For the violinist, there is the bow. Drummers have their sticks. The dulcimer player uses hammers and the pianist employs good old fashioned human fingers. The tool of choice for most guitarists is the humble pick. Coming in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials, a guitar player is sure to have a stack of them on top of the dryer following their (semi-annual) laundry load.
While I do my share of fingerpicking, the standard flat pick is my top choice for playing the guitar. I have tried playing with a pick in almost as many ways as one can possibly think of. Over the years, just as my playing has evolved, the way I hold a pick has evolved as well. There is no “right” way to play with a pick, but there are better ways – at least in my opinion.
The following is a brief guide of how to strum a guitar with a pick. Sometimes it’s good to camp out on the basics for a time, especially for those of you who are on a self-guided tour of the guitar, i.e. without an instructor. Even if you feel like you are comfortable (or comfortable enough) strumming with a pick, I encourage you to stick around. Seeing as how you and your pick will be spending a lot of time together, it’s good to get to know each other.
How To Hold A Guitar Pick
When a guitar student – either self-taught or instructor-led – approaches the guitar for the first time, it may feel awkward. Holding a pick and strumming with it takes a bit of getting used to for most. However, this is a very learn-by-doing endeavor and the student should feel the freedom to adjust as he or she wishes in order to feel comfortable.
So my first bit of advice in learning how to play guitar with a pick is to do what feels comfortable, at least at first. Get used to it for a little while, develop some muscle memory, then move on to a more experimental approach so that you can learn how to play with a pick more effectively and efficiently.
To start, we can take a look at some of the ways a guitar can be strummed with a pick.
Let’s lead with the most common and “agreed upon” way to hold a guitar pick as shown in the photo below.
The index finger curls in toward the palm, but with very minimal squeezing; sort of a loose fist. The pick lies on the side of the first finger’s top most knuckle and the thumb drapes over the top, again being careful not to squeeze too hard.
The pad of the thumb covers the larger portion of the pick, exposing just enough of the tip to be able to sufficiently strike the strings without scraping the index finger on the way down. When held in this way, the hand can be quite relaxed while maintaining adequate pick security.
I have been holding the pick in this manner for the better part of twenty years and it is very, very rare that I ever drop a pick while playing. In several bands that I played in, I was known as the guitarist that never dropped a pick. Other guitarists joked that they could not bum a pick from me since I usually only had two at most on my person at any given time – a heavy and a medium. That’s how confident I was that I was not going to be dropping picks.
For more on holding a guitar pick and avoiding it slipping or being dropped then read our article here How To Stop Your Guitar Pick Moving, Slipping or Being Dropped.
Acoustic and electric guitar players will use the pick just the same for the most part. However, there are some techniques that may be more beneficial for each guitar type, so let’s dive into different ways of holding a pick for both guitar types.
How To Strum a Guitar With a Pick
Other than the aforementioned method of holding the guitar pick, there are some additional considerations with the acoustic guitar in particular. For players who use a thicker gauge string, it may be necessary to either scale back in pick thickness or grip the pick with a little extra firmness.
A decent percentage of recording and performing acoustic players use medium gauge strings instead of the regular light strings most beginners start with. You may see the pick being held to account for the extra resistance.
More of a closed fist is made due to needing to grip the pick with a more sure hand.
With thin picks and/or lighter gauge strings, the hand can be more relaxed. A very common way of holding the pick for strumming an acoustic guitar with a setup like this is to hold the pick with the thumb and forefinger and completely relax the other three fingers.
Strummers who like a more brushy, less abrasive strum can be seen holding the pick like this for their strumming.
An added benefit to relaxing the fingers is the ability to plant those fingers on the body of the guitar to provide stability for flat-picking.
Holding the pick with a little more of the tip of the pick exposed provides a different sound.
With more pick area being used, this adds some pick noise for a little texture. Some players really like the sound this method provides as it makes kind of a click sound against the strings. Differences in pick thickness and materials will provide their own unique tones and their own unique “clicky” sounds.
How To Strum an Electric Guitar With a Pick
Electric guitar has been my weapon of choice since I got my very first electric in 1998. Given the dynamic nature of the electric guitar, one may find it necessary to be comfortable with multiple pick-holding techniques in order to achieve certain sounds.
To repeat myself, the method of holding the pick for the electric is the same default method in the very first image. There may be subtle changes to the way the pick is handled depending on playing style.
The first way I ever held the pick and the way I have noticed guitar students start holding the pick is with the thumb, index, and middle finger.
Given that a lot of students who start playing electric guitar tend to go in learning more melodies and riffs, this makes sense. More accuracy is needed for lead playing, so the hand seems to naturally grasp the pick with the extra finger to help with control.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it has the down side of actually making the pick less secure since the thumb does not cover the pick as well. The pick inevitable seems to find its way between the index and middle fingers and slip out of the player’s grip.
I never knew the guitar player’s name, but there was a guy who played lead guitar for a mega church in Chicago that just floored me when he played. He was so good, but the way he held the pick also really intrigued me. He held his pick in the way I just mentioned, but just with the thumb and middle finger.
While this seems awkward to me, it makes sense. It’s more secure since one finger is a more reliable, stable surface for the pick. The downside for me is that it takes away a crucial finger for hybrid picking or strategic muting techniques that I often use when playing with a lot of noisy gain. But hey – it works quite well for some players!
A trick that I learned from Paul Gilbert was angling the pick so that the edge of the pick brushes across a string rather than the flat part.
While this technique is most useful in faster picking or tremolo picking, I will sometimes find myself strumming this way if I need to strum in a fast or complex rhythm. It’s not something I do a lot, but it’s interesting to do from time to time. It can give kind of a “cello-y” sound when doing this to the low E string.
Learning the rhythms for a song and the strumming patterns that are often written out for beginning students will put your pick holding skills to the test. After you drop the pick in the soundhole for the 15th in a 30-minute session, you will start to pay more attention to the way you hold the pick.
The pick most often gets jarred loose on an accentuated downstrum. Most strumming rhythms will have the player accent the beats “2” and “4” a la the snare drum of a drum kit.
How you choose the pick is ultimately up to you, not me. So hold the pick as you see fit, just know that what is comfortable at first might not be the best way to make the sounds you want to make. That just means you will have to practice another method until you get comfortable again.
Try some of these strumming rhythms or strumming patterns, if you will. Acoustic or electric, it doesn’t matter for these exercises. The point is to find your “default”.
This one is simple enough, just downstrums. This is probably the most common accent guitar players use and the first accent that most books will teach. It’s the “one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two” pattern.
Now try alternating in some up-strums. Again, the idea is to accent where a snare drum would accent to give the strum a pulse. It is the accent and the up-strum that will test your pick security.
For more on strumming patterns to exercise your pick-holding hand, you can check out the series of articles we have below: