Holding the pick is (obviously) an essential skill you need to master in order to learn how to play guitar. However, many players spend little or no time at all on analyzing how they grasp the pick.
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Before discussing different ways to hold a guitar pick, we should discuss a common debate among guitar players: is there one proper way to hold a guitar pick?
The existence of this one “correct” method is a topic of heated discussion — if there's one “right” way to hold the pick, does that mean players who prefer to hold it any other way have a technique deficiency? How does the “right way” idea account for famous players who hold their picks in unconventional ways?
And while it's true that a majority of players hold their guitar pick in a similar manner, there are many different ways to hold a pick that work on a technical level. Emphasizing one way over others can cause some younger players to struggle, and may induce them to quit playing the guitar entirely.
Comfort is another key factor to proper pick holding technique. Certain guitar players simply feel more comfortable when holding the pick a certain way. Whether or not that specific method is the traditional way to hold a pick, the fact remains that players who feel more comfortable with their technique can loosen their picking arm and wrist and may be able to play faster and more accurately than otherwise.
In light of the variations in guitar players' styles, the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to holding a guitar pick seems rather misguided. Despite the acceptance of multiple different pick techniques, however, many online sources indicate a different story. It's easy for beginner players to feel intimidated and struggle to hold a pick in an unnatural fashion; over time, that hit to their self-esteem can lead players to drop the instrument entirely.
The answer to this dilemma, many teachers and players suggest, is focusing on the results of the technique rather than the motion itself. Instead of reflexively banning any one method of holding a pick, look at the results and the individual guitarist's technique throughout their hand, wrist, and forearm. It's possible for two incredibly skilled guitarists to hold their picks differently from each other — and each play with identical speed, form, and phrasing without damaging their joints.
It's important to note here that this doesn't mean every way of holding a pick is correct. You should work to point out and correct flaws in your technique wherever they arise; this extends to how you hold the pick. If you find that your picking hand is slowing you down when you try to play certain pieces, take a critical look at how you're holding the pick and see if you could improve your style.
With that said, if you're struggling to find any method of holding a pick that feels natural, you may as well select one that encourages good technique. Here are a few of the most common ways to hold a pick.
Holding the pick between your thumb and index finger is by far the most popular method. It is the “traditional” way to hold a pick; you'll see players from jazz to hard rock strumming with this technique.
Though this may seem self-explanatory, holding the pick between your thumb and index finger requires more than just grabbing the plastic and playing. First, bend your index finger so that the tip of your nail points back towards the knuckle where your finger connects to your palm.
Then, lay your thumb against the side of your index finger. The nail of your thumb should be pointing more or less straight forward, and it should rest on the second digit of your index finger (the digit running vertically with your finger curled up like this).
Place the pick between your two fingers with the tip facing straight downwards. You can vary the style however much or little you'd like to, but classically the pick sits at a right angle to the horizontal portions of your index finger.
Thiatis the most common method of holding a guitar pick, espoused by teachers and professionals throughout the guitar universe. If you're not sure which pick-holding strategy you should go for, this should be the first one you try.
Though it's not incredibly intuitive, it's easy to pick up and allows you great dexterity with your picking hand. Keeping the pick anchored between two stationary fingers also helps make sure your notes ring out loud and clear, with plenty of sustain.
When picking with this method, turn your wrist to alternate pick rather than using the motors in your fingers. It's certainly tempting to just use your fingers to play the guitar part — but holding onto the pick properly and laying the foundation for solid skills later in life will pay off in spades.
It's also necessary to mention that holding your guitar pick between your thumb and forefinger doesn't mean that you should hold the pick with your two fingers extended further. Sure, some famous guitarists do play this way. If holding the pick with extended fingers comes naturally to you and you just can't seem to pick up the other technique, stick with it.
You'll be fine to play this way unless it becomes an issue for your speed and precision while you practice.
Though using the thumb and index finger is more popular, other guitarists prefer to hold their guitar pick with the thumb and middle finger. Though it may seem strange, this technique does have some concrete advantages over using your index finger; if it feels most natural, this is another perfectly valid way to hold the pick.
Unlike with the thumb and index finger technique, you can't curl your middle finger up and press your thumb against it to hold the pick. To leave space for your index finger in between, most players who use their middle finger keep it slightly more extended while they play.
This technique can be very helpful for certain styles of music — just ask Eddie Van Halen, who has always held the pick between his thumb and middle finger.
Proponents say that this technique keeps your fingers loose, which allows for greater freedom when playing and gives you the ability to master passages at faster speeds than you might be able to with other picking methods.
Keeping your index finger free also allows you to use it to play other notes. Van Halen, in fact, used his index finger to tap because he wasn't using it to pick. Even if you're not into tapping, it's easy to use as a foil to your flat pick for hybrid picking exercises and melodic counterpoint.
No matter which style you use to hold your pick, you should keep a few baseline tips in mind.
First and most importantly, the way you hold the pick is not nearly as important as the way you hold your picking arm — while changing the way you pick may seem like a magic fix, usually, it's just the guitar equivalent of a band-aid to cover up a deeper technical flaw.
That also means no matter how you hold a pick, you need to pay attention to any tension in your wrist, arm, and elbow. Playing through this type of discomfort can cause repetitive stress injuries and keep you from playing guitar at all.
If you watch live videos of the greatest guitarists of all time, they all look and feel supremely loose when on stage. Emulate that aspect in your picking hand technique. No matter how perfectly you hold the pick, you won't be able to overcome pain and tension caused by poor playing technique up and down your arm.
Secondly, hold the pick with only one other finger, besides your thumb, as often as possible. Keeping multiple fingers on the pick at one time can prevent you from moving the pick fluidly and smoothly across multiple strings. While it may be tempting, using multiple fingers to brace the pick can hold you back as your guitar skills improve.
Lastly, you must keep the rest of your fingers in line as you strum. Don't let the fingers you're not using to hold the pick drift off and end up accidentally muting other strings.
Holding the pick is a fundamental technique for any guitar player. While there's no “one way” to hold a pick — and many legendary guitarists are known for their zany picking techniques — developing a proper approach here will create a strong foundation for your playing down the line.
If you're not sure how to hold the pick, aim to hold it between your thumb and index finger as discussed above; if your middle finger feels more natural, you can try that as well.