Back to Basics: Pick vs. Fingers

by Dave Isaacs

No matter how accomplished we might become at anything, it’s always helpful to go back to basics.  I’ve been playing music for most of my life and I still learn something new every time I revisit the fundamentals.  So today let’s take a look at a very basic thing: should you play guitar with a pick or your fingers?

I generally start beginner students with a pick as a matter of simplicity.  When using a flatpick, you strike the strings the same way every time, using the point of the pick: all you need to concentrate on is aiming for the right string.  When strumming, we move the arm back and forth and the pick strikes the strings in sequence whether you’re going up or down.  Simple enough?

It’s also important to consider that most pop rhythm styles can be easily played with simple variations in the strumming pattern (a point I will address in a subsequent article).  So using a flatpick is the simplest approach and therefore a good starting point for a beginner.

However, there’s very little one can do with a pick that can’t be accomplished with the bare fingers, and a great deal one can do with the fingers that isn’t possible with a pick alone.  Using all your fingers to pluck or strum gives you many more tonal and rhythmic options, but it also demands more skill….after all, instead of a single pick we essentially have five to choose from, and the finger can strike the string in a number of ways.  Despite this, some people are more comfortable right at the outset using their fingers.

I recommend that everyone who plays the guitar experiment with both approaches and develop at least a basic facility with each.  Most pro-level players I know can play either way, and choose one or the other according to the demands of the song.  If you’ve never used your fingers, a good place to start is to learn a simple fingerpicking pattern….these patterns are often very repetitive and not difficult to master.  Try holding down a D chord and then plucking the four notes of the chord one at a time using your thumb for each.  Then try two notes with the thumb and two with the index finger.  (Note that the thumb pushes down towards the floor, while the fingers pull in towards the guitar).  If you can, add the middle finger so your pattern is thumb-thumb-index-middle, and then try the following sequence:

thumb on string 4
index on string 2
thumb on string 3
middle on string 1

Note that “string 1” refers to the high E, the thinnest of your six strings, and the others follow in sequence.  This pattern is an introduction to what is called “Travis picking”, which reached its pinnacle in the playing of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.  Purists may protest that what I’m describing is a far cry from Chet Atkins, but the common thread is the use of the thumb on alternate strings.  Regardless of the picking pattern, though, think of your thumb as your bass player…..odds are the thumb will sit most comfortable on the bass (lowest pitched) strings.

If you’re a fingerstyle player and never used a pick, experiment with simple strums.  Hold the pick between the thumb and index finger so that the point is at a right angle to your thumb and faces the guitar’s soundhole.  Think of the pick as an extension of your thumb, and when you move to strum let the thumb lead the way as the arm follows.  Don’t allow the muscles of your forearm to engage, just let the arm swing and use the thumb to apply pressure to the strings via the pick.  To strike a single note, just move the thumb without engaging the arm.  Try strumming different chords, then play each as an arpeggio (striking one string at a time).  To create a driving rhythm, simply allow the arm to swing back and forth while allowing only the point of the pick to touch the strings.  Staying loose and relaxed as you do this is essential….if it feels awkward or forced, you need to take a step back and identify the problem.  Often we will twist the wrist or overuse the arm muscles; when you strum properly the arm should just swing back and forth like a pendulum, with one important difference: the arm will extend further on the down strum, and the up strum is simply a return to the starting point.  Don’t worry about striking all the strings on the way back up, just brush whatever feels natural.

Subsequent articles will explore both fingerstyle and pick-style playing in greater detail; this is meant to be a simple overview.  The bottom line is, no matter which way you play now, it’s worth exploring other methods.  Sometimes a new approach can be a revelation and open doors more rapidly than ever before.  At the very least, a new approach can give you some new ideas and spark your creativity….a great thought for a new year.

Reprinted with permission from



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