Are you double-jointed?  Is it a blessing or a curse on your instrument? 

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Leah Kruszewski
ModeratorInstructor
Are you double-jointed?  Is it a blessing or a curse on your instrument? 

Double-jointedness, more technically known as hypermobility, refers to the ability to stretch joints farther than usual.  It can occur in many joints (knees, fingers, elbows, etc.) and to varying extremes. It’s very common -- according to this article, 10-25% of the population and is double-jointed -- and often doesn’t affect people negatively.  If you ever knew (or were) a kid who could step through their own joined arms, or could bend thumbs backwards so far that they touch the wrist, those are more extreme examples of hypermobility.  More mildly, being double-jointed can simply mean that our finger or thumb joints bend beyond a straight position into a backwards angle.  

Being double-jointed can be an asset to some aspects of playing piano, guitar, and other string instruments.  It can also make certain techniques difficult, and even make players more prone to injury.   

Advantages

Extra stretchy hands - both pianists and guitarists benefit from a wide hand span.  Guitarists often need to make chord shapes that span several frets with the left hand.  Having some extra flexibility is really helpful for those sorts of stretches. Similarly, hand span is a common topic among pianists, as music often asks them to stretch more than an octave.  It’s worth noting that many historians believe that virtuosos pianist Rachmaninov and violinist Paganini were hypermobile.  That enabled them to play and write music with extreme stretches that instrumentalists with normal mobility find nearly impossible.  

Partial barres - A lot of us can bend the smallest joint of our fingers backwards. As guitarists, that allows us to fret two strings with only one finger.  Double-jointed players can fret strings 2 and 3 of an A Major chord with just the index finger (bent backward at the tip) and strings 5 and 6 of a B7 chord with the middle finger.  This is a distinct advantage in many situations - in fact, I have trouble finding suitable alternatives for students with straight finger tips.  Can any teachers/students with ‘normal’ mobility weigh in?  

Disadvantages

Fingers that won’t behave - Some students try to keep their fingers round, but joints straighten and bend backwards too easily.  Other students have fingers that overextend and lock and get stuck in that position position. In general, patience and careful exercises can develop the strength needed to ‘tame’ hypermobile joints. 

Awkward right hand thumb for guitarists - Certain thumb techniques (thumb rest stroke and alzapua in flamenco, for example) demand that our thumb push through one or more strings at a time in a strong, quick stroke.  For a ‘normal’ thumb, this just means extending our larger thumb joint (the one that connects the thumb to the hand) as far as it goes. For hypermobile players, extending the thumb ‘fully’ seems to mean that it extends beyond its normal range, pops out of the joint a bit, and is difficult to get back into place quickly afterwards.  I’ve only seen this in a few students and dealing with it has been an experiment. Please comment if your thumb moves like this too - particularly if you have tips on dealing with it!

Increased risk for injuries - In general, joint instability can lead to strength imbalances and higher susceptibility to soft tissue injuries and osteoarthritis.  Speaking for the entire body (not just the instrument-playing parts), just because one can bend their joints beyond the normal range of motion doesn’t mean they should.  Overextending an unstable joint can stress the ligaments over time. Hypermobile players can probably safely enjoy their increased hand spans, but they should also devote careful attention to exercises that build strength and stability.  

Symptom of an underlying disorder - In rare cases, hypermobility can be a symptom of a connective tissue disorder.  Although it’s impossible to confirm or deny, the same historians who have investigated Paganini and Rachmaninov’s hypermobility have explored the possibility that they also suffered from Ehler-danlos or Marfan syndrome.  Both disorders have serious health consequences in addition to contributing to a larger hand span.  

Neutral

Hitchhiker thumb - A hitchhiker thumb bends backwards at the tip instead of extending to a straight position and stopping.  There are amazing guitarists who have thumbs like this, and amazing guitarists who have straight thumbs. In my experience, students and teachers tend to fixate on this a little too much.  It’s neither better nor worse, just different. I have thumbs like this. The only time it caused me issues is when an early teacher suggested I try keeping it straight when I played, which ended up being a waste of time and effort going down an erroneous technique path. If you have a hitchhiker thumb, let it do its thing when you play, and adjust your right hand position to accommodate.  

Are you double jointed?  Has it affected your playing?  For better or worse, or both?  What tips do you have for other double-jointed players?  

