Audio File

Choosing Bare Fingers Or Finger-Picks For Acoustic Fingerstyle Blues Guitar

Begins with [Music clip] Guitar Rag.

Hi - I just played a small part of Guitar Rag by Chet Atkins. You'll notice when I played this piece that I just use bare fingers and a bare thumb to finger-pick with. You'll also notice that the bass strings don't really make a clear musical note. They don't ring. That's one particular kind of fingerstyle guitar often called ' Travis-picking'.

People often play guitar in this style with a thumb pick as well. So what is the difference between using bare fingers and finger picks? When do we use one and not the other? I think it's mostly a case of preference but there are definite differences between the two sounds, and different ways that they're used.

Guitar Finger Picks

In that last piece I was damping the guitar strings heavily with my palm of the right hand and using a bare thumb. But of course, very great guitarists like Chet Atkins,Tommy Emmanuel and Doc Watson do the same thing with a finger pick, with a thumb pick. Watch my hands in close-up as I perform this technique and you see what I mean by damping the bass strings with the palm of my hand.

I'll play that little piece of Travis picking again and notice how the heel of my picking hand is always in contact with the first two or three bass strings, making a thumping sound instead of letting them ring. If we separate out the alternating bass we can hear that characteristic 'chunk chunk chunk', the muted bass sounds of the Travis picking style.

Link To Main Teachable Blues Lesson Course

Watch while I play a part of Deep River Blues by Doc Watson. It's the same kind of Travis picking style, but sometimes the base strings are not damped. They're damped now and again to cause the right effect.

[Music clip]

Thumb Pick Dunlop

Now, a thumb pick is a natural amplifier. When I hit the strings with a thumb pick, let it ring, particularly on a good guitar like this small-body Martin. It makes quite a nice bluesy sound. When this is joined by the finger pick that I use, which is a steel pick, then it makes quite an impressive noise, but it can be very harsh as you can hear, particularly when the metal finger pick clashes with the metal strings. Take a look in close up and you'll see how I use the thumb pick and the finger pick.

[Music clip]

The last clip showed how I use a thumb pick and a finger pick to play a blues in the key of A. It gives it a particular flavor and some flexibility, makes it lively. In the next clip, I'm going to use the finger pick in the way that Big Bill Broonzy used his thumb, which was to strike across two or three bass strings to make this drumming sound characteristic of Big Bill's guitar style. This is a little piece of a song by Leroy Carr, called How Long Blues, and this is a great example of how I can use the finger pick and the thumb pick to different effects to create a nice sound.

[Music clip]

Fingerstyle Guitar Using Finger Picks

So you can see, even with a quite a simple blues like How Long Blues, there are quite a few things happening. For example, the bass strings. I'm 'stumbling' the basses with my thumb pick, so instead of just hitting,I'm stumbling from the base E string,which makes it a little bit more complicated. It's more syncopated and more interesting, which is really important.


We need to make the music interesting so people want to listen to it. The other thing is that with my steel finger-pick, often I don't just hit one string. You'll see when I start to play this song that the finger pick moves across two or three treble strings. It fills out the sound, it makes it broader and again more interesting.

[Music clip]

There are many ways to play the guitar, many ways to finger-pick and whether to use finger picks or not is your own fingerstyle choice. it's just one of the choices that we need to make but maybe we need to consider using both kinds of style for the different songs that we want to perform. Have a good time. Keep on picking. I'll see you next time.

[Music clip] Deep River Blues by Doc Watson

Beginning Fingerstyle Blues Guitar - Picks or Bare Fingers (Post PDF)

How To Use Finger Picks

The video below presents a useful overview of using finger picks for acoustic guitar.

Hi everyone - today we'll be talking about finger picks. I am a guitar player and like many of us, I cannot grow my nails. In my case it's because of my job. I have to keep my nails short and tidy, so I have to use finger picks. We have a vast selection here. We are going to be try them on and we'll be playing with them and trying to understand what's good and bad about them.

We'll be trying this Dunlop metal pick here, these Dunlop plastic picks, Alaska picks and then butterfly picks. These are the original ones and these are home-made (refer to the video). Then we have these unbranded plastic finger picks and finally the Fred Kelly finger picks. So yeah, this is going to be a long video and we better get started.


