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Should You Play Guitar With A Pick Or Your Fingers?

9 Mins read

Should you play guitar with a pick or your fingers?

Many beginners ask themselves this question at some point when they start to discover new playing styles and techniques.

I personally learned to play guitar without a pick, in fact, I played guitar for almost 2 years without a pick.

Playing with a pick has its benefits, but at the same time, playing with just your fingers will also give you a few other advantages.

In today’s post, I will go over which one is better and allow for more versatility, and how much of a difference they make in your sound, playing style, and progress.

Let’s start…

Should you play guitar with a pick or your fingers?

The quick answer is that you should play guitar however you feel the more comfortable. While playing with your fingers will allow you to play more difficult chordal patterns and arrange multiple solo melodies at once, playing with a pick will help you achieve greater playing speed and play with a more defined, brighter, louder, and clear tone.

As crazy as it sounds, some people hate to play with a pick for the simple fact that they cannot hold it correctly and always drop it. Others hate to play with their fingers just because they learned to use a pick since the very first time they held a guitar or because it simply hurts their fingers when they play for too long.

Usually, those who started learning to play with an acoustic guitar find themselves using just their fingers. On the other hand, those that had an electric guitar as their first guitar are more likely to have learned to play with a pick.

Beginner guitarists tend to have a very hard time deciding what they want to play and how they want to go about it. Using a pick or just your fingers have its pros and cons; sometimes you can even do both at the same time.

Benefits of using a guitar pick to play guitar

I’ve seen some guitarists that have played with a pick for their whole life and it’s very hard for them to do very simple finger-picking patterns.

As we briefly mentioned before, playing with a pick can give you many advantages and benefits that you would otherwise not have if you play with just your fingers.

benefits of playing guitar with a pick

Some of these are very noticeable in your guitar tone and the music you play itself.

These are some of the benefits of playing guitar with a pick:

1- Achieve greater playing speed when necessary

If you have tried to play with a pick before or at least seen other guitarists do it, then you know that it’s very easy to use ‘alternate picking’ to increase your playing speed significantly.

For those that might not know:

Alternate picking is a guitar-playing technique that employs alternating downward and upward strokes in a continuous fashion. If the technique is performed at high speed on a single string or course voicing the same note, it may be referred to as “tremolo picking” or “double picking”.

Take a quick look at this video of Dick Dale playing the famous song Misirlou:

Guitar Center Sessions: Dick Dale - Misirlou

Now, imagine for a second attempting to play that same riff without using a pick: that would be almost impossible.

Watch his left hand closely, you will see how he is using the techniques that we mentioned before: “tremolo picking” or “double picking”. He is utilizing the downward and upward strokes in a continuous fashion to play the same note or different notes one after the other in a very fast way.

Be careful though, because not holding the pick firmly enough or holding the pick too tightly could prevent you from increasing your speed to your fullest potential.

Some guitar players when they first start using picks think that they need to hold the pick very lightly in order to hit the strings faster.

You don’t need to do this, as this will only make the pick fall out of your hand, or on the other hand, don’t hold the pick too tightly because your entire arm will become extremely tense and this will also prevent you from increasing your playing speed.

What you want to do is find the right balance so that you hold it tight enough that it won’t fall out of your hand, but also light enough that it won’t make your arm feel too tense.

2- Allows for better playing and more dynamics in leads or solos

Using a pick for solos or leads, in my opinion, is a must, but, to be fair, this heavily depends on what style of music you’re playing.

The simple reason for this is that you can do a fair job of imitating fingerstyle work using a pick, but only if you are a really good guitar player.

You can also ‘fake’ lead guitarist pick work to some degree by utilizing your fingers and thumb, however, you will never be able to make it sound quite the same in most cases.

Generally, if you do a quick search online for other guitarists that are playing the same style as yours, you will find out whether most of them either play with a pick or not.

guitar player playing with a pick

Using a pick will allow you to incorporate a wider range of techniques in your solos, such as ‘sweep picking’, that you would otherwise not be able to do with just your fingers, or at the very least would be extremely difficult.

Aside from that, if you have ever thought of playing other techniques such as left-hand muting or fretting-hand muting, like Jimi Hendrix or John Frusciante, then using a pick is almost inevitable.

According to guitarscholar.co.uk:

Fret-hand muting is a popular technique amongst rhythm guitarists. It involves using your left hand (which is the fretting hand for most people) to dampen the strings whilst your other hand strums. A percussive click should be produced without any ringing of the strings.

You can mute strings with either hand, but most of the time, this technique it’s used to specifically add more rhythmic dynamics to solos or leads.

With that being said, most people find it difficult to achieve significant speed with this style of playing without using a pick. While it is possible to do it with just your fingers, using a pick allows you to use the downward and upward strokes in a continuous way to play more comfortably and faster.

3- Produce a more defined, brighter, louder, and clear tone

It is no secret that using a pick will allow your tone to be brighter and louder.

If you have ever played with a pick and have made the attempt to see the difference between strumming with your thumb and using a pick, then you might have realized how much of a difference it makes.

Playing with a pick will definitely affect your guitar tone since it will be changing the way the string vibrates. According to guitargearfinder.com: “a stiff and thick pick has a strong attack on the string, which produces more bass and midrange in tone.” and on the other side, “a thin and flexible pick produces more high end and less bass.”

