Should I use a thumb pick for fingerstyle?

Using a thumb pick | learn guitar | learn fingerpicking | travis picking

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What is a thumb pick?

A thumb pick is a pick specially designed to fit over the thumb that is often used by fingerstyle guitarists to help get a more even and more loud bass effect.

Probably the question I get asked the most is “should I wear a thumb pick” and there is no right or wrong answer. However, there are a few things you should consider as you weigh up whether to wear a thumb pick or not.

Should I use a thumb pick?

The decision to wear a thumb pick for playing the guitar ultimately depends on personal preference and the style of music you want to play. A thumb pick can offer some advantages, such as providing a louder and brighter tone and allowing for faster picking. However, some guitarists find them uncomfortable or difficult to use.

Ultimately there are a few things to consider:

Style of music – if you are playing a real “boom chick” type of fingerstyle where you really need that extra pop (a little country style perhaps) then the thumb pick can help to achieve this sound.

Techniques – there are some techniques like banjo rolls that do lend themselves to using a thumb pick. You’ll know if other leading players in this genre or using this technique are using a thumb pick, then it’s a good moment to pause and think about whether it’s worth a try!

Preference – it’s worth trying to use the thumbpick and to then decide if you like the feel of using it (the experience of using it) and if you like the sound (how the notes sound and the different attack you get from a plectrum pick rather than thumb hit).

Which techniques may make you use a thumb pick?

There are no fingerstyle techniques that can only be played with a thumb pick, but there are certain techniques that are commonly used with a thumb pick and may be more difficult or impossible to play without one. Here are a few examples:

1.     Travis picking – Travis picking is a fingerstyle technique that involves alternating bass notes with a melody played on the higher strings. It is named after Merle Travis, who popularized the technique. Travis picking often involves using a thumb pick to achieve a consistent and powerful bass line.

2.     Banjo rolls – Banjo rolls are a common fingerstyle technique that involve playing a repeating pattern of notes across the strings. They are named after the rolls used in banjo playing. Banjo rolls often require the use of a thumb pick to achieve the rapid-fire picking necessary for the technique.

3.     Hybrid picking – Hybrid picking is a technique that involves using a pick and fingers together to play a combination of picked and plucked notes. Hybrid picking can be played without a thumb pick, but using a thumb pick can make it easier to achieve a consistent tone and improve speed and accuracy.

4.     Flamenco rasgueado – Rasgueado is a flamenco technique that involves strumming or raking the strings rapidly with the fingers. While this technique can be played without a thumb pick, using one can provide additional control and power.

Which fingerstyle guitarists use a thumb pick?

Here are a few notable fingerstyle guitarists who use a thumb pick:

1.     Chet Atkins – Atkins was a legendary country guitar player who popularized the thumb-picking style. He often used a thumb pick to achieve his signature sound.

2.     Merle Travis – Travis was another influential country guitarist known for his fingerpicking style. He often used a thumb pick and his unique picking style, now known as “Travis picking,” has been widely emulated.

3.     Tommy Emmanuel – Emmanuel is an Australian guitarist who is renowned for his virtuosic fingerstyle playing.

4.     Lindsey Buckingham – Buckingham is the lead guitarist for the band Fleetwood Mac. Known for his intricate fingerpicking style, he often uses a thumb pick to achieve his sound.

5.     Doyle Dykes – Dykes is an American guitarist who has played with a wide range of artists, including Chet Atkins. He is known for his fingerstyle playing, often with a country twang and incorporates banjo rolls, harmonics and a variety of other techniques.

Which fingerstyle guitarists do not use a thumb pick?

There are many fingerstyle guitarists who use their thumb instead of a thumbpick:

1.     Mississippi John Hurt – Hurt was an influential country blues guitarist known for his fingerpicking style. He often used his bare thumb to achieve a gentle and mellow tone.

2.     Reverend Gary Davis – Davis was another influential blues guitarist who often played with just his fingers, using his thumb to achieve a deep and rhythmic sound.

3.     John Fahey – Fahey was a guitarist and composer who played in a variety of styles, including folk, blues, and avant-garde. He often used his thumb to achieve a precise and melodic sound.

4.     Leo Kottke – Kottke is a virtuoso guitarist known for his complex fingerpicking style. He usually uses his thumb to achieve a powerful and percussive sound.

5.     Michael Hedges – Hedges was an innovative guitarist who developed his own unique fingerstyle technique. He often used his thumb to achieve a range of percussive and melodic sounds.


If you are just starting to learn the guitar, it might be worth experimenting with both using and not using a thumb pick to see what feels most comfortable and natural for you.

As you develop your technique and playing style, you may find that using a thumb pick enhances your playing or that you prefer playing without one

Good Luck!

p.s. I have also written a guide for perfect right-hand guitar technique which covers the thumb and more – wrist, arm and finger positioning for best playing, most comfort and avoiding injury

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