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I've been playing guitar for almost a year and a half now and I still don't know how to use a pick. I strum very hard and I'm afraid that my guitar strings would break from the pick. Would this be detrimental to my playing in any way? Wouldn't I advance in learning guitar if I didn't know how to use one?

To get you in perspective on my playing skill, I could play "If" by Bread (by plucking), "Norwegian Wood" and "Here Comes The Sun" by The Beatles, and the intro of "Stairway To Heaven" and "Dust In The Wind"(the reason I only play the intro in the former I'm still unfamiliar with the song and the latter I lost the tabs).

Am I learning too slowly? Would knowing how to use a pick affect my playing skills?

Can a guitarist even make do without using a pick?

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"I'm afraid that my guitar strings would break from the pick." Seriously? –  Rein Henrichs Oct 27 '11 at 3:10
    
Um, yeah, it's acoustic, and I strum too hard, people tell me. –  J Roq Oct 27 '11 at 5:54
    
See how hard Jack Black is strumming his guitar... The strings seems to survive, at least for the show ! There is no risk with a thin pick –  Julien N Oct 27 '11 at 10:55
    
Mark Knopfler, Lindsey Buckingham, Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke, Mississippi John Hurt, etc. etc. Fingerpickers all, no pick needed. Go watch some of their YouTube videos, you'll see how unnecessary a pick can be. –  Alex Basson Oct 27 '11 at 23:16
    
Just for completeness, Chet Atkins used a thumb pick and had amazingly long nails. Just amazing how he played. If you want to watch Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler play together, check this out on YouTube: youtube.com/watch?v=5wTVLIZaxMk&feature=related. You can see in the closeups how they attack the strings. They use a lot of finesse, and the more you listen to them the more subtleties you'll pull out of their music. –  Steve Ross Oct 28 '11 at 2:42
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6 Answers 6

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Yes, you can make do without a pick if that is your preference.

Use or non-use of a pick (or plectrum) tends to vary by musical style. Flat picks are not used in classical guitar playing (to my knowledge), nor are they used in fingerstyle playing, for example (although fingerstyle guitar players may use a thumb pick).

It is true that picks are commonly used in playing rock and jazz, but there are exceptions. Mark Knopfler is an example of a rock guitar player who does not use a pick, and Wes Montgomery is an example of a jazz guitar player who did not use a pick.

As to your progress, that's difficult to judge based solely on your post. I would recommend playing for a more-experienced friend and see what he or she thinks. Or go to a guitar teacher (although he or she may suggest you try a pick!)

You probably should at least try a flat pick and see what you think if it, especially if you intend to play rock. Try starting with a thin pick if you're worried about breaking the strings, and have a teacher or friend show you how to use it. There's no need to be overly-concerned about breaking the strings unless you're using a really heavy pick and whacking the strings way harder than necessary.

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There are a few techniques that require the use of a pick (especially ones with "pick" in the name, such as "sweep-picking"!)...

Also, there are obviously techniques that don't require the use of a pick, such as fingerstyle and slapping/popping(/whatever it is that Victor Wooten's brother does!).

I have found it useful to play with and without a pick. Early on as a guitarist, I would worry about dropping picks. But since I became proficient at playing without one, I almost never drop picks!

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It's a little more difficult, but you can do sweep-picking without a pick by using the back of your index nail (i') for a down-stroke and the back of your thumb nail (p') for an up-stroke. YMMV. –  luser droog Oct 27 '11 at 7:10
    
Thanks, @luser. I forgot to mention the benefits of "chicken pickin" - where you hold the pick between thumb and index finger, then use the other three fingers to pluck strings as necessary/desired. –  The Chaz 2.0 Oct 27 '11 at 13:25
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Here are two reasons you might want to use a plectrum.

  1. Your goal is to make the kinds of sound that a plectrum makes
  2. You want to broaden your insight into music, by which I mean you don't want to perform with a plectrum, but you want to incorporate what you learn from practising with one into your finger-picking repertoire.

For strumming, the main effect of a pick is that it sounds different from the same chord strummed with fingers. Whether you like that sound, is entirely up to you.

For plucking individual strings, the sound is still different, but there's more to think about.

