There are many ways to vibrate a string. Some use their fingers, some use a pick. However,
rather than taking it for granted and sticking with what you know, it’s useful to evaluate the
timbral differences and stylistic limitations of each available option.
Classical guitarists use all the fingers of their picking hand. Generally, the thumb handles the
bass, while the index, middle, and ring fingers handle the harmony. The pinky is less frequently
employed, but it can be useful in situations that call for delicacy or the full, round articulation of a
chord. I personally love it for the latter. For instance, in the case of an open A chord, I may rest
my thumb, index, middle, and pinky fingers on strings, 5 through 1. By pinching these five
strings simultaneously I get a very smooth and balanced sound. Assuming standard tuning, my
thumb also has the option to go down to the E on my open 6th string, which is the V(five) in an
A Major chord.
Within the folk tradition, there are variations on the classical approach that all fall under the
general umbrella of “fingerstyle”. One of the common tendencies amongst fingerstyle-folk
players is to eschew the ring and pinky completely. Many players even “anchor” the pinky on the
pickguard or soundboard to increase precision. Although limiting in some regards, only using
the thumb, index, and middle fingers can facilitate smooth, banjo-esque rolls and interesting
Playing with a pick or “plectrum” became popular with the advent of the steel string guitar. Steel
tends to shred fingernails unless they are cultivated and well-kept. The basic principle is
ancient. The Latin word “plectrum” refers to anything that is held by (or affixed to) the hand and
used to sound a lyre. Picks come in different sizes and materials, and are either gripped
between the thumb, index, and middle fingers, or attached to individual fingers with a tiny ring.
Respectively, “flat” and “finger”-picks.
Whereas finger-picks are used as an extension of the hand or nail, and used in a more or less
intuitive fashion, flat-pickers often cater their technique to the particular curve of a flat-pick’s
tear-dropped tip, making an almost circular motion over the strings. Finger-picks are especially
useful in finger-style folk contexts on bigger acoustic guitars. Flatpicks are preferred in both
bluegrass and rock & roll. Jazz and blues players seem to go either way. Notable Jazz pioneer,
Wes Montgomery, played exclusively with the flesh of his thumb, an idiosyncrasy he developed
while practicing quietly at night.
No matter what you use or don’t use to excite a string, we can return to the classical tradition to
further define the dynamic. Basically, after striking a string, your pick or finger either falls to rest
on the next highest string (unless it’s a high E) or it passes through in step with the tune. The
former is called “apoyando”, and the latter is called “tirando”. While we’re at it, playing all the
notes of a chord in succession is an “arpeggio”, while sounding them all quickly in a rhythmic
pattern is strumming, or “rasgueado”.
Although elementary for most of us, it’s important to reflect on the above information when
shopping for a new guitar. If you’re looking for a truly different sound, you may need to vary the
way you approach the instrument with your right hand. In my view, there is a time for flesh, a
time for nails, and a time for plectrums. It all depends on the music in your head, but your hands
are the first stop along the way to its ultimate expression.