Thumbpicks and Fingerpicks: What Are Your Options?
By Jon Chappell |
Strap-On Tools for Your Fingers Increase Picking Power
By Jon Chappell
As a multi-style guitarist, I face an immediate dilemma whenever I pick up the guitar: pick or fingers? That is, do I play rhythm and lead gripping my trusty heavy-gauge plastic triangle between my right-hand thumb and forefinger? Or do I approach the strings with my unadorned right-hand fingers to play classical, Travis picking, and arpeggio stuff? To guitarists who play both with fingers and a pick, it seems like having two jobs. You have to keep two totally different techniques constantly up to snuff. But having fingerstyle chops as well as flatpicking ones is the best way to stay employed, enjoy and experience the most guitar-based music possible, and open up musical avenues for your own creativity.
If you decide to cultivate your fingerstyle technique, you should be aware that there’s yet a “third job” to contend with, especially if you’re considering taking up certain fretted instruments as a double (a great way to increase your employability), such as banjo, pedal steel, or Dobro, or to explore additional tonal colors: playing with fingerpicks. Following are some tips on why you should know how to use these metal and plastic bits of “finger jewelry” and how to approach them for minimum frustration. Because before I became proficient with fingerpicks, it was like putting on boxing gloves and trying to pick up a needle. Fortunately, that feeling quickly passes.
Many non-fingerstyle players use just their fingers (such as Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, Freddie King) and manage to do fine in the rock guitar world. Playing with just your fingers for electric guitar styles is fine, but if that’s the only way you play, you should consider donning a thumbpick. That’s the first step in learning to play with something on your fingers other than your wedding ring. A thumbpick is a white, black, or clear plastic band that surrounds your picking-hand thumb over the nail. (Metal ones exist, but they're not as commonly used as the plastic ones.) A point sticks out at a 90-degree angle from the underside of the thumb (the palm side), and that’s what strikes the strings. Though you can’t use a thumbpick to alternate-pick lead lines the way a flatpicker could do, you can still get a few notes in a row pretty fast and use slurs (hammers, pulls, slides, taps) to get the rest of the notes in a passage. The thumbpick gives electric players a way to really dig in to the strings for lead and rhythm.
If you already play with a flatpick, you don’t have to relearn your electric guitar technique with a thumbpick. Instead, focus your thumbpick efforts toward conventional fingerstyle playing, like you find in folk songs and acoustic music. There are many advantages to this approach.
The reason so many fingerstyle players use thumbpicks is that if you look at the way the thumb strikes the strings, it’s more of a glancing blow, rather than a full-on, perpendicular attitude — the way the fingers hit the strings. A thumbpick creates a sharp, precise point of contact between thumb and string, and that point is at the end of a long lever. That’s why fingerstyle players from Chet Atkins to Merle Travis to Tommy Emmanuel use thumbpicks. It gives them increased authority, speed, and volume.
Fingerpicks for Dummies
Slipping on the metal fingerpicks is where the wheels come off the wagon for most players. For one, they’re not even sure how they should be worn. The fingerpicks slip on so that they scoop up from the underside of the finger, as shown in the photos below.
Once you can play comfortably with picks, you find they have certain advantages for guitar playing. The most obvious one is volume. You can play a lot louder with picks on than with them off. Or consider the flip side to that: you can play at the same volume without nearly as much right-hand effort. This is not only less tiring, especially over time, but you keep your fingernails intact longer this way. In fact, many players turn to fingerpicks in the first place for “nail preservation” alone. The less-effort factor could also come in handy if you injure your hand. (I speak from experience here: I once jammed my thumb in a softball game, and using it to pluck a guitar string was painful. But wearing a thumbpick allowed me to get acceptable volume with a minimum of effort while my hand healed.)
Think of it this way: picks are like any hand tool — a hammer, a wrench, a crow-bar. They allow you to get greater leverage than you could get with your naked hand (or finger, as the case may be). But consider that there’s a tonal difference as well. A metal fingerpick dragged across a string produces a brassier, more metallic effect. This can be desirable, for example, in capturing a grittier blues sound. The one thing you have to watch for is the metal fingerpick across a wound string (the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings). This sometimes creates a “skritchy,” grating effect that can be distracting (especially in a recording environment). With a little practice, though, you can minimize the effect of the metal edge of the fingerpick catching on the windings of the string.
The best way to get acclimated to fingerpicks is to put them on and use them a little bit each day, practicing pieces, patterns, and licks you already play with your fingers. Do this until you can keep time, get a good, non-scraping tone, and avoid “getting snagged” in the string windings. Before long, you’ll be playing as well with fingerpicks as without, and you then you’ll have accomplished two things: a mastery of tools that now allow you to play the banjo, pedal steel or Dobro; and additional tonal colors to bring to your existing acoustic guitar playing.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and Associate Editor at Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).