Dunlop Steel Finger PickOK so we are gonna start with the Dunlop metal picks. This is the way you wear them and this is how they sound. Okay, so what can I say? I like them. These are the first, this is the first kind of finger picks I've tried and I've been playing a long time with them. You have to get used to them because it's just completely different from playing with your bare fingertips, but yeah I like them and they don't fall off, which is a great thing.

So let's move on with this Dunlop plastic pack. Now this, I'm not sure about them, but I'm sure that if you get used to them, they can work but I don't know. They are so long and it's kind of hard to, it's kind of hard hard to make them fit correctly.

Dunlop Plastic Finger Picks

If you notice, the first one is as a different bend compared to the second one that's because I've been using a lighter to bend it a bit more, and I find this is better, but still definitely not my best choice. So what can I say? They have a better sound. I prefer this sound compared to that one because this is a bit warmer, but they don't have the same feel. They don't feel that comfortable on your fingers. I know that many people use them though but OK. this is going to be a long video.

So I'm going to try the Alaska Picks now. I have a pair of brand new Alaska picks and I really have no nails right now. You may know that you need a bit of nail to use Alaska picks, because this is the way you wear them. You stick them underneath your nail and so that they don't move, so these are brand new.You're not supposed to use them brand new, but later on we'll be try another another pair of them which are heavily modified and you will notice a different sound.

Alaska Guitar Picks

These are much softer and I like them. You can buy them in different sizes. I like them but you should know one thing about Alaska pics, that they don't really tell you, is that you have to change them quite often, like say, once a month, because they wear out very easily. So yeah, they are alright. Then I'm going to be playing with these heavily modified Alaska pics. I think these are better. If you notice, they are much shorter here.

I've been filing them so that when I play, I touch the string with my fingertip and and also with a pic and the sound you get from it is pretty good in my opinion. The only problem is that these are a bit old and they don't really stick to your finger. … you should just try them on. I've been trying so many of those right now and I probably haven't decided yet the the ones I wanna keep using, but this is what you have to do - you just have to try them.

Unbranded Plastic Finger Picks

I'm gonna play now with this no brand, anonymous plastic finger picks that I must say I like. There's one thing I don't like about them, which is the sound, that they are really very noisy. I don't know but they they are comfortable and they don't slip. I don't know, why I always like this one. … you might have noticed that I was able to play … here using this one and I think the real problem about them is really the sound, especially when you're trying to play two strings. Two strings which are close each other.

It's very difficult because they are very clumsy. They are bulky. You listen to this. It's very easy so far but when you have to do stuff like this one – see, I have to play this - the first two strings together and I have to hold my fingers one on to the other and they slip you know. You don't feel the fingers touching each other, so it can be very confusing but you have this kind of problem with the almost every finger bit I tried.

Okay let's move on. We have three more. We have butterfly picks. These are not very popular. They've been around only for a few years, I guess, but they're really nice. They definitely are nice. Not many people like them but I do, you should try them. But I have to tell you about one thing - you have again the problem that when the two fingers touch each other they're gonna be sticking literally and so they can fall off, which is very annoying.

Butterfly Guitar Finger Picks

Another thing which I noticed only a few weeks later, I was using them, is that they get your fingers really dirty because they are made of, I don't know, brass I think. They lose a powder something and your finger can get quite dirty, so you just have to clean them. Another thing you should know about them is that these things are not really cheap, considering they're just made of metal.

You can make them by yourself using regular metal wire or something and you can make thousands of them. It's going to be really really cheap of course and you can get different sounds from them. These picks, the original butterfly picks are a bit like the Dunlop metal pics. Being made of metal they have this kind of sound which you get when you use metal to metal string, and I'm not a big fan of it.

I must say some people might like it though. So these are my homemade butterfly picks – cool. so yeah, we're going to be trying the last pack of picks and these are the Fred Kelly freedom picks. These are very different from all the others. This is the way you wear them. At first they really sound really bad. They are so big, heavy, bulky and even the sound is not really that bright considering it's such a hard material and thick as well.

So you might be disappointed at the beginning but then you start appreciating that and one thing I like about these picks is that it's a feeling really, that you feel like you want to play. You feel like you wanna experience a new way of playing your guitar, because they sound very different, If you play them like that or like that, so you have a whole range of sound you can get from them.

I'm still getting used to them but the start was really good, so yeah this is it. I hope that helped and as I said before, I probably haven't really chosen a pair of picks I want to stick to, but you just have to keep trying and keep watching.