Should new guitarists use a pick or just their fingers?
There’s a 100% definite answer to this, but the question keeps coming up, year after year.
The simple answer is: A beginner should start by using a pick. Let’s get into some of the reasons why, and maybe some discussion of not using one:
1: Using a pick is easier.
I say this over and over on this site, but the number one factor in whether someone becomes a good guitar player or not: How hard they find it at the start.
If a kid (or teen, or adult) starts playing guitar, and has some success right away, and feels good about it, they’re going to stick at it. On the other hand, almost every single person who has told me “Oh I tried guitar as a kid, but I gave up” has explained that it was too hard, they couldn’t make anything happen, and they just gave up.
There seem to be people, and I will never ever ever ever understand this, that think that because fingerstyle guitar is more advanced and technical than using a pick, then new players should start with it right away to.. get used to it or something? To me, this is the craziest thing ever. It’s like saying that new drivers should start on a racetrack in a souped-up hot rod.
2: Starting with a pick doesn’t stop you from learning fingerstyle later
If anything, starting with a pick will help you if you decide to switch to playing with your fingers later.
You’ll already understand the way you should be using your right hand, and you’ll just need to translate that to using your fingers instead of a pick. You won’t be sitting there going “Oh wait, how hard should I be plucking this string?” and having to deal with a bunch of different variables.
3: Beginners who start without a pick usually aren’t using their fingers correctly for fingerstyle guitar anyway
If you look around the web for info on this, so many people say “Well it depends…” and they seem to assume that if a brand new guitar player isn’t playing with a pick, then they’re going to be learning correct fingerstyle technique. Nothing could be further from the truth!
What actually happens when a new player just uses their fingers, is that they just strum with their right hand, and they use the side of their thumb as a pick, or sometimes their index finger/nail. This is not giving them any benefit at all over using a pick, and it’s actually harder to create a good, consistent sound this way. Some people think that using a pick is hard, but they haven’t read point 4 of this article, which you’re about to see:
4. Using a pick isn’t hard!
New players often feel that using a pick is tough because when you first try one, you usually make uneven sounds. First, you hit the strings way too hard, then too soft, and you just don’t know how to regulate it.
This can be discouraging, but the learning curve is not bad at all, and if you keep at it, you’ll get better very quickly. When it comes to levels of difficulty in musical techniques, using a pick is way down the list, on the easy side. Try getting a good sound out of a violin or a tuba or something, and then you’ll appreciate how simple using a pick really is.
So why might you want to start without a pick?
There are a few, very limited (in my opinion), reasons you might not want to use a pick to start:
Maybe you just love fingerstyle guitar
If you’re a massive fan of music that specifically uses fingerstyle picking, then okay, maybe you don’t need to start with a pick. Watching someone like Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel or Kaki King can be insanely inspirational and motivating, so if you’re in love with something like that, it’s fine if you just go for it right away.
I still think that if becoming an incredible fingerstyle guitar player is your goal, you’re not really going to hurt yourself by starting with a pick, but in this case, eschewing one is fine.
Maybe you’re learning classic guitar
This is sort of the same as the previous point. I guess the main difference is that a lot of beginners who are learning classic guitar aren’t doing it because they love the style, but rather because their parents just enrolled them in music lessons that stick to classical guitar.
The important thing is, people who fall into these two categories are really not the ones asking whether they should use a pick or not. They either have a strong opinion already, or the decision has been made for them. That’s why I still feel comfortable answering the question with a resounding “PICK!”
So what sort of pick should a beginner use?
Guitar picks come in different shapes and different thicknesses. At first glance, it can be a bit daunting, but it’s not actually as tough as it seems at first.
Shape-wise, you want to get the standard guitar pick shape. You can get smaller ones (often called “jazz” size), and you can get odd asymmetrical shapes, but until you’re advanced and have special, specific needs, you should just stick with the regular size and shape.
Thickness is more important. In general, thinner picks are going to be easier for new guitarists, since they’re a bit more forgiving if you hit the strings too hard. In my experience though, you don’t want to go too thin or stick with thin for a super-long time, because they don’t produce quite as strong a sound, and aren’t quite as satisfying to play as thicker ones.
What I tell everyone is this: Picks are cheap – you can buy 3 or 4 for a dollar. Go and get a whole bunch, in different thicknesses, and try them out. Figure out which one seems the best for you to start, and then move up as you get more comfortable. You can buy combo packs on Amazon that makes this easy too.
You might wonder what brand of pick is best, and I actually do have a specific recommendation here: Dunlop Tortex are my top choice (and these are the ones linked in the last paragraph). The Tortex picks have a powdery texture to them, and it makes them much easier to hold than other picks with the basic plastic texture. There are also picks with ridges in them, and those are a lot easier to hold too, so keep an eye out for those.
Tortex have been around for decades, and are extremely popular, but if you don’t have any, don’t sweat it – the best pick is just the pick you have with you.
Conclusion: Pick, pick, pick!
One of my huge pet peeves is looking up something online and finding the old “it depends” answer, especially when there is a clear answer. I think every beginner who is actually asking the question “Should I use a guitar pick or not?” should definitely just start with a pick. However, this is an opinion, so if you have any good counter-arguments, or thoughts about this, please do let me know in the comments, I’m always happy to hear from readers and players.