Been playing guitar for a few months now and for the last month I've started trying to use a pick since most people (including the best guitarists) do and while it's useful for alternate picking, pick scrapes, when palm muting, etc, when playing a tune that doesn't really "require" a pick to be played it's way easier and so I play a lot better by just using my thumb as a plectrum. Should I try harder to integrate a pick into my playing or should I just reserve it for when needed?
Let me answer another question:
« Is it ok to play everything with the thumb, except parts that absolutely need a plectrum? »
Now, we could start with the usual platitude that everything is “ok” in music. Yeah, you can play with the thumb if you're satisfied with that.
But I will say that playing with the thumb alone is extremely limiting. Anything you can play with the thumb can also be just as easily with other techniques, but many parts that can be played with pick or fingerstyle will be impossible or at least very awkward to play with the thumb. So, I would indeed recommend you get away from that habit and default to a different technique. The more time you spend playing with the thumb, the more time you spend not working on making other techniques more comfortable&natural for you, by not practising them.
What technique to practice instead, now there one can well have differing opinions. I personally was never much of a pick player, generally prefer fingerstyle (except for the techniques you mentioned, or simply open strumming on steelstring guitar). There's lots of stuff that can be played better with fingerstyle than with pick – but then it does make sense to actually learn proper fingerstyle technique. Or develop your own – wouldn't be the first. (Best known, Mark Knopfler.)
Indeed, maybe you'll find your very own thumb technique that works well and gives a really unique sound you like. If so, great – but I wouldn't count on it. If you practice the established techniques, that's definitely something you can rely on to work well.
There are two reasons to use this or that technique:
- It's easier.
- It adds an additional tool for expression.
You may be able to play to your satisfaction using only your thumb. That's good-- maybe you will be extra good at it and it can be your signature sound.
However, what's the advantage of NOT learning to use a pick (or pull-offs, or finger-tapping, or bowing or...)?
Only time. But a very interested musician isn't looking to avoid spending time learning techniques—they're much more likely to look for new techniques to extend their enjoyment of the instrument even longer each day.
I was a left-hand-only player like you for about a year. I knew a ton of chords and theory up and down the neck, I just still "sounded" like a beginner. Even with all the theory in the world, my right hand was sloppy, and the right hand is what actually sounds the notes you grip with your left hand.
On to your actual question, Do I need to use a pick?
No! Definitely not! Fingerstyle is a beautiful and intricate way to play. Picks have their place in many styles (I am a flatpicker now), but it's not necessary.
Next, Is it okay to only use my thumb?
If it works for you, sure. It will be limiting, and I bet it doesn't sound as crisp and clear as you want it to. The way I learned fingerstyle, the thumb is responsible for the 4,5,6th strings, and your fingers can work with the first 3. But hey - Wes Montgomery was a thumb-only player I think.
Am I handicapping my progress?
Not necessarily, but you are forming habits, conscious or not. Proper right hand technique is hard, and it's much harder when you also have to fight against old habits. It took me 1 year to learn my left hand, and at least 3 years for my right hand to catch up. Perhaps I would have progressed quicker if I took a couple weeks up front to drill the right hand fundamentals.
...it's way easier and so I play a lot better by just using my thumb as a plectrum...
Hey, same! Nice to meet you.
I've been playing rock and blues for a little over ten years (self taught). Never once seriously picked up a pick; it's basically all thumb. It looks like this.
Whether your chosen technique handicaps your playing is completely up to you!
Not in the sense that you can play anything with your thumb that you could with a pick. But you've figured that out already. It comes down to what you want to play. I've never had an inclination to play anything that requires a pick, so I never use one. Very few Allman, Clapton, Hendrix, etc. licks actually require it. Sure, maybe they sound a bit different when I play them, but they would anyway.
Bottom line from someone who's played with his thumb almost exclusively for as long as he's played is that there's no harm in it other than some blisters. But if you've been playing that way for months you've probably already figured out the callus situation.
If you like what you play and it feels easier/better to you to play it a certain way, go for it. If you want to expand your repertoire and need a new technique, go for it. Personally, the only thing I ever do "wrong" musically is not enjoy what I'm playing or learning. Does that limit what I can play? Absolutely! But I don't care. You get to decide for yourself whether you care or not.
Addendum for fun:
If you're strumming chords to a song, using a pick will be a good move. It may even save your thumb from getting worn down to the bone!
For just about any other sort of guitar playing, you, and you alone, will have to decide what's appropriate. And that may incorporate thumb, several fingers with/out thumb, pick alone, or hybrid picking, where both come into (or out to) play.
