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Ditch the Pick: Exploring the Tone in Your Hands

Don’t be afraid to embrace the freedom of playing fingerstyle—and the myriad tones that it produces.

Chops: Intermediate/Advanced
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Experience the sonic and practical benefits of attacking the strings with your picking-hand fingers.
• Learn different picking patterns and strategies.
• Create fluid rhythm and lead phrases. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

When most of us start learning steel-string guitar, we typically reach for a pick when we grab our instrument. This early habit can continue for decades, and even after we’ve become seasoned players, it can cause us to form misconceptions like playing sans pick is limited to “fingerpicking” in the Chet Atkins tradition or the singer-songwriter and folk realms. In reality, putting down the pick opens up new tones, patterns, and creative possibilities, no matter what musical style we play. Just as the pick offers inherent advantages, so do the fingertips. In this lesson, we’ll explore fingerstyle steel-string guitar in a variety of musical settings to see if we can discover a common thread between them.

I’ll never forget meeting Mark Knopfler when I was 19. After I asked him about his right-hand touch, he extended his hand and showed me it was all the flesh of the fingertips and then told me to talk to Richard Bennett if I wanted to know about nails. You’ll want to experiment to find what works best for you. So much of the guitar is a delicate balance between touch and mechanics. Tone is in the touch and fluidity is in the mechanics.

It’s good practice to start with the basics. Ex. 1 is a simple rolling pattern in G on the middle three strings, not out of place in a track or behind a vocal. If you’ve never used your fingers for articulation until now, the pattern might be new to you. The idea is to begin with a simple fretting-hand exercise that allows you to focus on the attack—specifically the point of contact between your fingertip and the string. Experiment with the point of contact, either close to the tip or further back toward the pad of the finger. Listen carefully and, if possible, record yourself and study the playback. Each subtle shift will vary and shape the tone.

Click here for Ex. 1

With a basic rolling framework in place, you can start playing mini-melodies as shown in Ex. 2. We’re extracting melodic motion from a D major arpeggio before ending the phrase with some single notes. You’ll naturally gravitate toward certain combinations of thumb and fingers, but as before, I’ve included the patterns I’m using to assist you in this discovery process.

Click here for Ex. 2

Developing Speed
At a certain point, you’ll want to tackle some more developed and faster lines. Without a pick to rely on, you have to form a new alternating pattern to replace downstrokes and upstrokes. That’s easy: Simply consider your thumb to be the downstroke and your index finger to be the upstroke. Even for rhythm guitar phrases, this comes in handy.

To develop this habit, we begin Ex. 3 with a pattern in A. But heads-up: Just like when we wield a flatpick, sometime we’ll want to make exceptions to the strict alternation. For example, look at the triplet pull-off at the end of measure two. Notice how it naturally leads our thumb down from the 5th string to the 6th, and then back up to the open 5th at the start of the next measure. This is just like when flatpicking—a downstroke might transition to another downstroke on the adjacent string.

If you’re more used to the plectrum than anything in the Chet Atkins or Jerry Reed realm, thinking about your picking-hand fingers as a flatpick can take the mystery out of this type of fingerpicking. It’s a principle you can apply to many aspects of guitar: Use what you already know as a springboard into new techniques.

Click here for Ex. 3

From there, it’s not a stretch to add the picking-hand middle finger to grab the 3rd string and start popping double-stops for the country-style rhythmic pattern in Ex. 4. Contexts and styles may change, but the approaches stay the same. Try using my example as a stepping-stone for your own phrases. For instance, tackle a Chuck Berry groove with your thumb, index, and middle fingers. Listen to what Mark Knopfler plays on “Walk of Life” and then invent your own rhythmic variations.

Click here for Ex. 4

Once you start forming these habits, you’ll find they transfer equally well to other kinds of lead lines. Try playing Ex. 5 with just your thumb and index finger, relying on pull-offs to fill in any gaps. Pentatonic or blues scale shapes make good material to practice with, so get inspired and experiment. The more you work with these approaches, the more natural they’ll feel. Before long, you’ll find yourself able to adapt similar approaches and patterns to virtually any musical context.

Click here for Ex. 5

Expanding thumb and index patterns to include three fingers—thumb, index, and middle—opens up even more doors. Cascading open-string runs now become contenders, using the middle (or ring) finger for faster and cleaner runs (Ex. 6). Consider the skips between the strings and notice how the middle finger is introduced at the skip from the 4th up to the 2nd string, forming the new alternating pattern of thumb, middle, index. The physical distance between strings makes it natural to switch over to thumb followed by middle when you encounter skips of a string or more.

Click here for Ex. 6

Laying Back and Going for Tone
Once you have solid techniques in place, the reality is you won’t always need them. Like the adage “learn all your scales so you can forget them,” once it becomes natural to play rhythm and lead lines sans pick, there will come a point where the decision becomes all about sound. I was fortunate to have grown up watching Vince Gill’s guitar technique develop up close, which was around the time he stopped using picks altogether for the bulk of his Strat playing. I quickly began to see that throwing down the pick is not only useful for fine-tuning your touch on the guitar, which in turn can improve picking skills, but it also influences your phrasing.

Ex. 7 is an example of a lyrical line that isn’t so fast you need an alternating flatpick to get the job done. The tone is in the hands, so take some time to listen to the sound of each finger. The thumb’s meatiness has a certain quality unto itself, as does the clarity of the index, and the underside of the middle and ring fingers. Use these to your advantage when going for tone.

Click here for Ex. 7

Plucked with three fingers, fairly standard minor pentatonic shapes, such as the phrase that begins Ex. 8, take on new sonic life with obvious nods to Knopfler. Using the thumb, index, and middle to roll across the phrase is practical, since all three fingers are conveniently there to articulate each adjacent string, and adding some fret-hand muting in measure two adds a percussive element to the figure. As with the previous example, which finger you use and the point of contact you choose will greatly affect the sound. I find that using the meat of my middle finger yields a larger, throatier tone with an accentuated midrange that can really help sustaining notes ring out and sing.

Click here for Ex. 8

Turning Up and Getting Back to Basics
Just because the pick is gone does not mean the volume needs to be lower or without the aggression and rudeness you’d find with an overdriven or fuzzed-out part with a pick. Actually, there may even be an increase in the upper partials and harmonics excited by the attack of fingertip on string which lends itself particularly well to both blues and rock styles. Many of the all-time great blues players were no strangers to using the tips of their fingers. Hubert Sumlin from Howlin’ Wolf’s band springs to mind, and Jeff Beck might as well be from another planet.

The same principles we’ve covered so far apply to playing fingerstyle with high gain. Ex. 9 features the thumb/index pattern once again, but this time we focus on the bass strings over a 12-bar blues progression with a “Peter Gunn” straight-eighths rock feel.

Click here for Ex. 9

Continuing to make use of low-end power with a bit of fuzz, Ex. 10 transitions into a power-chord run in measure three, while mixing hammer-ons and pull-offs with right-hand articulation. Keep the bass ringing under the standard E pentatonic blues-rock licks on top.

Click here for Ex. 10

Sometimes the meat of the thumb itself is enough. Although Wes Montgomery may be the most well-known player to have put his stamp on this technique, Albert King also springs to mind. Ex. 11 explores the sound of working with such a limited but effective approach. The technique’s inherent limitations also fit neatly with any admirable goal to play melodic, soulful lines, and arguably no one did better than Albert King in this regard. To experience the power of the thumb, listen to Live Wire/Blues Power and many of the other classic King records.

Click here for Ex. 11