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 abandon 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 do 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 a “5 alarm” fingerstyle guitar.
I knew there was something “right” – which is why I am trying to develop it.
Since I know about neuroplasticity, 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 to 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 a “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.
RELATED: 10 Tips for Healthy Guitar Practicing
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jon dcosta says
Very helpful Adam I’m changing from electric guitar (band) to acoustic solo playing and have spent 30 plus years developing my plectrum technique. i’m in a tricky spot! I started playing all my solo acoustic stuff with pick only but this is only going to get me so far. So i then switched to hybrid pick and fingers which is a style i developed 30 years ago so it was easy but still didn’t give me what i wanted to hear. So now I’m thumb and fingers only and boy I feel connected! But I’ve lost the attack and volume I had. Now this means I always revert back to pick within the first 5 days. NOW I’m going to persist with thumb and fingers and work through and build my tone and volume.
Thanks to you Adam.
Oh yes and I tried the thumb-pick which only lasted one session. I’d like to nail that Chet, Merle, TE style without using a thumb-pick, so if you get a chance perhaps you could post a video.
Thanks for your insight and great contributions.
Jon I am with you. My advice I have a few cliches.
1. “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” – there may be some things you do that work well.
2. “when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Remember it’s a tool (however you pick) and it should solva a problem, achieve a sound. Different songs may requitre different tools.
3. Take a gentle approach like “hey let me try ity with my fingers and discover what works” rather than “that’s it, I am changing everything no matter what!!!”
The faster Chet & Merles stuff may not be possible without the right tools. When you do try the thumbpick again, really give it time.
Personally for no thumbpick I am learning new ways for hand position, new ways to distriburte weight, paying attention to tone, playing closer to the bridge, and I am also willing to scrap it if it does not work.
STay open to unexpected discoveries!!!!
Thanks for posting.
Daniel Harmon says
I’m with you Adam. There is definitely something about the natural and balanced tone of not using a thumb pick…
I’ve been playing with a thumb pick for years, and a couple years ago I learned Tommy Emmanuel’s arrangement of “Close to You” by the Carpenters. As was my nature, I played it with a thumb pick, but after I got the tune down and played it cleanly I thought “Hmm… No, no, no….” The thumb pick just didn’t work. I played the song without until it felt natural, and really liked where I was able to go with it.
Some things I really like about the thumb pick, and there are reasons why I don’t think I could ever fully give it up:
1. Harmonics: particularly if doing the running harmonics like in many of Tommy Emmanuel’s arrangements. Even with a cranked amp, you just can’t quite get the clarity and efficiency without a pick.
2. Solos & Runs: In the midst of an arrangement, I really like being able to grab hold of my thumb pick as if it were a flat pick and do solos and runs that are actually picked. There is something about that versatility in the midst of an arrangement that I’m definitely drawn to.
All that being said, I definitely agree with you that there is no right answer. It’s all about your individual playing style and what works best. Thanks for your great thoughts. I love your arrangements, and I hope this new part of your journey as a player will inspire some great new arrangements!
Dan – I miss the harmonics, and the runs and sometimes “the edge.” You could do harmonics & take the TP off – I am trying that for Autumn Leaves.
However – from a sound point of view, I have had more “beef” and a better balance in the bass. If the groove is on, that’s what people hear.
I am not at all saying do this or that – I still may go back…
Just uploaded SHE LOVES YOU today…let me know if the bass / mid / top balance sounds ok to you.
The new upload of She Loves You sounds perfect with thumbpick and fingernails. The song is classic Rock n Roll, with expertly played hollow-body electric guitars. There’s just no room for mellow in that song. You need the sharp attack of nails or pick. In the 60s, I had an album of \(I think it was) 101 strings do the Beatles. It was awful! Just because lush orchestral violins can’t get the attack of rock & roll. The worst of elevator music. But my mom loved it because it was Beatles without challenging her musical tastes.