Fast melodic figures that are very difficult with fingers, become fairly straightforward once you've got the hang of bidirectional picking with a plectrum (try the rhythm pattern from Howlin' Wolf's The Killing Floor)

Techniques such as palm-muting seem to me to be a lot easier to achieve when you're picking with a plectrum -- something about the position of your hand when holding a plectrum.

Of course there are a tremendous number of finger-picking techniques you can't achieve with a plectrum.

Many guitarists play exclusively with a pick, and are asking the opposite question to yours - "is it worth learning to finger-pick". The answer in both cases, is that it's up to you how broad or narrow you want your guitar expertise to be.

If you play so violently that you're worried about breaking strings, you should probably learn to play more gently. I doubt it sounds all that good if you're pounding the strings with all your might.

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Whether you use a pick or not really just comes down to personal goals, preferences and tastes. If you want to learn rock, jazz or other genres that mainly use electric guitar, then you would probably want to learn to use a pick. If you want to learn classical or fingerstyle, then you can just use your fingers or a thumbpick. I don't think it would be detrimental to your playing or ability to improve if you do not use a pick. Having said that, some techniques are definitely easier to with a pick (sweep-picking, speed-picking). However there are no hard and fast rules. Paco De Lucia and Lawson Rollins are examples of guitarist that manage to achieve ridiculous speeds without using their fingers. Jeff Beck is a rock guitarist who decided to stop using a pick. Then we have Tommy Emmanuel and Andy McKee, both guitarists that started learning with a pick, then transitioned to fingerstyle and became amazing at it. Both of them still use a pick in some of their songs. I personally played guitar for about two years before learning to use a pick. And some guitarists (usually classical) such as John Williams, never use a pick, and he's amazing at playing the guitar.

If you were to ask me, I'd say learn to use a pick. I found that learning to use a pick allows me to play a wider variety of styles and technique. If I were you, I wouldn't worry about breaking strings. I can use a 2mm pick with no problems, and Tommy Emmanuel uses even thicker picks (even when strumming!) If you're still worried about breaking strings, you can always use a thinner pick. After some practice, you should be able to gain control of your strumming. Of course, the choice is really up to you.

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You might try going halfway and investigate hybrid picking. You hold the pick between just the thumb and index finger and pluck with the middle and ring fingers. It works for travis-picking like Blackbird, and adds emphasis to the bass in Stairway.

When the song changes gear, you've already got the pick ready.

There are other pragmatic reasons why you should at least learn how to use a pick, even if you don't adopt it as your personal style.

  • It's what the music director wants.

  • It's the way the record goes.

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Watch bluegrassers. Watch Lester Flatt. Watch Pete Townshend. Watch Michael Hedges. Watch any flamenco players. If you are near the record for trying to hit the strings hard, without protecting your fingers, you have iron fingers and feel no pain.

Many of my favorite players, electric and acoustic, play with their fingers and no pick. Tommy Emmanuel. Michael Hedges. Jeff Beck. All the other names mentioned. I palm the pick and play with fingers for slower songs sometimes. Good skills to have.

But when you pick with a pick, you pick up clarity and volume, and while there can be a lot to it, such as alternate picking, downpicking, pick angle and a host of other stuff, but at the first, when it's just strumming, picking is just easy. But it's called dynamics. If you wanna go "Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball....", going between the F and the Fsus4 means you have to strum hard and fast, but if you want to play "Baba O'Riley", there's the big chords, but they have to pop out when you want them, which means you have to pull back the strong right arm a little bit.

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One of the main reasons I bought a guitar is because of "Pinball Wizard"! I never knew Pete Townshend didn't use a pick. Thanks for that information and your answer, ^^ –  J Roq Oct 28 '11 at 6:21
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I was responding to this: "I strum very hard and I'm afraid that my guitar strings would break from the pick." Playing hard might occasionally break strings if you're Godzilla or play with a metal pick, but breaking strings comes more from string age, metal fatigue and problems with the instrument. Never meant to imply Pete doesn't play with a pick, just that the worry is not well founded. –  VarLogRant Oct 28 '11 at 15:13
    
Thanks dude! I'll keep that in mind while strumming. ^^ –  J Roq Nov 2 '11 at 7:05
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