There are essentially two ways to strum a guitar – using a pick or using one’s fingers. There are variations on each of those, neither of them being the correct way. As a career guitar player and long-time teacher, I do believe there are better ways of strumming for efficiency and effectiveness, it’s ultimately up to an individual guitar player to find what is most comfortable and produces the desired results.
Those of us who play the guitar for a living are typically versed in multiple methods of strumming and picking, having tried them all for one purpose or another. As for myself, I’ve tried just about every way of playing guitar one can think of in an effort to find new sounds and new approaches to the instrument.
While strumming with a pick is my preferred method for comfort, volume, and overall tone, I quite often find myself strumming with my fingers. I fingerpick quite a bit, so when it’s time to get a bit louder, I will use my fingers as a means of strumming. Other times I strum with my fingers out of convenience or simply not having a pick nearby at the time.
There are several ways of strumming with the fingers and finger-strumming can be quite useful for tonal purposes, comfort, or for those times when a pick is not immediately available.
Below we will discuss some excellent methods in strumming the guitar with your fingers.
How To Strum With Your Fingers
The first step in learning how to strum a guitar with your fingers is to just sit down and go for it. The natural response to this approach may differ from one guitarist to another, so pay attention to your strumming hand’s first impression and what feels most comfortable starting out.
Does it feel right to use the thumb? Or does it make more sense to make a loose fist and use the top of the finger nails? The combination of strumming down with the thumb and strumming up with the finger tip might be the way to go. Or maybe it just feels awkward no matter what. That’s okay – much of playing the guitar is an acquired taste for the hands.
Ultimately, how you use your fingers as a means of strumming the guitar is completely up to you.
What Part of Your Finger Do You Strum With?
The most common way of strumming with fingers is to utilize the fingernails. One method is to make a really loose fist and have the top of the fingernails almost acting as a pick, brushing over the strings.
The benefit to this is volume and string clarity. For accents, simply flick the fingers outward as if shooing away a fly. Be forewarned – you may knick your knuckles on the strings. If you get too wild with the strumming, it could sting a bit.
I had this happen during a performance where I had dropped a pick and didn’t have a backup nearby. Playing hard to compensate for the loss of the pick, I hit the strings just right and ended up bleeding all over the guitar!
Another way of approaching strumming with the fingers is to combine the fingernails with the fingertips.
The fingertips add a degree of softness and you can alter your fingers to use more nail or more flesh to suit the dynamics needed throughout a song, giving you more control.
At first, this might be uncomfortable on the fingertips, but just like with the fretting fingers, you will develop calluses. I like this way, too, because it helps to angle the knuckles away from the strings.
Using the fingertips by themselves is an interesting method.
This is akin to how ukulele players strum. It provides a very soft brush of a strum to provide the dynamics needed for a really quiet song or part of a song.
A good way to strum in this way is to move the hand closer to the neck, or even over the fretboard at the upper frets. In this region of the strings, the tension is far less than it is closer to the bridge. The looser strings provide more give which help with the ability to strum with this part of the finger. It also provides a tonal difference which a player may find useful in certain situations.
Strumming up with this part of the finger is often used in conjunction with the fingernail method.
Another way of strumming with your fingers is the way “fingerstyle” artists play the guitar. Fingerstyle is a genre of acoustic guitar, usually instrumental, that blends elements of classical with rock, folk, and/or jazz. This normally involves playing in very unusual tunings and either using synthetic fingernails or growing out the fingernails and hardening them with acrylic. Often the guitarists will use a thumbpick as well.
This is a method of finger-strumming and picking that requires dedication, but the payoff is extraordinary. There are so many more options and ways of playing the guitar that are not available in any other way. This is a great method to study for the super creative and the type of player that is not afraid to go against the grain and explore an avant garde, underground genre.
Tommy Emmanuel is probably the most well-known player who has popularized this style, but there are other artists who have taken this idea of fingerstyle and made some incredibly creative music. If you are not interested in playing this way, then at least you have something really enjoyable to listen to.
Is it Okay to Strum With Your Thumb?
Absolutely it’s okay to strum with the thumb. Typically in fingerpicking, the thumb is the bass player. In the realm of fingerstyle the thumb is used quite a bit more. As mentioned previously, a thumbpick is employed by a lot of artists in the fingerstyle genre, but also in other styles of playing.
The legendary guitarist Jeff Beck is well known for playing sans pick, choosing instead to use his fingers, in particular his thumb. Is it okay to play with your thumb? Well, it worked out pretty well for Geoffrey.
Probably the most popular use for the thumb as a strumming digit is to stiffen it and have it hinge at the hand, using the outside part of the thumb to brush the strings while keep the hand stationary.
Another way of strumming with the thumb is to keep the thumb stiff enough to withstand the string resistance, but otherwise relaxed and relatively still. Then rotate the forearm in order to strum.
Is it Better to Play Guitar With Fingers or Pick?
The correct answer is that there is no “better”. Playing with fingers or a pick is a choice a guitar player makes based on what kind of sound he or she is chasing after. One is not better than the other, but it is better to be able to do both fairly well rather than just one method.
There are benefits and limitations to each method. For example, a pick tends to allow for a bigger, louder strum than fingers. Of course, in fingerstyle guitar, the hardened nails can capture that energy with ease for those who are willing to grow or attach the necessary fingernails.
Strumming with fingers essentially equips the player with five picks instead of one, although they are of the fleshy variety. This may give the player more options and achieve melodies and feats one could not do with just a pick. However, a newer player may find this to be a difficult task as he or she will find themselves needing to develop calluses on both sets of fingers rather than just the fretting hand.
The bottom line is what kind of guitar player do you want to be? Pick the route that will take you where you want to go in your journey. Do you want to be able to rock out to some Dave Matthews or Hootie and the Blowfish? Then focus on developing your strumming rhythms with a pick.
Are you more interested in playing like Jeff Beck, Tommy Emmanuel, or (God be with you) Andy McKee? Then feel free to set the pick aside and fiddle around with your phalanges and get to fingerpicking and finger strumming. Whichever path you take, I urge you to not forget the other.