Now, this is a great, but largely subjective question and the answer can often be influenced by your view of what the guitarists you follow generally do. You may like Mark Knopfler and J J Cale who are both renowned for using their fingers, whilst Eddie Van Halen and Eric Clapton predominantly use picks (or plectrums).
So, at first glance, when you are looking to learn easy guitar songs you would probably follow the method of your favorite guitarist or the guy/girl who made you want to start playing guitar, even if it's a friend of yours and not some famous Jimi Hendrix. Or, if you are an electric guitar player, I would say the general perception is that a pick is used. Having said that, you may start playing one way and decide to switch. To help you decide, let’s have a look at the facts and the pros and cons of each method:
- A note from Cooper: This post is a guest post by Andy Partridge from Guitar Coach Magazine – read Andy's full bio at the bottom of the post. Thanks Andy!
The Pick (or Plectrum)
First of all, you can make do without a pick. Learning to use a pick and gaining control of it can take some time. Consequently, you may not strike the string or strings in the way you want. It can also easily slip between your fingers and, of course, they are easily lost. My house eats plectrums – (this is definitely not the case with my fingers). However, a pick can provide many advantages and there are many types of varying gauges and hardness you can use to achieve the effect you want.
Also, when playing rhythm guitar, (when you are predominantly strumming the guitar) you will find it much easier to optimize the volume, particularly important if you are performing without an amp or jamming in a noisy environment. (Like drunks around a campfire…)
Another thing about the sound of the pick is that it produces a “sharper” sound than when playing with your fingers – and that can be either cool or not cool, depend on what you like and on what you're looking for in this specific song that you're playing.
Using a pick allows you to play fast riffs and solos, especially rock or metal, (think about shredding for example) and you will find most guitarists playing this genre will use a pick, not their fingers, to pluck the strings. There are also other common techniques more suited to using a pick, (that we won't delve into now, but you can easily google) such as:
- Down picking
- Alternate picking
- Sweep picking
- Economy picking.
Using a pick for these makes it easier to employ these techniques than with just fingers, and also allows you to obtain the sound and feel you would expect.
This also applies when you are strumming heavy power chords.
Having said that, playing with a pick introduces some challenges, especially for beginner to intermediate players.
You may be able to create the power, but some techniques will require much practice to ensure your fluidity and accuracy is spot on. Examples are:
- String skipping (playing strings in a sequence that are not adjacent is initially easier using your fingers)
- Creating shades of color and moods (picks can be difficult to control)
- Playing a nylon-strung guitar – these guitars are primarily used by “finger-pickers” and so do not come armed with a scratchplate pickguard, so you have to be careful not to damage the body of your guitar.
If you want to use the pick to play arpeggio picking (where you pick the notes one after the other instead of strumming the whole chord at once) then check out this video from the Guitar Songs Masters channel which will be very helpful:
OK – So what about FINGERPICKING – advantages? Disadvantages?
This is when you pluck the string with either your fingernails or the tip of your finger. Although playing with fingers is usually associated with classical guitar, there are still numerous players who also do this when using steel strung acoustic and electric guitars. It depends on the tone you want to achieve and how comfortable you are dispensing with a pick. So what are the advantages?
- It is easier to play two notes at once on strings that are not adjacent to each other. Think of the end of the solo to Just What I Needed by The Cars.
- You can employ complex bass patterns using your thumb, whilst your fingers strum or pick out the higher strings. Think Never Going Back Again by Fleetwood Mac.
- You can get both a rich and a soft tone.
- Using all four fingers consecutively (and quickly) can give you a very rich sound that you can't get with a pick.
- You can still develop some great rhythm patterns –Think Wilko Johnson.
- If you feel so inclined, you could develop a style of your own by using one finger or just your thumb, like Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.
- Produces an authentic sound when playing folk songs, if you watched the movie “Inside Llewin Davis” – the soundtrack of it is an excellent example.
The disadvantage I find about fingerpicking is that the sound is a lot softer, (which I don't always like) that it is pretty hard to do on acoustic steel strings and especially on electrics (does not feel really natural) and that for certain styles of playing (like the arpeggio playing that you can see in the Bob Dylan song intro of the YouTube video embedded in the previous paragraph) it can't really provide you with the agility and aggressiveness that you need.
As per playing with your fingers, there are different levels of complexity to finger-picking but, generally, you are able to produce a softer and warmer tone, that requires less (initial) skill as you are using your own body parts with no external objects. (pick) However, it is generally accepted that it is probably easier to become a competent pick player than when using the finger-style method, especially when you are looking to create different bass and melody lines with one hand. But once you get better with it, you will find you can create a much fuller sound, especially on an acoustic guitar, as your strumming hand will be doing so much more than with a plectrum (at an intermediate level anyway).
So then, what have we decided?
Well, there is no right or wrong and your chosen path will be influenced by the style of music you like most or that you want to play, or what you find easiest to play, or maybe what style you started off with, or what you think looks coolest! It is down to your own preference.
All we know is that – try around, and go for what you want and feel most comfortable with. If you get good on both, you can switch styles between different songs you play as well! You can then look to learn the style you did not start off with and then go on to hybrid picking which combines both – but that’s for another time. I hope this has been of some help. Enjoy!
Andy Partridge – Guest Post Author Bio
As a well-respected player, teacher and coach, Andy Partridge is the lead instructor for Guitar Coach Magazine. Andy’s gentle step by step approach and detailed note by note lessons will give you the confidence, reassurance, and motivation you need to really achieve your guitar playing goals sooner than you thought possible. His relaxed and engaging teaching style (complete with sometimes questionable jokes) make learning easier, faster, and so much more fun. Check him out at his website, YouTube or Facebook.