If you’re a beginner guitarist, there are so many questions that will crop up. All the bits of equipment to get used to, how to read tabs, how to play chords, it all takes some learning. One thing we often struggle with is whether to use a pick vs using fingers. “Picks” or “Plectrums” as they’re often known are just an accessory, some guitarists use them and some don’t – it is a matter of personal preference.
As with any tool in a guitarist’s arsenal, you don’t have to use it all the time. Many guitarists use a pick sometimes and the rest of the time use their fingers to pluck and strum the strings.
So what’s the difference?
The main difference is the ‘attack’ of the sound. A plectrum has a definite ‘sound’ to it. When you strum or play one string with a pick you can hear a sort of clicky, fast attack. You can almost hear the plastic hit the string as much as the tone it creates. For some types of music, this is a positive, for others it may not be. There is a lot of personal preference at play in this debate. If you play an electric guitar, a pick may well be your best friend. Picks allow you to quickly move up and down the frets and play chord changes quickly. This is great for power chords and electric guitarists. Finding a guitar pick that suits you is also vital to the process and can help with your playing. Our guide to the best picks covers things like thickness which it is important to understand.
Those who will naturally find themselves playing with their fingers are likely to be playing guitar in certain ways. If you are playing arpeggios and skipping strings it is virtually impossible to quickly do this playing with a plectrum, especially if you are new to it. Fingerpicking is a great way to play intricate melodies using a lot of strings on your guitar, and classical guitarists and acoustic guitarists often find themselves doing so.
These are not rules that are set in stone, and the reality is most settle somewhere in between. Different songs require different combinations of guitar and equipment, and there’s no reason plectrums should be any different.
Many people also settle on hybrid picking, a technique that is designed to try and get the best of both worlds. Wikipedia covers it in some depth, but the basic principle is using two fingers to hold a pick, leaving three free for intricate fingerpicking should you need it.
If you’re playing an arpeggiated melody on a classical guitar, you may well want to go for the fingerpicking option, if you’re playing quick power chords on electric, go for a pick. There are no set rules, though, and the beauty of guitar is that you can use it however you see fit. Just ask Jimi Hendrix.