At about the same time, I also got Chet Atkins first album of Beatles songs There was a photo of Chet wearing one of those dreadful Beatle wigs that were made in a rush as soon as they exploded onto the scene. It was on his Gretsch hollow-body electric, and he definitely used picks or nails. His equipment was set up for Rock n Roll (Chet was an amazing recording engineer too). It was sublime. even back then. The notes were as crisp as John’s bark (from singing Twist & Shout) and George’s Rickenbacker (with picks, as I recall). And, well, it was Chet, my hero even then.
David, if you are talking about this vid, I am bare thumb! 🙂
David Carrett says
Sounds great , thank you for sharing. I have also started to discover, after listening to a lot of later year, Leo Kottke performances, that where I pick such as directly over the sound hole rather than nearer the bridge gives a lot of punch, especially with no thumb pick. Thanks again. Great stuff. Dave
Thanks for the ideas Dave. It’s a lifelong journey (the right hand 🙂 )
Thank you Adam for simply being and re-minding that Being…simply…and inspired…is an art unto itself. Your perspectives are refreshing, encouraging and liberating. May you always be inspired! 🙂
Michael – thanks. Actually I am regrouping after a busy season and looking to get re-inspired!
sometimes it is like you are reading my thoughts…Coming from a blues Rock/shred metal background, 3 years ago (when I was 36 years old) I switched to fingerstyle, when i saw a video of scotty anderson I felt connected to the music again…after 20 years of practicing my picking, arpeggios and “improvisational” skills. Finally I could just play a piece for non musicians, without showing of with technical skills (they where not impressed any way). But I did not want to loose my chops either, I worked for so long for. Practicing fingerpicking for fast single note lines, lead to a problem. Using fingernails anabled me to play clear and when needed fast, but the whole feel for the fingers of the right hand changed regularly when they where growing or when I shortened them for even a mm. About 2 weeks ago I cut them down completely and it was a struggle to play with equal volume and fluently (the string got burried in the flesh). In the last few days it feels very natural and controlled. I always know where my fingertips are, before I was regularly “guessing” where my nails were…..I wont go back again. Yesterday I was thinking to give the Thumbpick a break too. Your blog has so many topics that are o real interest for us guitar players. keep up the good work.
That’s exactly the problem I have. I keep trying thumb picks for short periods,but I’m aware I’m not really giving it a good go, I just never admitted it to myself. At
least not until I read your post.
Another couple of tips I have tried is to file down the thumb pick so that your thumb is closer to the strings. The other tip is my own discovery, I find them too tight on my thumb. So as I had a few thumb picks I slotted them all together putting one inside the other, then another on top. The one on top opens up slightly over time and feels less like it’s going to cut off the blood supply when you wear it.
Nige – there are different sizes – and you can also put medical tape on the inside to help it from sliping around…
No need for tape on your Thumpick. Just get a Saddle Thumbpick. It’s Engineered to fit everyone. The size is fully adjustable and customizable. It NEVER pinches, because that’s what everyone else does to keep it on your thumb by brute force. The Saddle Pick Engineer knows that the secret to fitting a finger is the angel of the sides. That’s how thimbles fit perfectly, stay on all day, and you don’t even know it’s there because it fits perfectly. I can wear my Saddle Thumb Pick the same way. It never comes off, no matter how hard I play, and yet I can barely feel it on my thumb. O regularly find myself at my computer keyboard, typing with my Thumbpick, because I forgot I had it on. (btw, it’s pretty good for typing too. You only use your thumb for the space bar, and it’s a more positive strike with the tip of the pick, than with the side of your thumb, but I digress).
I can’t understand why anybody uses those Dunlop instruments of torture (I suspect the Marquis de Sade had a hand in those things) Saddle picks are also made of the correct kind of plastic for both tone and human hands.
STOP KJLLING YOURSELVES PEOPLE, just because some know-nothing in a music store tells you “That’s what you use, Dude” No, THAT’s why Engineers are in the world.
They’re available on-line from saddlethumbpicks.com for $10 plus postage and import fees for your country. Price is lower for more, and you only pay the shipping once (USPS shipping and duty is $10 to Canada grrrrrrrrrrrr). So buy a bunch, give them to your friends. You’ll be their hero, and never have a purple thumb again.
