Guitar Style Basics: Fingerpicking Versus Plectrum

One of the best things about the guitar is the amazing amount of variety one can coax out of the instrument. From jazz to metal, country to rock, the guitar is one of the single most versatile instruments in music. Yes, there are plenty of genres guitarists have to choose from but when it comes to playing all of this music, there are essentially two styles – fingerpicking and plectrum style.

First off, a plectrum is just another name for a guitar pick which is usually made from a small flat piece of plastic that you use to strum the strings of a guitar. While most guitarists tend to favor this style of play, there are also a number of other players who forgo the pick altogether and instead use their fingers to pluck the strings, although a good number use a bit of both. With that said, there are advantages and disadvantages to both styles.


It’s all in the Fingers

Fingerpicking is more of a general term for paying with solely your fingers as there are a number of different playing styles that fall under this term, such as Flamenco or the popular “Travis” picking style. Players that prefer this style generally do so because it makes their choice of music far easier to play. With fingerpicking, you normally assign one finger to one sting and your hand can, for the most part, stay in one position as long as you keep your fingers assigned to the right string. With a fast paced genre like Flamenco for example, fingerpicking allows the guitarist to play a lot faster without having to worry about a pick striking the wrong string by mistake.

There are actually a great number of famous guitarists who use the fingerpicking style. Rock legend Jeff Beck for one – who carved his early legacy via the traditional plectrum style – decided to adopt fingerpicking in the ‘80s, essentially giving up the regular use of a guitar pick in order to boost the popularity of the finger style guitar playing. Another famous finger picker is Merle Travis, the man behind the aforementioned Travis picking style which is to this day a very popular form of playing the guitar. The basics to this style involve playing the bass notes with your thumb while using your four other fingers to hit the lower treble notes. This creates a rich and complex layered sound that a single pick just can’t recreate.

While hard rock is the realm of the pick, most classical guitarists pretty much always use the fingerpicking style to play their axes. This is one reasons why, along with the distinct tone they create, classical guitars are outfitted with nylon strings – they are much easier on the fingers than steel strings. They also tend to have the strings spread farther apart along with much higher action for this same reason. You can most definitely use the fingerpicking style on a steel strings guitar, and many do, but you might find that the strings will begin to cut into your fingers and chip away at your nails. This makes fingerpicking on a steel string guitar very uncomfortable after a while which is one of the cons to this style.

Another con is that you’re going to have to keep your fingernails long enough to get a consistent and clear sound, otherwise the notes will sound a bit flat and dead. Depending on your job or even simple preference, you might not be able to grow your fingernails long enough for fingerpicking, not to mention keeping them at the right length can become a tiring chore, especially if they tend to keep breaking.

It should also be said that there are some players who don’t feel the need to multitask by trying to use all five fingers to play the strings and choose to focus on alternate picking with their pick instead. There are also some players who just can’t seem to get their right hand fingers to move individually and work the way they need them to for fingerpicking, making using the plectrum style a much more viable option.


Pick it Good

When it comes to modern popular music as it relates to guitar styles, the plectrum style of playing is easily the more common of the two. But just like with fingerpicking, there are a number of styles within the term, of which alternate picking is probably the most popular used. The most obvious benefit of using a pick is that it creates a loud a clear sound when it hits the strings, a lot clearer than plucking the strings with your fingers.

A lot of guitarists that use this style tend prefer it because it requires much less concentration and once they get the rhythm down of alternate picking, they are able to lose themselves in the moment and not have to worry about what each individual finger on the right hand is doing. Some players are also able to play a lot faster while using a guitar pick. Another benefit of the plectrum style is that you are able to get slightly different tones depending on the material the guitar pick is made from which can further give your music a unique sound. For example, thicker picks will yield a heavier, deeper sound while lighter picks give a brighter sounding tone.

One of the more common complaints about the plectrum style is that using a guitar pick can feel a bit awkward between your fingers, especially if you are just starting out how to play. This is especially true for classical or fingerpicking guitarists who are not accustomed to the plectrum style and find using a guitar pick a bit awkward or an unnecessary burden because they have become accustomed to playing with their fingers alone. Others simply can’t seem to get the motion of alternate picking. But of all of the complaints that come with this style, none are as common as losing your guitar pick – so make sure to have a few backups always on hand!


Which one is right for you?

As far as which style is best for you essentially comes down to your personal preference. It might depend on the style of music you’d like to play or even which of the two you best can grasp, such as the ambidextrous nature of fingerpicking or the alternate picking of the plectrum style. But it should also be said that there are a number of guitarist who can dabble in a bit of both so don’t limit yourself if you can!

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