You're at a good point in the proceedings - not yet stuck in one particular way. Once that happens, usually naturally, it's hard to break out. Work on as many different ways you can discover. Some will be easy, some almost impossible - yet - but try them all out. Some are quite genre-specific, so if you feel like steering away from them, as you don't want to play like that, at least you're aware of what they are and what they do. Above all, experiment, and you might even end up finding a new way, that suits what you do perfectly!
TL;TR: Be careful not to pick bad habits
The simple fact you ask this question tells that you have no guidance (teacher, friend or whatever). I recommend you find one for the very start at least: it's quick to pick bad habits but long to loose them. Been there, done that, the bad habits I had from beginning 6 months alone took several years to correct completely.
You could be a musical genius and find your own technique that has no flaws right from the start, sure, but odds are that rather not. Big guys with their own technique usually start by learning one of the common techniques, and evolve from them. There are usually good reasons why things are done one way rather than another, knowing these reasons will guide you if you choose your own path.
So, for the start, I suggest you learn properly the existing technique that best fits to what you feel (seems to be fingers rather than pick from your question). Not necessarily the one that fits to the music you want to play I'd say, but rather what you feel like playing. If you have time, you can either learn new techniques, or make evolve the one you know.
Get someone else to look at how you're playing - what handicaps you is just bad technique
Could be a teacher, could just be a friend who's got a decent command of both pick and fingerstyle playing. You want someone who not only knows how to play themselves, but who knows what parts of the techniques available do what.
My partner is learning guitar right now. She's got books, so she doesn't particularly need me to show her chords. What she needs is an eye on technique. I've done a little tutoring in the past, but my partner seems to have a knack for using bizarre hand positions which are handicapping her right now and if left unchecked would give her even more problems going forwards. She started playing with her thumb initially, strumming with the side of it.
Now the first thing to say about picking with the flesh of your thumb like this is that you simply cannot get attack on the note. Jazz players do this intentionally to get a smoother sound, but it doesn't fit so well with most other styles. At the very least if you want to use your thumb for strumming then you need to look at classical (or flamenco) technique for how to incorporate the nail into the stroke; and for that you're generally looking at classical technique for good fingerstyle playing.
In my partner's case, a large part of this was to do with her right arm, wrist and hand position, and her posture generally. With her posture opened up, her right arm in a more natural position, and her wrist bent to align her fingers, she's taken to fingerstyle playing very easily, and her tone is pretty good.
For myself, I'm a long-time fingerstyle player. Generally I play solo, so I need the extra voicings that come with having four notes available independently. When I started playing electric though, I recognised that what was more important was speed and tone for a single note. It wasn't hard to start playing with a pick - I simply practised it like you'd practise anything else.
For you, if you're playing fingerstyle as well then fine. What concerns me is your description of using a thumb as a pick. It's very easy for that to not work well, and that's where I'd suggest getting someone else to look at what you're doing. What would be holding you back is not so much the fact that you find it easier to use your thumb, as what this suggests to me about the ways your posture, hand position and general playing technique might have things that need adjusting to get the best results.
Of course there are genres where this sound is a good thing. I've already mentioned jazz - Wes Montgomery was an early recorded example, and many other players like George Benson have copied him. Dominic Miller plays classical without using fingernails again to get a really smooth sound with no attack. It's not to say that you can't play like this, only that you should know when and why to do it.
What handicaps you, every time, is lack of knowledge. Mark Knopfler doesn't play fingerstyle because he can't use a pick, he plays fingerstyle because he reached a point where he found that for his particular style, the limitations of fingerstyle were less than the limitations of using a pick. He certainly can play with a pick, and play damn well. He knows enough to take the techniques available and choose what fits him best. At the moment you probably don't know what you don't know, so it's worth pushing your knowledge until you can make informed decisions.
Try using a thumbpick
If this is becoming a large part of your playing style, and your technique is generally sound, then I would strongly suggest trying a thumbpick instead of just using the flesh of your thumb. At that point you can genuinely change between fingerpicking and flatpicking on the fly.
My own fingerstyle playing makes heavy use of "frailing" downstrokes with my fingernail, and if I go electric then it's almost always playing with a pick, so I found it wasn't something which I really needed. I could see the value in it though, and I know a lot of folk and blues players who swear by them.
If you ever want to play Van Halen songs (or similar), learning to use a plectrum properly is probably compulsory. I have seen some very fast finger players in my life but none who could play a Dragonforce solo. That's not to say it can't be done. I would also suggest, anything like a David Gilmore solo also looses something when played finger style. However, you may have a completely different playing style in mind, which is good too. In short, if you wish to play widdly guitar solos, a plectrum will probably save you a lot of heartache. Just to add, I could never play 'Tumeni notes' until I learned to add a little bit of roll, a little bit of yaw but most importantly, a little bit of pitch to my plectrum grip, in relation to the strings.
I hope this helps.