Thanks for teaching us to fish rather than giving us a few fish, Adam. I chose all-flesh because I don’t like growing my nails and it suits the folk and country blues styles I’m learning. Coming from a pickstyle background it was hard to get used to the more bassy tone at first (I don’t use any amplification) but I enjoy it now and videos of all-flesh guys like Laurence Juber and Woody Mann have been an inspiration. I’d love to see a video of you playing “I Wish” with no thumbpick.
p.s. I’ve learned to do rasgueados and rhumba flamenco strums with all flesh and while they’re not authentic flamenco by any stretch, they sound good enough as fun additions to rhythm guitar playing.
Bel, thank you – and by the way Woody was my first teacher when I was 6 years old! AR
Ahhh…the eternal conflict. I have settled predominately on ALL flesh, but alas…I have decided to keep the thumbpick in the toolbox (just as decided to keep the flatpick after transition to FS). Every once in a while it finds an application for which it is perfectly suited.
Shades of gray is the way.
Thanks for insight Adam!
I agree, and yes. This is a very personal thing – I sometimes use a TP but rarely.
Once again, thank you for sharing your great experience and your helpfull knowledge.
After playing electric guitar for 30 years in different rock groups, I came back to acoustic guitar one year ago when I fell in love with a Taylor 414 CE. And my big problem was : What am i going to use for playing on that guitar ? So I try plectrums, thumbpicks, fingerpicks, fingernails. As I often break my nails, I even try artificial nails but they need to be changed every month. So, I was still wonderin’ and you give me the answer. It’s clear. It’s obvious. And I’m not going to change my mind for a long time. I will use plectrum for some songs like Hole Hearted (Extreme), Simplicity (your beautiful song) or Led Zeppelin acoustic songs for exemple and thumb flesh and finger flesh for all the others (picking, jazzy, bossa). And basta !!!
Thanks again for your great advices.
And sorry for my poor english as I am a poor french player…
Matthew Bush says
Hey Adam –
My style of playing and my choice of tools have also evolved over the years, and recently I’ve experimented once again using a thumbpick. My musical journey started when I was given a 5-string banjo for my birthday (junior high, I believe). As a result, I played with a metal thumbpick and metal fingerpicks on only I and M.
My next instrument was a beater acoustic guitar that I primarily used as a strumming instrument with a plectrum. When playing fingerstyle, I still used the metal picks and only P, I and M. As I became more interested in playing fingerstyle guitar and I began to appreciate classical music (college years), I purchased a classical guitar, grew out my fingernails, ditched the picks and forced myself to use the A finger, remove my pinky from the Soundboard and follow the traditional classical guitar approach. This took me much longer than expected, since I’ve had been playing a certain way (not the wrong way, but different school) for years and now had to forget my previous technique and retrain muscle memory.
Over the last 5+ years, I’ve bounced around between playing my classical guitar and playing fingerstyle on my acoustic steel string, and always use fingernails instead of picks or flesh. I’ve tried multiple manufacturers thumbpicks in different thicknesses and styles, I’ve shaped thumbpicks, applied heat to the picks in an attempt to mold it better. In my opinion, thumbpicks are unnatural and I couldn’t seem to get my thumb in sync, especially due to the different thumb striking angles. I spent at least a few weeks to over a month trying to get comfortable using a thumbpick but was never able to get to the point where I would even think about ditching the thumbnail for a thumbpick. The thumbpick that was the most comfortable and versatile for me was the type where a narrow piece of the pick is extended lower than the rest of the pick. I can’t recall the name, but almost looks like the middle finger.
For me personally, I will always use fingernails to play either nylon or steel string guitar. I alter the shape and length of my nails from time to time, but at this point, I don’t see myself trying to take another plunge into the thumbpick arena.
Keep the music and blogs coming. Enjoy both of them.
Matt if it is working, STAY with it. In the end it’s YOU & the guitar that we hear – I loved playing with nails on a nylon actually!
