Here’s a topic that guitarists like to debate: what is the best technique?
The honest, “too-long, didn’t read” answer is that it depends!
There is a huge range of factors to determine the technique that will be used. From what piece of music you want to play to what kind of strings are on the guitar or what tone you want to emulate – even what style of music you are playing can be a determining factor.
In this article, we’re going to break down these somewhat similar and yet profoundly unique techniques, their pros and cons, and their applications.
This technique, as most will likely be familiar, is performed by using a pick – more formally known as a plectrum (bet you didn’t know that!). When flat-picking the strings are plucked using the pick which is held between the thumb and index finger of the strumming hand.
The nice thing about flat-picking is that it gives you a great, clear, and loud tone. It can take a lot of time and dropped picks to develop the technique, but it is well worth it. Flat picking is a technique that is especially ideal for playing electric guitar as that crystal clear pluck is more easily transmitted by the pickups – even if the player isn’t picking over them perfectly.
One of the few drawbacks of flat-picking is that it isn’t possible to play certain songs or styles that require 2 strings plucked which aren’t side by side. Flamenco and classical guitar arrangements not only use these techniques frequently – they are a main characteristic of the sound.
With that said, there are some flat-picking techniques that are very difficult if not impossible to replicate with the bare hand. For example, the song Surf Rider by The Lively Ones was famously featured in the film Pulp Fiction. It employs a flat-picking technique known as double picking. I’d hate to see the callouses on the finger picker who managed to get that riff down!
This technique involves employing the bare hand – usually the fingertips and thumb tips to pluck the strings. Some people use their fingernails – but usually on the softer strings found on a classical acoustic guitar. Fingerpicking is a technique that allows the player a great deal of technical flexibility that is employed by genres like classical and flamenco.
Fingerpicking is extremely versatile and can be done on any guitar, and can emulate most styles. One of the very few drawbacks of fingerpicking is that the tone is somewhat softer than a flat pick – especially when played on an electric guitar. While this is often very suitable in fingerpicking’s home territory of classical and flamenco, it isn’t always ideal for playing rock or blues or other more distorted genres as the softer tone can become muddy in the distortion.
That isn’t always the case however, some folks are very good at playing with their fingernails, and while it may send shivers down my neck, if you’re comfortable playing like that, all the power to you. Of course, there is one other option for those players who would love the versatility of having a flat pick attached to each finger, but aren’t committed to brandishing a set of long nails.
Not the same as fingerpicking (although understandably confusing) finger picks are essentially a set of 5 flat picks which attach to the fingertips. These can provide the player with the most versatility in style, tone, and technique. I suppose they would be limiting for someone who loves to finger tap out Van Halen solos, but that is about the only time you couldn’t use them.
Aside from that fingerpicks can have a bit of a learning curve – but what doesn’t. The nice thing about them is there is rarely a time you won’t be able to use them, so while it may be a difficult technique to learn, you won’t have to step out of your comfort zone at an inopportune time.
The Big Conclusion
Ultimately, it really just comes down to what you are comfortable with. If you are happy with your sound and set in the groove of your technique – then there’s obviously no need to switch. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, they say. If you think you might be missing out on some tone or control, however – learning a new technique can be an amazing way to expand your horizons as a player.
If you found this article helpful, you may enjoy learning more about launching a professional guitar career.