21. Flatpick vs. Fingers


Most guitar method focuses on classical technique, and for the right hand this means playing with the fingers. At first the student is playing one note at a time only. This usually means playing pieces such as 3 Blind Mice, On Top of Old Smokey, etc. The familiar nature of these melodies is presumably inspiring to the student. It better be, because it generally takes several months practice to play them well. Then, if he or she has not yet quit or become very discouraged, music is introduced that combines a bass pattern (played with the thumb), and melody played simultaneously with the fingers. There are literally thousands of rudimentary classical pieces of this type.


In popular music it is called fingerstyle, or fingerpicking. In any event, it is not what I teach beginners unless they are aspiring to play classical music only. Not everyone will agree with this. Many formidable players do not use a pick and never have. The great Ry Cooder advised players to “throw away” flatpicks!  Undeniably, the possibilities of expression, complexity and tone color playing with the fingers is considerable.


However, I want beginners in popular styles to get the feeling of playing with a flatpick, since so much of the repertoire calls for the use of one, and because it is relatively easy to produce a good sound with one while other aspects of playing are being learned. Playing with the fingers is a more complex skill, valuable though it is. Eventually, of course, learning to use both is optimal, and in fact as an advanced technique it can be done simultaneously.


I do not teach reading melody in the beginning, only rhythm. Most students can copy patterns I play during a lesson, but often forget them or are confused when they go to practice at home. In modern music, as you will soon see, not every note can be written exactly as played, so a combination of reading the printed page and imitation is best. Recording your lessons can help in this regard. I have developed a system for learning to strum that proceeds through several stages to gain good facility in the right hand. These stages are as follows:


  1. Saying the rhythms out loud, writing the count above the measures if necessary
  2. Muting the strings with the left hand while playing the pattern
  3. Playing the pattern with a single chord
  4. Playing the pattern with the chord changes.


In the meantime, work on muscle memory exercises for the left hand. See THE RHYTHM SECTION© on this site for much more about the subject.

© 2012 Jim Greenfield