Simon Boyle says
I really appreciate the blog on playing the guitar without nails. It is encouraging to see a successful guitarist overcome this problem. I have not been gifted with great nails and have suffered from discouragement over the years. I am a much better finger style guitarist but struggle with the quality of sound. Do you recommend any specific amplification or effects to achieve a ‘great tone’.
Simon, I don’t know if I have overcome it but I am just going with it. Best advice – get the right hand a little closer to the bridge so you get a “point” on the sound. I am finaly starting to be a little bit pleased with my sound (but it will take the rest of my life)>
Check out the new vid SHE LOVES YOU – listen to the top end / high strings:
Walt Holokai says
I use a thumb pick whenever I think I need it. Most songs I play without. When I see Gabriella Quevedo and Sungha Jung it seems they always have one on. Tommy plays with one most of the time. I guess it’s just a personal preference. I find myself thinking in the “should” frame of mind from time to time. I was happy to see you address this issue. I really appreciate that you share your thoughts on this and so many other fingerstyle specific topics. Your blog brings us together and is an important forum/support group.. It feels like home.
Nice article. Interesting that you and I have come to the same conclusion on this. Could it be our classical and jazz background?
I definitely think that due to jazz I / we hear a different sound in the bass than a counytry picker would…
Great topic, Adam!
I’ve been using thumbpicks for the 45 years I’ve been playing, though not exclusively. When I first started playing I even used metal finger picks! Now, them suckers take some getting used to! These days, I use a thumbpick when I’m playing a hard driving tune and I want to get more volume with the bass. Quiet, more delicate tunes don’t need that and I play without a pick. I used to rely on my fingernails (thumbnail, too) but as I’ve aged, my nails have become brittle and I was constantly filing down the nicks. So, I’ve trimmed my nails down to nothing and have developed some nice callouses on my picking fingertips. I even started using a flat pick when I began learning some Tommy Emmanuel tunes and now that feels more natural as well. As others have said, it’s just a matter of taste and what you get used to.
I totally agree. 30 years of playing acoustic guitar and as I’m from Australia I got exposed to Tommy Emmanuel very young. I knew I should use a thumb pick for years but i liked the sound I had but I did some recording and the boom chick i thought I was getting was more like bom bom. So I tried a thumbpick for a day maybe 2, and I bought every type i could find. Then they all went in the bin and I continued on. A year or two later i did the same thing…. this pattern continued until I googled something like “trouble with thumbpick ” this was about 5 years ago. I found some information i was not aware of. Everyone has the same issue with the thumb pick and Adam is spot on. I found you immediately loose all your feel and everything you play sucks. But you only have to keep sucking for a few days and one day you’re sitting on the couch playing a tune , for me it was a mellow tune , I recognized something, I was using the thumb pick as if it were my thumb. Without thinking about it i could control everything again. 2 weeks of not playing in front of anyone and i was done. Then my world opened up to Chet and Merle etc.
I bought a new SRS808 last weekend. Just wanted to say wow the tone and the sound of this guitar is beautiful. I have 2 others Matons and their great sounding guitars. But the SRS808 is on a completely different level. I’ve played this thing 18 hours a day for a week I’d say. I’ve bonded with it in a big way. To celebrate the new guitar I learned ‘Australia’ Andrea Valeri. Its the most fun song to play i’ve ever learned. check it out if you dont know it..
Thanks – gotta chech that guitar out! Happy NY Brett!
I used a thumbpick for a couple of years when I first started playing and I fell into it pretty well. After those two years I pretty much laid the guitar down for 30 years. Now that I’m back at it I’m playing with no picks, fingers only and I feel a better connection with the guitar. For Doc Watson stuff I will probably revert back to the thumbpick.
Marlin – wise comment. Depending on the music, you need the right tool. I could never play cannonball Rag with no TP! Groove on, thanks for commenting! AR
Stephen Cseri says
This is not a question in regard to the above post but I hope that Adam can answer it. I am curious to know how a fingerstyle guitarist gets copyright protection for his or her arrangement of a song composed by someone else. I know that the composer who holds the original copyright must be contacted and must give permission. How does that whole process take place?
