictures below.) Ideally, the thumb lays flat against the palm. My thumb does not have the flexibility and strength to lay flat yet so it’s not quite correct in the pictures. My thumb is about 2/3rds rotated. Eventually, you should be able to see my complete thumbnail face on.

DON’T slide thumb into position
DO: move thumb in a circular path

There are two paths the thumb could travel to get into position. You could move your thumb in a straight line, sliding it across the MCP of the first and second fingers, and then try to rotate it so the thumbpad is flat against the MCP of finger 2. This is not recommended. The better way is to move the thumb in a circular path as shown in the DO picture. First, move your thumb out as far as you can to the left. Imagine you are holding a baseball in your hand. Keeping your thumbpad on the imaginary baseball, move your thumb in an arc until it is above your second finger. Now try to touch the pad of your thumb to the MCP of your second finger. You should feel the muscles at the base of your thumb, the big fleshy bit, activate. Do this a few times. Your thumb will probably get sore. Take a break. Stretch it out. Give your hand a few shakes.

Activate the muscle at the base of your thumb

Now, let’s move your fingers into position. Start with your second finger. Bend at the PIP and DIP so that the very tip of the second finger touches the pad of your thumb. You want to make a “paw” with your hand, not a fist or a “C” shape. (See the side view pictures above.) Bend each finger individually so it touches the pad of the thumb. Touch with the very tip of each finger. Give each finger a chance to try touching the thumb. Push the thumb up against the finger, rather than the finger down on the thumb. Do a few reps. If this position is new for you, your thumb is now feeling pretty tired. Take another break.

Make sure to keep your wrist straight. Relax your arm, wrist, and hand on your thigh and do this exercise in that position.

Rest your forearm, wrist and hand on your leg to keep your wrist straight

Holding the ukulele

To play the ukulele, use the claw shape, but position the neck of the uke between your fingers and thumb.

DON’T align thumb with first finger
DO align thumb with second finger
DON’T leave a gap
DO keep your fingers close

There are a couple of important distinctions between the DO and DON’T pictures.

In the DON’T pictures, my thumb is on the side of the neck and is aligned with the first finger. The base of my fingers is fairly far from the neck of the ukulele, like I could pass a pencil between the uke neck and my hand. In the DO picture, my left thumb is aligned under my second finger, and the neck of the uke is resting on the base of my fingers. My thumbpad is contacting with the middle of the back of the neck. Ideally, it would be aligned perpendicular to the neck (the thumb should be pointing in the same direction as the frets), but I don’t have the mobility for my thumb to get perpendicular yet. Maybe it will get there in a few weeks, months, or years.

Playing Notes

This is the neutral position for playing individual notes on a ukulele or guitar. Start by playing single notes in first position on the middle (C and E) strings. As you move up the neck, bring your thumb along so it remains roughly under your second finger. Try playing notes on the outside strings (G and A) when the middle strings feel comfortable.

This technique applies to playing single notes. As you form chords, your thumb will need to move and pivot. We’ll cover that in a different post – after I talk to Kevin about it!

Make sure your thumb muscle is activating. Poke at the muscle at the base of your thumb and feel it fire as you bring it up towards your fingers. Not only are you bringing it “around”, you are also pushing it up against the neck. The power in the hand comes from the thumb, which in turn comes from the forearm and bicep. One last tip, when plucking single notes with your right hand, use the same “squeezing” thumb motion. This will help to remind your left hand to engage the thumb muscles as well. It will also give you better tone. A twofer!


My homework is to do a few “reps” of the thumb/finger touching exercise a day. I can do this without a uke. As single finger touches get comfortable, I’m to try touching my thumb with combinations of fingers as I would form a first position G or F chord. I will also practice playing single notes with proper form up and down the neck. I’ll check in with Kevin next week to get some follow up exercises.


It is difficult to explain the fine points of body positioning in a blog, even with pictures. Experiment and let me know how it goes for you.

I highly recommend Kevin if you’re looking for ukulele or guitar lessons in the Austin, TX area. Here’s the link to his website. [Not an affiliate link!]. He does online lessons with folks around the globe if you’re not in Texas.

There are lots of ways to hold your fretting hand. How does this compare to what you do? Do you have hand problems? What has helped you?

2 responses to “Using a Claw Hand to Avoid Ukulele Injuries”

  1. What an interesting topic. I play a bit of guitar but never thought that there was a best practice to it. I read ‘the claw’ and the first thing that came to mind was cooking, and how you should hold your hand so that you don’t chop your fingers off. Thanks for this post as always!


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