Resources: 

An article geared toward cello players with a slide show useful for any instrumentalist: http://cellopracticecelloperformance.com/cello-tips/2017/9/20/buckling-fingers-double-joints-playing-the-cello-while-hypermobile

The Musician’s Health Collective address hypermobility in several articles.  Take your pick here: http://www.musicianshealthcollective.com/search?q=hypermobility 

Paul Wilkinson

Hi - This is a great article. Thank you.
As a guitarist,  I've always had difficulty stabilising my pic but only just realised that it's because of my thumb bending back 90 degrees. So position changes make the pick swivel and my timing suffers. Strengthening exercises don't work on the thumb control if the pick. I've though about thumb splints?.   I'm sorry, I don't have any tips, but it would be great to hear about how this has been overcome by other people. Thank you soooooo much. Paul. 

Leah Kruszewski
ModeratorInstructor

Hi Paul, thanks so much for reading!  I'm glad it was interesting and informative for you : )  I'd be cautious of the idea of thumb splints, forcing the hand into a position can cause tension and injury.  I would love to hear what other players - of all thumb types - have to say!

Leah

John Hajec

I am a classical guitar player who can bend the tips of my thumbs over 90 degrees. The tips of my fingers also bend backward 35- 45 degrees. I find this to be hindering my ability to accomplish advanced pieces as I cannot perform them without having it fall apart at some point. The thumb is supposed to support the pressure of your fingers on the fingerboard and it takes more strength to keep my thumb in the right position and angle. Making matters worse, my fingers want to bend backward making the whole balancing act unstable at times. I made a splint with masking tape and two Q-tips on the back of my thumb to keep it from bending back and it really was a relief to feel how much less strength it took to play with a good support. It is not a solution though because its crude and the tape isn't a great feel, plus it restricts the forward flexibility that you want to have. I also have an injury in the same hand from when I was a teen, I big shard of glass went through my hand and severed some nerves that never reconnected leaving me with 50% feeling in my thumb and index finger, when contact in made on my finger I actually feel the sensation on my thumb. So in one way I am just grateful to have achieved a high intermediate to advanced level of playing with all of these negative factors but I feel like I would be at a polished professional level if I had normal hands. My goal now is to develop an orthopedic device that allows for forward flexibility but limit reverse angles while also allowing flesh to contact the back of the neck so that it feels natural. This will have to be made from some high tech material that is super thin and strong and contains carbon fiber or titanium spring wire, strips or other material molded into the back. I have 3D design experience but no medical background so I will have to get some advice as I develop it. This seems like my only hope of ever being able to perform at an advanced level. I've worked on certain pieces like Bach's BWV 1006a for years and still cannot get through it without losing my strength or messing it up because my fingers bend and slip off the strings, or even just made contact with the adjacent string and introduce an unwanted noise. If I am successful I may think about something for the tips of my fingers but that seems like a remote possibility, for now I will be really happy just to correct my thumb on my fretting hand.

John

Mattis J

That is the exact problem i have. My Left thumb bends back, which doesn't allow me to properly support my fretting hand. I have only been playing for 2.5 years but it results in thumb- and wrist pain for me sometimes.. i wish there was a different solution.

Mattis J

I've got hitchhikers thumbs on both sides. Right hand doesn't present a problem but my fretting hand hurts after some playing. My thumb bends back and my hand cramps up quite often when i try to play. My thumb can't properly press against the guitar neck to support the fretting hand. Do you have any advice? It's so discouraging... 

Tyson Farmer
Instructor

Professional guitarist of 39 years and teacher of 31 years here weighing in. I have hitch-hikers thumbs at 90 degrees. Everybody's unique and has different experiences, pros, and cons with their physiology, and I can't speak to those with negative extremes like hypermobility etc.,  but I definitely feel they are a blessing to me, and tell any of my students that also have hitch-hiker's thumbs that they can like being a 7 foot tall basketball player - you still have to practice a lot, but they can be an attribute you can use to your advantage and can potentially give you a bit of an edge over other players in some ways. 

My particular super-power is that I am able "lock" into my bar chords like a set of vice grip pliers using an angle of leverage, instead of using only hand and fore-arm strength to hold bar chords by force as a "fixed" joint thumb would. However, the price I have to pay for this is that my thumbs are particularly stubby and short, making over-neck thumb reaches uncomfortable and sometimes impossible depending on the reach. See attached pic for the opposite extreme of Jimi Hendrix's thumbs - look at that reach! I can JUST reach the top E string but it pretty much stops there. 

My personal philosophy is that for every negative attribute a hand has, there is usually another positive attribute that is hard to identify and easy to take for granted !

 

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