Stephen, no idea. When I published the Stevie arrangements I had to give “ownership” to the publisher as if I had done a work for hire. Very tricky depending on who the publisher is! AR
Doug Working says
I took some classical lessons some years back. My teacher DESPISED my t.p. and insisted I learn to play with my thumbnail. Problem is, due to a physical defect, I can not grow my right thumb nail out.
So I’m back to my Chet style t.p., and happy as a clam.
I sometimes wonder though, since I am working on a plethora of classical arrangements, if I ever did a classical recital, if the entire classical guitar world would turn their nose up at me! One thing in this world I can’t stand is a snob, and I wonder if the world of pure classical guitarists is like that teacher I mentioned.
Anybody here have any thoughts on how the world of classical guitarists; the “Segoviaites”, views any player who doesn’t play with their thumbnail? Would I be booed off stage before I even started?
By the way, I once heard a story of Chet going to a Segovia concert. He wet back stage to see Segovia after the concert and asked to see his nails. In response, Segovia rudely FLICKED his fingers at Chet!
In fact, this man once described Chet’s playing as “QUAINT”.
Mr Guitar? Quaint? Um. Andre, I don’t think so.
Xianwen Chen says
Hello Adam. Thanks a lot for the article.
I’m also a big fan of Emmanuel. I just began to study his fingerstyle, and found your article on-line because I was wondering the same thing.
I think I would like to continue to stick to all flesh for now, and give time for calluses to grow.
Lindsey Montana says
Hi Adam, nice post.
I like your options 1-4, but there are more. I currently use a hybrid technique, holding a flat pick. It seems I’m wasting a finger, so I look at using a thumb pick. Then I see folks rolling up their index finger out of the way, which to me can’t be right. I had more control with that finger and thumb holding the pick than I do using just a thumb pick which tends to slide on the back stroke. The index finger seems to be the key to any advantage of using a thumb pick, yet some people are not using it at all. Makes me wonder.
George Sandberg says
Great playing on a great tune! How do you get that clicksound on beats two and four?
Not using a thumpick forces your hand into a position that strains it more which may cause wrist problems (look at classical players right hand). I like the sound of the bass strings with my thumbnail but its not worth the potential problem so I use a thumbpick. But I have found its necessary to have the right one for your style. If you play blues those big heavy ones will get your sound. If you play American Fingerstyle then the lightest pick possible get the sound. For me thats Fred Kelly Speedpick, it works just like it sounds. Its also a good choice for getting used to a pick even if you play blues. The larger picks are harder to coordinate so harder to learn to use. If your Adam Rafferty you can do anything you darn well want to. Which Ive found means nothing to the hobby player like myself.
John thank you – sorry for the late reply. There are so many ways to play it, and it really depends on the sound one wants. Currently I try to practice all the different ways so that the colors are (hopefully) at my disposal 🙂 All the best – AR
JIM Etherington says
Many thanks for your highly valid thoughts on “pick vs. no picks “, and to all other contributors. There is, perhaps, one more dimension to add to the mix .
After 40 years of playing in pubs, bars, restaurants, and , naturally at home, I have found that all of the above depends upon WHERE you are playing.
What sounds to you brilliant without picks when playing at home (with no audience), just doesn’t cut it when playing in a noisy bar when you simply have to arrest their attention if you don’t want end up as wallpaper/cruise ship/cabaret material.
So many times I go out and think, “I’ll try without picks tonight as it sounds so good in the house “, and that determination evaporates when I get to the venue and have to face beer – fuelled conversation, doors banging and glasses clinking etc.
Even turning up the amp. isn’t the solution under these circumstances unless one is playing in a concert type situation, where people have paid money to come and see you and they want value for every penny they’ve paid !
Your solution, Adam, still stands; do what suits YOU for each situation you find yourself in.
Enjoy your sounds at home, and use whatever technique is available to you to survive and thrive and get your message across outside !
Jim – spoken like a true pro, thank you!
