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I've recently started going through some acoustic blues lessons at jamplay.com. The instructor plays with a thumb pick. I had gone through the first 8 lessons using a standard pick but the latest lesson requires plucking the 3rd and 6th strings simultaneously for the turn-around. So, I bought a thumb pick and I really can't stand using it. It seems you can only pick down unless you put it on so tight that it cuts off circulation to your thumb. I also had alot of trouble adjusting to the height difference between my thumb and other figers and also maintaining a consistent volume between the strings. I've actually worked on keeping hold of a regular pick while I pluck the 6th string with my thumb.

My question is, will I be crippling myself by not learning to use the thumb pick? If so, does anyone have any tips on getting comfortable with it?

I forgot to mention that I was initially playing the latest lesson with no pick at all but my thumb became very sore.

P.S. Just to clarify for everyone, I'm still holding the pick between my thumb and pointer finger but twisting my pointer and pick out of the way a little and plucking the 6th string with my thumb, not the pick and the 3rd string with my middle finger. Almost like I would do it if I wasn't holding the pick at all. I'm able to switch to this and back to normal picking without any pause so it's working pretty well.

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In the movie "M for Mississippi", a street musician uses a spoon for a slide. I don't think there are any rules. –  cadmium Feb 20 '13 at 21:49

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The short answer is, no, blues doesn't require a thumb pick. The blues is a broad class of music, played on all kinds of instruments, in all kinds of ways.

The longer answer is, that it depends what sound you want. If you want the sound you get from a thumb pick, then a thumb pick is probably the best way of getting it!

I suggest you don't attempt upstrokes with the thumb pick. Play only downstrokes and that particular problem is solved. I don't think it's common for a thumb pick style blues riff to require fast patterns on the bass strings. After all, it's pretty much impossible to do an clean sounding upstroke with a naked thumb, too.

If you choose to use a plectrum, you either sacrifice the ability to pluck non-adjacent strings simultaneously, or you learn to sneak a finger in when you need it. My instinct would be to pluck the bass note with the plectrum while using a spare finger to find the higher string. You seem to have tried the other way round. Whatever works for you is fine.

If you choose to go without a pick altogether, you can pluck two or three strings at the same time, but you get a more mellow sound because you're using softer objects to pluck. Your thumb will get sore at first, but it will soon toughen up. Remember how sore your left hand fingers were when you first took up the guitar.

There is no "right" answer to this. Find your own preference.

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I do upstrokes with the thumbpick, momentarily using my index finger to do it. It's not the same thing a flat pick, but it's very alike a heavy one. –  elias Jun 25 '12 at 21:00

First off, you definitely don't need a thumb pick, or indeed any particular use of fingers or picks to play blues. Blues is about the feel, and can be accomplished with fingers, picks, slide, whatever. However learning different styles is very useful, so this lesson sounds worth trying to do correctly.

Second, your thumb will toughen up quickly - don't worry about that. You will also get used to the height with practice.

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I have never found those finger/thumb picks useful, they seem too far removed from my hand to be comfortable.

Use of them is purely a personal preference thing, not at all 'required'.

My first suggestion would be to grow your fingernails a bit and try picking with those, fingernails are used by all types of player, not just classical guitarists. They are the most natural way to pick if you are finger-picking, bare fingertips can be a bit clumsy but are also fine after some practice.

Fingernails will take some getting used to, a little maintenance and some bad habit breaking if your a biter :), but are well worth it.

I use a pick (plectrum) most of the time, but use my fingernails for hybrid picking and often for acoustic playing latin/blues/jazz, whatever.

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Surely you could say the same of a plectrum? You get used to it. Fingernails are great, but they sound different to a pick. –  slim Nov 16 '11 at 10:03
    
As you said there is no right answer to this question, as with many such things. This is just another option. I would still advise fingernails when hybrid picking also (thumbpick/plectrum and fingers). –  DRL Nov 16 '11 at 10:07

It is buried in Slim's answer, but for this specific question, it is pretty straightforward to use a standard pick to strike the top note and use your middle or ring finger to pluck the 2nd note simultaneously.

While using a standard pick, you have 3 fingers not really doing anything.

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I'm confused about this. If you're holding the pick between first and second fingers, isn't it easier to play the bass note with the pick and the higher note with a spare finger? Otherwise you have to tuck your spare finger under your pick "assembly". Or am I misunderstanding your use of "top note"? –  slim Nov 16 '11 at 17:25
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I hold my pick between my thumb and index finger. Everyone else I know who plays also does this, as well as every single guitarist with a pick I have ever seen in a video etc. As far as top note, I mean "top" as in "above" with respect to gravity. –  horatio Nov 16 '11 at 18:08
    
Fixed that for you. –  Dr Mayhem Nov 16 '11 at 18:16
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Reverted. I didn't mean bass note, because the actual note is not relevant. This can be done at the 23rd fret with the B and high e strings –  horatio Nov 16 '11 at 18:18
    
Sorry, yes, I meant thumb and first finger. But in music, my meaning of "top" is the opposite to yours. "high", "low", "top" and "bottom" when I'm on a guitar, are matters of pitch not gravity. On SE, I take care to use words like "bass" rather than "low", to avoid ambiguity. –  slim Nov 16 '11 at 23:27

John, the use of a finger pick won't necessarily cripple your ability to play Blues or any other fingerpicking style of music. But let's put this in perspective:

How Did Fingerpicks Come About? (Click Me)

The link in the above title gives reference to finger/thumb picks being used by banjo players in the 1800s. In turn, the banjo is associated with blues because of its historical association with REALLY early blues and african instruments starting to use steel strings.

The finger picks also had a particular way of being used, ie. exclusively upstroke or downstroke. Overtime, these different stylistic leanings would have lead to some musicians playing with and some without.

So the use of fingerpicks is more a question of preference based on how "authentic" you want your blues to sound, and/or of what particular era's of blues are you playing?

Playing with Fingerpicks

On a more practical note, I have it on good authority from several great fingerpicking friends that if you have sensitive thumbs, then they do help prevent you becoming sore.

But I agree with Dr Mayhem in that playing without them will surely develop toughness and strength over time.

If you learn to play with them and also without them, then at least you will learn the different nuances in using them and you can have a more personal choice as to what you prefer with the style of "blues" you are going for.

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