Using a pick is the most common way of striking the strings of an acoustic guitar. Although it is not necessary, there are many techniques that you can use to play acoustic guitar with a pick.
In the article below, we’re going to look at what exactly a guitar pick is, whether you can play acoustic guitar with a pick, some common picking styles, whether you need a pick for acoustic guitars, and how to play without one.
What Is A Guitar Pick?
A guitar pick, also known as a plectrum, is a flat tool used to pluck guitar strings instead of the player’s fingers. Guitarists generally consider playing with a pick to be easier than playing without one, and this is likely why it is the dominant style in modern times. This isn’t to say that all guitar picking techniques are easy or basic.
Guitar picks can have a number of different designs. They can be made of various materials, the most common of which are plastics such as nylon, though picks made of materials such as metal or tortoiseshell also exist. The two shapes that dominate guitar picks are the Reuleaux triangle, which is the more common, and the shark’s fin shape, which offers more ways of playing the strings.
Can I Play With A Pick?
Although picks are often associated with electric guitars, you can play an acoustic guitar with a pick in much the same way. With regard to dominant hand technique, very little is different between the playing of an acoustic guitar and an electric, even though this is less true for your off hand, which would not use a pick in either event.
Music Played With Guitar Picks
The majority of modern music produced in the West that has acoustic guitar playing in it is played with picks. Everything from the driving power chords in acoustic tracks in rock songs to the alternating bass note strumming of country songs to the more advanced neoclassical technique is far more likely to use picks than not.
The kinds of music that usually lend themselves to picks tend to be the kind that either needs singular strumming or fast, repeating picking of individual strings. A lot of rhythm guitar playing involves the former and a lot of lead guitar playing involves the latter, so you can see why this has become the dominant technique.
What Are The Most Common Picking Styles?
Most guitar players will make use of a small selection of techniques that collectively dominate all guitar playing. Let’s look at some of them.
For a lot of beginner guitarists, down-picking is the most intuitive style of playing. In this style, the player strikes the string in a downward motion for every stroke. This method is more energy efficient in playing lead, where you might be striking one string at a time, compared to rhythm, where you might be playing chords of multiple strings.
Once a guitar player advances beyond the beginner level, the most common picking technique learned is known as alternate picking. In this style, the player alternates downstrokes and upstrokes to both increase speed and maintain momentum. This is a harder technique to master when moving strings but will ultimately allow you to play faster and smoother.
Sweep and Economy Picking
Sweep picking is a method of playing lead across multiple strings, where the picking direction matches the direction of the string movements. Economy picking fuses sweep and alternate picking in such a way that when repeating the same string, the strokes alternate direction, but when moving to adjacent strings, the picking matches the direction of the movement.
Do Acoustic Guitars Need Picks?
Acoustic guitars, which use steel strings as standard, benefit from being played with picks rather than without because they can cut into your skin if you use your fingers. This is different from classical guitars, which typically use nylon strings that are less likely to hurt you.
This does not mean that you can only play an acoustic guitar with a pick. Although it may be painful at first, if you use your fingers to pluck or strum the strings of an acoustic guitar, you will build up callouses on the skin that makes contact with the strings, making these surfaces tougher and playing painless.
How Do I Play Without A Pick?
To play an acoustic guitar without a pick, the easiest methods to emulate are those which players of classical guitars use. These techniques are even used by some electric guitar players, such as Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, who doesn’t use a pick when he plays the guitar, showing how adaptable these are to different instruments.
If you’re playing a lot of rhythm guitar and strumming chords, the pick is a natural tool to use, but you can do the same with your thumb. When thumb strumming, you simply use the side of your thumb to strike the strings in sequence. This technique lends itself to repeating downstrokes more so than strumming in both directions.
If you’re going to be playing a lot of arpeggios on your acoustic guitar, even though it’s common to use a pick for this on these instruments, you can embrace the classical guitar technique for a more efficient way of playing these. Fingerstyle guitar makes use of all of the fingers on your dominant hand, allowing you to strike far-apart strings in very fast succession.
Although not strictly possible without a pick, you can incorporate the techniques above into your playing style when playing with a pick. Jimmy Page is famous for using a hybrid technique of plucking with a pick and a spare finger simultaneously in the Led Zeppelin song Stairway to Heaven. By making use of hybrid picking, you can bring together the best of both worlds.
We’ve learned that not only can you play an acoustic guitar with a pick, but also that it’s very common. With the techniques we’ve looked at, hopefully, you’re prepared to start your musical journey.