Based on what you’ve said – I will add…there are recordings, concerts and bar gigs. 3 different environments…when I used to play a lot of bar gigs I did have to play with a brighter sound, and when I heard that same sound in the studio I almost puked 🙂
(Back in my jazz days….haven’t done fingerstyle in pubs that much…)
And now, concerts where I play through a PA are a little more like recordings due to the guitar being “big and clear” rather than coming from an amp. Of course they also differ since it’s all pickup on concerts and recordings it’s a better sounding guitar, mic’d.
Yes yes yes – the rule is, play for the situation you are in, not the one you are wishing for or imagining!
Thanks for the comment!
Although I’ve admired your work on youtube, I actually landed here via a frustrated Google for “How to use a thumb pick”.
Thanks to everyone here for taking the time to share their experience, and thanks, Adam, for posting & hosting.
The whole thread is gold, and serves as a valuable insight into what I thought was a problem peculiar to me and/or my oafish technique.
I feel better already, knowing that others are suffering! 🙂 (j/k)
I’d considered that speed, accuracy & attack may be afflicted, but I’d convinced myself that apart from anything else, pro-players must use a TP so they didn’t wear flesh away to the bone.
I also had in the back of my mind something that I’m sure I’d seenTommy Emmanuel say, about the effect using a TP had had on his playing.
It still feels like I’m struggling with upstrokes using my thumb, though.
Incidentally, I naturally use the fleshy edge of my thumb, but find a little bit of fingernail is comfortable & allows me more accuracy & a bit more cut, if I want it. I’d have to say that I found myself to be a flesh/flesh player by nature.
I haven’t tried growing my thumbnail out, and don’t particularly want to if I can avoid it, but my chubby thumb feels clumsy and still gets sore if I play a lot of FS.
I haven’t tried many thumb picks because all of my local shops sell are the same Dunlop ones. I find that however I position them on my thumb, the few that I’ve tried (large) are extremely uncomfortable, they stick out too much and make playing feel so unnatural to the point that I worry I’m going to injure my hand if I continue with it.
I’m loathe to buy a load of different ones to try because I think they’re expensive just to throw away. I’m not sure whether to write off using a TP altogether, persevere with the Dunlop ones & try modifying one, or take a deep breath and risk wasting £30+ on different styles/weights of TP’s.
AR here. I never reply this quick, but this topic is the bane of my existence…so if this info can help great.
For 2 years now I have played with no thumpick live, and yesterday (gulp) I think I decided to go back to using one.
My best advice is go light light LIGHT with the thumpick. The # 1 problem is over playing, using too much force.
PROS of Flesh Only:
less artificial feeling
CONS of Flesh Only
Lack of front end attack
The right hand balance uses more muscle all around, as the thumb actually works harder,
thereby turning your hand into a claw
In a living room, the fat bass sounds clear. In a concert hall, it’s an eq nightmare
Pros of TP:
RIght hand can actually relax more, since the thumb is working less (if you lighten up)
Better front end attack
Speed, but you pretty much need to palm mute
Cons of TP
Not a great sound for a fat walking bassline
NOt great for ballads
In short – there are other moving parts to this equation….the tune, the groove, the guitar and the room in which you are playing.
I went back and listened to some vids of me playing live, and all around it sounded “livelier” with a TP, even though when I play I always think the bare thumb sounds better during playing.
Currently I am striving to get my pieces so I can play them with or without, and be flexible – not an easy task.
Good luck, and be open to not knowing what the solution will be 🙂
I think the only way I’d have received a faster response would have been via a phone call! Thank you so much, Adam.
Now it will be less about luck and very much about experimentation. I’ll have a snoop around on the Web for some extra light/extra large TP’s, and put my hand in my pocket… I won’t be giving up on it now, anyway.
You’re a gentleman. 🙂
Thanks so much for this – love your posts. I am currently working through your Jackson 5 DVD and find that I need to use a thumb pick in order to get the click (snare) sound throughout “I Want You Back” – can’t find a good fingers-only substitute that allows me to hit a bass note and get a click at the same time. First time I’ve used a thumb pick and it’s been a process- hoping the neuroplasticity kicks in soon!
