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5 Ways to Strum Without A Pick

Photo by Gezer Amorim from Pexels

Discover your own musical fingerprint by exploring different approaches to string attack.

Chops: Beginner
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Learn 5 different approaches to strumming without a pick.
• Unlock the sound of your own musical fingerprint.
• Improve your fingerstyle techniques, while simultaneously developing a more tactile connection to the guitar.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

One of the most valuable techniques you can develop on the guitar is the ability to play without a pick. Take a look at guitar legends like Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, Robby Krieger, Derek Trucks, Tommy Emmanuel, or Wes Montgomery, and you'll see that all of these guitar players developed an incredibly unique voice on the guitar without a standard flatpick.

When I first started playing guitar, like many, I solely used a standard flatpick. But I was always at a loss when someone would ask me to play their guitar and there was no pick to be found. I felt like my ability instantly decreased 50 percent or more. How many times have you been at a music store and heard “Do you have a pick?" Needless to say, implementing just a few of these approaches in your strumming and playing can go a long way.

When it comes to strumming the guitar without a pick there are a lot of different approaches you can take. It's important to keep in mind that there isn't necessarily a right or wrong approach here. You want to develop techniques that will help you nail the sound you are going for, stylistically. A great way to do this is to study the techniques used by the players that you would like to sound like. For example, if you really want to get a Montgomery-style sound, you should practice playing only with your thumb, like he did. This is a great technique choice to further understand how he got his big, warm sound.

However, if you want more of a Knopfler rhythm style you can incorporate three fingers with your finger-picking hand to recreate his clawhammer-style groove.

Approach #1 - Strum with The Thumb

Strumming with the thumb is one of the best and easiest ways to start playing without a pick. Ex. 1 takes a common pattern and demonstrates strumming with the thumb. When you try this, it's important to get the angle of your thumb right. You want the thumb to be relatively parallel to the strings and come in at a slight angle, so your finger doesn't catch on any of the strings. This will take some experimenting to find the optimal angle, but when you find it, remember to take note of this position.

For Ex. 1 play the downstrokes with the fleshier part of your thumb. For the upstrokes, use a slight combination of the nail and finger.

Click here for Ex. 1

Ex. 2 demonstrates a comparison of sounds: strumming with a pick versus strumming without a pick. I play once through with a standard flatpick then again with just the thumb. The difference is pretty dramatic. This all depends on what you are going for, but the thumb is going to give you a much warmer, rounder sound. The thumb has more of what I call “nature's tone." After you play this example you will start to hear how using your fingers instead of a pick reveals more of your own musical fingerprint, versus sounding like plastic.

Click here for Ex. 2

Depending on the song you are playing, think about how you might use these sounds to your advantage. For example, take a listen to Radiohead's “Exit Music (For A Film)" and you'll hear how strumming with the thumb is used in a singer-songwriter context to give the guitar part a somber, intimate vibe.

Approach #2 - Strum with Your Index Finger

This next approach switches to only using your index finger. For Ex. 3 strum the downstrokes with your nail and then the upstrokes with your finger. Notice the timbre change from the downstroke to the upstroke. This is a common strumming style used to play ukulele.

Click here for Ex. 3

A great example of this approach is the Beatles' “Blackbird."

Approach #3 - Strum with Your Thumb and Index Finger

Ex. 4 is a combination of techniques from Ex. 1 and Ex. 3.For Ex. 4, play the downstrokes with your thumb and upstrokes with your index finger. This gives you a more balanced sound between downstrokes and upstrokes getting rid of the timbre change heard in Ex. 3.This more balanced sound is a result of not strumming with the nail. When you use the nail to strum, it sounds more like a pick. Here, the goal should be using only the fleshier parts of the thumb and index to create a more even alternating strum.

Click here for Ex. 4

Approach #4 - Holding Your Fingers Together Like a Pick

For this approach, put your thumb and index fingers together as if you were holding a pick. Ex. 5 uses all nails to strum. I recommend the thumb extending just slightly beyond the index finger to create a small “x" pattern. Your index fingernail plays the downstrokes while the thumbnail covers the upstrokes. This approach will sound closer to using a pick and give you a brighter sound overall.

Click here for Ex. 5

Approach #5 - Adding Bass Notes and a Backbeat

Another common approach used in many pop, country, and folk songs is to combine the bass notes with strumming in between. Ex. 6 demonstrates a pop chord progression, but this time the bass part is played with the thumb only. The strumming is done with the index finger playing the down and upstrokes. Also, on beats 2 and 4 there is a slight accent. This is done by lightly dropping the finger-picking hand on the strings, which causes the strings to be pushed down and hit the frets on the fingerboard. This percussive slap creates a cool backbeat groove.

Click here for Ex. 6

A great example of this two-finger strumming technique with a backbeat is John Mayer's “Stop This Train".

One of the benefits of playing the guitar without a pick is that it becomes a more tactile experience. Not to mention the tones you can get from using your fingers in different ways are infinite. You can buy a Fender medium pick, but you can't buy your fingerprint, and that's what makes these sounds so unique to you.