Tony Robbins says the more you tell yourself you “should do something” you end up “should-ing all over yourself!”
So – you’re not going to get a “you should” or “you shouldn’t” with this article.
I’m just going to help you think it through.
The Question I Get 3-4 Times A Week
3-4 times a week I get an email like “Adam, can I play your arrangements without using a thumb pick? I just can’t seem to get used to it – it feels so unnatural!”
I am writing because there’s a “tone” of obligation in this – and that’s the wrong way to think.
My suggestion is “independent investigation of the truth” – YOUR truth.
Here are a few ideas to help you decide.
1. Consider Your Brain and “Neuroplasticity”
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.
Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. (from https://www.medicinenet.com)
Does this apply to guitar technique? Your bet!
As a kid, I knew intuitively that it would take about a week for a new technique to “not feel strange.”
If you try the thumb pick for 5 minutes and abondon it, and go back & forth, you’ll never get the “brain to change” and it will always feel weird.
To effectively have any change take place, just commit to the new thing, at least for a week, better yet 4 weeks. “Weird” will become “comfortable” as if by magic.
2. Similar Sounds Between Thumb & Fingers Make Technique Feel Easier
If we think of the thumb and fingers as 2 opposing forces, we have 4 combos of flesh & nails (or picks) we could choose from.
- THUMB = pick or thumbnail, FINGERS = picks or fingernails: Sounds will Match. Strong attack, good definition.
- THUMB = flesh, FINGERS flesh. Sounds will Match: Quieter and warmer but you can turn your amp up to 11! Harder to play fast stuff with the fingers.
- THUMB = pick or thumbnail, FINGERS = flesh: Sounds don’t naturally match, thumb pick may feel too loud in relation to the soft fingers.
- THUMB = flesh, FINGERS = picks or fingernails: Sounds don’t naturally match, I have never seen anyone to this.
Classical, Flamenco and many fingerstyle players tend to do #1.
If you need “bass” – with #1 you may need to pump it on the amp / eq / pa system.
For the last 8 years I have done #3, because I have modeled my technique after Tommy Emmanuel. This one is tricky though. Many people do it just fine, it works best on guitars with low action.
I just switched to #2 (all flesh) because it feels better (I will go into detail below.)
3. What Kind Of Music are You Playing?
This will be your MAIN consideration.
If you are playing Merle Travis, Chet Atkins type “boom-chick” you need to damp strings with the right hand at the bridge to get that “woofy” muted sound, and you’ll need a thumb pick or thumbnail to put an attack on those notes so they cut through.
If you are playing other kinds of music, you may not need a thumb pick..
Imagine you have a band. What would you like your bass player to sound like? Would you want her to use a pick?
4. Here’s what I am doing today (…and it will always change and evolve!)
I stopped using a thumb pick for 99% of my songs.
I could never get the “depth of groove” I wanted. One day as I was practicing a Stevie Wonder tune, “I WISH”, I tried it with no thumb pick. WOW! It felt good and the “pocket” rhythmically was very comfortable.
The “color” of the bass line sounded like a real bass player – much more than with the pick. You hear more “real” bass created from a finger, which means less artificial bass from eq’ing is needed.
However, it was bumpy, quieter and not the “in the face” sound we expect from “5 alarm” fingerstyle guitar.
I knew there was something “right” – which is why I am trying to develop it.
Since I know about neuroplasiticity, I am giving it a chance even though it’s currently not perfect. It will probably take me a year to feel ok with it, and that’s just fine!
5. Your Next Steps
Decide first from the view of what MUSIC are you playing. Don’t do what I do just because “Adam does it.”
Think about YOUR music and the sound you need. A thumb pick is a tool, like a screwdriver. You would not use it for every job in the house.
For example – flamenco with no fingernails is probably impossible.
You need match the “tools” with the “sound” you’d like to achieve. Think “music & sound” not “technique.”
Next, make a decision and stick with your choice for a while to let your brain & body build new connections. Ride out the weird uncomfortable period of feeling like “you can’t play” with this new approach.
Don’t go back & forth – this will get you nowhere. (I’ve done this, t s such a waste of time!)
6. 50 Shades of Grey
Be open to an “shade of grey” solution, which will reveal itself as opposed to black & white thinking.
- Black = “Always thumb pick”
- White = “Never thumb pick”
- Grey = “Maybe there are some tunes that will work best with one or without one. It’s ok that I don’t have an answer yet. Let me allow the answer to reveal itself.”
Enjoy the independent investigation of YOUR truth! Just explore YOUR playing and enjoy the journey.
What are your thoughts on this? What do you do? Please comment below!