Paul Zeis says
Thanks. My problem is what guitar to use. I have a Takamine CP-132SC (cutaway) with nylon strings. I love it!Great sound. I play mostly chord solos. I use my thumb with a long thumbnail. Works good, but I would like a little more versatility. The neck of the CP is great, but it is 2 inches at the nut and only has 12 frets to the body and 18-19 total. I have short fingers. I tried the Takamine TC-135SC, 1 7/8 inches at the neck and 14 frets to the body, but the neck felt too clubby and I didn’t like the sound unplugged. Great electric sound.. I like the nylon strings, but could be talked out of them if necessary. Looking at Goden nylon string. Any suggestions?
Adam….thanks so much for your time and input! I have a question kind of related to today’s conversation. I started playing 6 years ago and always had the practice mindset to practice what will make me a better guitar player. I started fingerpicking about 2 to 3 years ago and definitely like it over using a pick. My question is should I devote all my practice to fingerpicking? If I do I probably won’t be able to play with my round circle of bluegrass players because of obvious reasons. Just wanted your take on this. Thanks!!!
Adam Rafferty says
What you practice has a lot to do with what situations you will be in – not only “what you love.”
For example – I don’t practice so much electric guitar – but when a friend calls and asks if I’d like to play with him on a gig, then I have a reason. Without the social situaition, electric guitar is not so much fun at home 🙂
So I say, do both. Work on your fingerpicking, and also jam in some bluegrass circles with a pick. Do what you can, and stay open to all the possibilities.
I think you should do what is comfortable for you, some folk use thumb picks and finger picks and some don’t. I personally go with Tommy Emanuel and go with picks or at least a thumb pick. I have played the guitar fir 40 years and never realised what I was missing out on by not using picks until I played the banjo Earl Scrubs style. It’s bloody hard at first but after about 3 months because I’m not going to tell you it’s easy because it’s not ,and I’m still struggling but it also opened up the guitar fir me as well. Mark Knoffler uses a thumb pick and I think one finger, and some really famous banjo players do as well. I think that it also gives you more of an inroad to playing melody as well as just chords on the guitar. With the banjo I had no choice so it forced me into fingerpicking and it’s so nice on ballads as well. Anyway I guess it’s up to the indevidual whether they do or do not use a pick but I’m not going to argue with one of the most influential and best players in the world, Tommy Emanuell. You have to get the base notes down first and work on the rest of it. They say that if you learn another instrument it will help the other and for me that worked and opened up so many avenues.
I hope this helps,
Harry Harris says
I have played fingerpick style for over 40 years using thumb and fingers with no picks. But when you record something like a dreadnaught guitar I generally have found that the bass side with the thumb will sound a bit boomy or thuddy vs the upper strings. It partly has to do with how mics behave on the low end spectrum of the guitar, especially on the low E string. I have since switched to using a thumb pick (Zookie type) to help balance the difference. The Zookie thumbpick has three different angle of attack pick options to choose from which I believe can make a difference vs a straight style thumbpick. However it takes a bit of practice to get used to the thumb pick but once you start getting it down not only does it reduce the boom/thud factor it gives you another pallet of sounds that can be had by using a pick. For finger picking electrics like a strat or tele it really is very useful as you can use the thumb pick in certain passages or instances as you would a regular finger pick. But again you will need to practice a fair amount to get the sounds and balance you want without issues like striking a string(s) to hard with the thumb pick or getting the angle of attack wrong for what is wanted etc. All in all I do not think I will go back to just using the thumb (flesh) technique much again. As with anything your MMV.
Paul J. Pulati says
Good, fair discussion, Adam, as usual. I tried a thumb pick several times. It was always uncomfortable, so I finally just accepted it wasn’t for me. After many years fingerpicking, I am also trying to learn to ‘play lead’ [improvise….], so I’m learning to play melodically with a pick. I do find it much easier to play with my fingers, so I mostly do that, although I will keep learning to use the pick for more than just strumming. In my senior years, now my biggest problem is just not being able to do things as well as I used to; that’s no fun. I love fingerpicking and I always think it’s best to find one’s own voice, but also keep learning……. 😎