Three good reasons to throw away the guitar pick

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Chloe Marshall has already given us a great overview of fingerpicking technique, as well as some advice on using a pick. Here I’ll be looking at some good reasons to practice with your fingers and ditch the guitar pick altogether.

Guitar Picks have obvious advantages – they help increase your playing speed, produce a clear, defined tone and increase your volume considerably, which is good for when you are strumming around a campfire with some mates. They can be worn around your neck, reminding your peers that you are a guitarist, and make for a good excuse to walk into any music shop, spend hours playing Gibsons through vintage tube amps, and get away with it by buying a plectrum or two… But then again, some of the world’s best guitarists play without a pick. Maybe they can convince you that you are best served without the piece of plastic?

1. That Thumb Tone: Wes Montgomery

Mr. Montgomery was one of the best, most influential guitarists ever – but unless you’re into Jazz, you may have never heard of him. With tremendous swing feel, superb chord-work and an ear for melody, arguably his most distinguishing characteristic was his tone. He achieved this through a simple technique: he played with his thumb.

Born in Indianapolis, he only started playing guitar in his late teens, working during the day and practicing at home late at night. Initially he used a pick, but was keeping his wife awake; he continued playing, this time using the fleshy part of his thumb to keep the noise low. After a while a callus formed on his thumb, and by this time young Wes had developed his signature sound.

This video demonstrates Wes’ mastery of the guitar, his large, double-jointed thumb, and how he anchors his hand onto the pickguard to give him more control. It also shows how variations of his thumb technique can produce quite distinct tonal characters. He has three main modes of playing:

  1. Chordal: with his thumb at a flatter angle to the strings, using a light, broad strumming pattern, Wes gets a delicate, soft tone. This is ideal for chord-work, where the guitar fuses with other instruments and adds colour and texture.
  2. Medolic: at 1:58, he turns his thumb inwards, pointing it towards the strings for more precise tones. The callus on his finger gives his warm sound the presence, focus and clarity for “lead” playing.
  3. Octaves: subtle but so powerful, Wes plays his signature octaves at 2:45. Here he plays the melody using his index finger, doubling the notes with the pinky and muting all unwanted strings with the underside of his fingers. The resulting sound combines two notes with the sound of his thumb whispering over the muted strings, which adds some butter to the tone.

Wes Montgomery’s tone is round, full-bodied and warm, perfect for his smooth modal melodies. It is a hard technique to master, especially for faster passages and for the octaves. Even Wes makes a mistake at 5:34, which he charmingly laughs off. To play like Wes, it helps to have heavy-gauge, flat-wound strings.

2. Claw-hammer Rhythm: Mark Knopfler

Of Dire Straits fame, Mark Knopfler need little introduction. He is the author of countless iconic solos, and has an instantly recognizable tone. He is left-handed but plays standard, right-handed guitar, and he is well-known for playing with his fingers, not a pick.

When Mark began playing guitar in 1960s Northumberland he couldn’t afford the equipment to join a loud rock band. Instead he played in folk-bands, where he learnt to play “claw-hammer” style: thumb plays the accompaniment on the lower strings while the index and middle fingers fill in the gaps on the upper strings; ring-finger and pinky anchor the hand onto the body. Essentially, claw-hammer style is a rhythm thing, helping to keep a chunky consistency for a solid rhythm foundation.

Mark developed this technique further by switching the position of his fingers: now the thumb was up there playing the high notes, and the middle/index fingers on the lower strings. Once he had built up his speed and control, this fingerpicking technique shaped some of classic rock’s most memorable solos, such as Sultans of Swing. If they are well-trained, three fingers are better than one pick!

A good example for this technique is the iconic riff of Money for Nothing, which seems easy to play, but is actually devilishly difficult to get right. You can see the shape of the hand, with the index/middle finger “claw-hammer” shape alternating with the thumb, stabilized by the ring-finger anchor. It allows Mark to have a confident control over each string’s articulation, emphasizing some and blocking others out whilst simultaneously keeping the stomping drive going. It gives it a distinct rhythm and tone which really make the riff come alive.

3. Electric Guitar Wizardry: Jeff Beck

So Jeff Beck is not just a guitar legend who has jammed with the greatest and influenced over five decades of rock music; he also plays in a unique and fluid manner, using all fingers to shape his playing to the maximum of a guitar’s abilities.

He started out in 1960s London, soon joining the Yardbirds, the band which saw three guitar legends (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page). In his early days his style was more blues-based, and he used a pick. But as his musical direction evolved, he ditched his pick in the 1980s, grabbing influences from jazz, electronica, “world” music and elsewhere to really explore the guitar’s capabilities as a sound-producing instrument. His fingerpicking technique is an important element of his sonic freedom.

Similar to Wes Montgomery, Jeff plays mostly with his thumb. Unlike Wes, Jeff Beck has a “normal” shaped thumb, and slightly longer fingernails to give him a sharper tone. To play fast passages he may play with both thumb and index finger, or even hold his fingers as though he were holding a pick, using his index fingernail as a plectrum. The video I have chosen is a little corny but it illustrates some of his other techniques quite well.

  1. Expression: Jeff starts with a trick called “violining”, where he raises the note’s volume immediately after plucking it, allowing each note to gently flourish in a delicate crescendo. He does this by manipulating the volume knob with the ring-finger.
  2. Pitch-bending: throughout most of this passage, he holds the whammy bar in his middle and index finger and adds an almost singing fluidity to his playing.
  3. Articulation: Jeff changes the timbre and sound of his playing very subtly throughout the video. Sometimes playing harmonics that soar above the rest, more assertive melodic lines with his nails, or more gnarly tones by “throwing” his fingers at the strings.

Of course, what makes his technique so special is when he does all these things at the same time, creating a very expressive style of playing that gives the guitar a new voice (and with remarkably few effects).

Guitar Picks are great and I love using their assertiveness. But, as these three guitarists demonstrate, there is so much to gain by practicing with your fingers, in terms of tone, flexibility and musical expression. So leave your picks in their case and get those fingers moving!