If you do a quick search online about which type of pick is the best for you, then you will find yourself with so much information that will just overwhelm you if you are a beginner.

There is a lot to learn about the pick’s materials, thicknesses, and shape and how it affects your sound.

For now, if you are just getting started with learning to play guitar, any pick would be a great choice. As you keep improving and getting better, that’s when I would recommend you to start researching these things.

Here is a really interesting video that will better show you the difference between using a pick and using your fingers in terms of tone:

When should YOU fingerpick? Pick vs finger tone w/ Shawn Tubbs

In this YouTube video, he goes over the main difference between playing with a pick and your fingers, and how it also affects the way you play the guitar.

Something I loved about this video is how it made me realize the different sides of me, as a guitarist, that playing with a pick or just my fingers bring. It makes you play the guitar less and more melodic, depending on how you are playing at a certain time.

Benefits of using finger-picking to play guitar

Now, just like with playing guitar using just a guitar pick, playing without it can have many benefits as well.

Generally, you will be able to play more different styles and use a wider variety of guitar playing techniques to incorporate into your songs.

benefits of using your fingers to play guitar

Playing with your fingers will intuitively make you play more melodic pieces as well.

These are some of the benefits of playing guitar with just your fingers:

1- You will be able to arrange multiple solo melodies at once

If you play with just your fingers, then it will be easier for you to make use of more complex bass patterns using your thumb, while you also fingerpick other strings with the rest of your fingers.

This is what I mean when I say “arrange multiple solo melodies.”

It’s when you play the guitar in such a way that it sounds as if more than one person is playing.

The way most people do this, just like I said earlier, is by utilizing their thumb to play bass patterns, and then the rest of their fingers to alternate between playing chords and other melodic lines and accompaniments.

Take a look at this YouTube video by Eiro Nareth, for example:

My heart will go on⎪Loud 12 String Guitar Version

He is playing ‘My heart will go on’ by Celine Dion, which is the Titanic theme song.

You will see that he not only uses his thumb and other fingers to play, but also uses the wrist to hit the strings in a more percussive way and add a more rhythmic dynamic to the song.

In multiple parts of the song, he plays more than one melody at the same time.

Chords, melodic lines, and bass notes are continuously being fingerpicked or strummed.

These are things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do if you had a pick, or at the very least, would be very difficult to achieve when playing with a pick.

2- Playing more difficult chordal fingerpicking patterns becomes easier

Each finger is near a different string whenever you play fingerpicking style, therefore you will need less effort to change the strings that are being played.

In other words, let’s say that you want to play a very simple fingerpicking pattern:

Open C Major guitar fingerpicking pattern

Source: GuitarLessons.com

As you can see from the example above, you will be alternating between your thumb and your index finger.

If you were to be using a pick, you would have to account for the time that it takes for you to return from one string to the other. By using just your fingers, you can just place them on the said string that they are supposed to hit and save yourself that small extra time.

Have in mind that this is just a very easy fingerpicking pattern that we chose to demonstrate this idea.

But just imagine how much benefit you would get from using fingerpicking instead of a pick when you are dealing with other advanced patterns that require faster picking and more complex combinations!

Now, something that you should note is that:

We are not saying that with a pick these things would be impossible. We are just making a point that it’s way easier when you just use your fingers since it helps you be faster and more precise.

Is it better to strum with or without a pick?

In my opinion, it is better to strum without a pick, but again, it obviously depends on what you are trying to play.

If you are trying to do simple strumming patterns, then using a pick would be acceptable, but if you are playing more difficult patterns such as the ones used with classical guitars, then using just your fingers is recommended.

A simple example to demonstrate this could be that, let’s say that you want to add two consecutive downward strums in one of your song’s strumming patterns.

If you are using a pick, once again, you would have to account for the time that it takes for you to return to the starting position, meaning that once you do the first strum, you would have to bring the pick back up so you can do the second strum.

On the other hand, if you are using your fingers, you can just use your thumb and index finger to do this in a much faster and cleaner way.

This is just one of the benefits of using your fingers in contrast to using a pick for strumming.

I would recommend you watch this YouTube video by Tomas Michaud:

Should I Strum With My Fingers Or A Pick? Basic Guitar Lessons For Beginners

He was over this question in greater detail and also explains some of the ways in which you can use both methods to increase your versatility as a guitar player and get the best out of both worlds.

Do professional guitarists use picks?

Most professional guitarists use picks, but it really depends on what style of music they play.

For example, if you go to YouTube and watch a bunch of videos of Slash playing guitar, then you will find that in 99% of those videos, he is using a pick. The other 1% is him not using a pick whenever he is doing a lot of fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar, or when needed on a certain part of a song.

On the other hand, if you go look for a lot of classical guitar players, then most likely all of them will be using just their fingers to play.

The bottom line is, professional guitarists have the ability to switch from using picks to not using them whenever they find it convenient. They are professionals for a reason, they are very good at playing the guitar!

Their music style always shapes their techniques and how they go about playing their instruments.

Just know that this question is a very hard one to answer since this is a very opinionated topic. There’s not such a rule that makes you a professional player depending on whether you use a pick or not.

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