Picking Options for the Guitar

Many wise players have said,

“Guitar is easy to learn, but hard to master!” 

This quote is especially true when we consider the right hand’s job in your playing. By using your fingers or a pick (also called a plectrum) you can create a wide variety of sounds and styles to suit any song you want to learn.

The most basic method for making sounds with your right hand is to use your bare fingertips on the strings, called fingerpicking. With your right hand fingers curved and thumb resting flat, place each finger and thumb tip on its own string. Each of your fingertips plucks the string up, while your thumb plucks down.

There is an endless variety of beats and patterns that you can use with fingerpicking. All five fingers can pluck at the same time to make chords.  Alternating the thumb and fingers will make a “chord with a baseline” sound. The more involved the rhythm of the song, the more intense the job of the right hand in making all those sounds. A “simple baseline on the beat” up to a complicated pattern of “all five fingers working independently” is possible.

The simplest strumming method for bare finger playing is strumming all six strings up and down with the fingertips, or the more comfortable option of using the fingernails of the right hand. By curling your right hand fingers, and resting the tips of your fingernails on the string surface, your hand is automatically in the most relaxed position for strumming.

Another fingerpicking style for the right hand uses metal and plastic picks, worn on the fingers. The pick strikes the string and makes a louder, crisper sound than the bare fingers of the right hand. Usually fingerpicks are used in acoustic music styles like country and bluegrass, but ultimately it’s the player’s individual choice whether or not to use fingerpicks in the right hand. Any picking pattern that can be done with fingerpicks can also be done without them, but the sound of the string strike will be different.

Flatpicking is the most popular style of guitar for the right hand, and crosses many styles of music. Flatpicking can be a simple as strumming a down-stroke on the beat, all the way up to an intricate, alternating “string-crossing” style using right hand muting. For beginners, the best way to start is to learn the straight down-stroke on the beat.

For any style of music you play, there’s a flatpick to match it. Let’s examine those picks in the picture a little more closely. As you can see, there are many different shapes, sizes and materials used to make flatpicks. This is because players have individual preferences for what feels good on their thumb. The larger picks are great for players with large or thick fingers. A larger pick is easier for beginners to use because it takes less effort in the right hand to hold a large pick. The three picks that have curves are designed for fast playing, like soloing or very busy string-crossing patterns. These each have a shape that curves around the thumb surface and a smaller, more pointed picking edge. Imagine as a beginner trying to hold the tiny, curved pick on the left in your hand. Yikes! Best to work up to that.

Pick differences also depend on the style of music. If a player is on an acoustic six or twelve-string guitar using medium or heavy-gauge strings, and does mostly simple strumming playing folk music, then the larger metal or plastic picks are a good choice. If the playing is very fast and intricate, like a speed-metal guitar solo on an electric guitar using light-gauge strings, then the smaller grooved graphite or nylon picks are a great choice because they allow the thumb to grip more easily and can move in and around strings with less effort from the right hand.

Here’s an easy way to get started with flatpicking to test your skills:

  1. Strum straight down on the beat for a few measures. When that feels comfortable and easy, keep the same beat and alternate strumming up and down.
  2. Starting on the sixth string, pick each string individually, using a down-stroke. Bring the pick back up by striking each string individually using an up stroke.  Be sure to make the pick pluck the string, rather than just stroking in a sweep across the strings.
  3. Starting on the sixth string, strike a “down-up” stroke on each string following this pattern: 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

These short exercises can also be changed to use fingerpicking or your bare fingers. Keep working with these to challenge yourself. The more you practice picking, and each of the picking styles, the faster your playing improves!

Phil Barrow

Phil Barrow

Phil discovered his passion for music in his early teens when he began learning to play the guitar. He attended the VCC School of Music where he studied jazz and contemporary guitar performance. Phil joined Resound as a guitar teacher in 2013 and has been the school’s Director since 2014.

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