From common knowledge one would assume that the guitar player is using a pick to hit the strings. While this is the most common way of playing electric guitar, you might be surprised at the amount of top guitarists who occasionally will play fingerstyle instead. Some always play with their fingers, others use makeshift picks, such as coins. It all boils down to preference and finding your own unique style. Here we will take a look at the pros and cons of playing electric guitar with a pick or simply using your fingers, with quotes from some of rock's greatest guitarists.
When Joe Bonamassa was asked by Guitar Lifestyle to rate the importance of the guitar, strings, fingers, pick, amps, and guitar pedals in relation to creating one's own unique tone, he put fingers first and picks last, saying “Fingers is 85%. The rest of it is divvied up in the next 15 [percent].” Bonamassa's argument makes sense, since the magic isn't really in the pick itself, but in the fingers of the guitarist holding it. Joe does however have a favorite guitar pick – the Dunlop Jazz III. He even sells his own version of it on his website. However, Joe does play fingerstyle as well. He has said that using his fingers instead of picks help him slow down his playing a bit.
There are however guitarists out there who owe at least part of their trademark sound to the guitar pick they use. One prime example is The Edge of U2. Always the innovator, The Edge uses a pick that has dimples on it for better grip. The Edge holds the pick upside down and let the dimpled side hit the guitar strings. The result is that the pick sort of grabs on to the strings, and rip away from them, creating a chime-like sound. If you've ever tried to play some of his clean delay-ridden riffs like “Pride (In the Name of Love)” or “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,” and haven't quite been able to nail down the exact tone, chances are that the pick is the missing piece of the puzzle.
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, known for his pinch harmonic-laden blues solos, claims to use a Mexican peso coin as his guitar pick. In an audio interview with MusicRadar Gibbons says he prefer the peso to the U.S. quarter, since the peso has an unserrated edge. Brian May of Queen use a British six pence coin as a pick. Unlike Gibbons' peso this coin actually has a serrated edge which Brian at times use in much the same way that The Edge use the dimples on the Herdim pick when playing.
John Mayer is a great example of a guitar player who has gradually gone from using a pick to favoring using his fingers instead. Mayer explained to Guitar World that the switch has actually helped him develop a sound that's more uniquely his own: “I can be in more places at once on the strings and over the pickups. It’s the closest I’ve managed to come to creating my own sound. I’m really interested in creating a place to stand as a guitar player. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m starting to get my chops back.”
Slash is known to crank out hard and heavy riffs with every new album. His aggressive but melodic style is very distinct – you can spot a Slash solo a mile away, and that is a good thing. Slash tends to stick to playing with a pick most of the time, but much like Joe Bonamassa, Slash switches to his fingers when he wants to play softer, as he told FUZZ magazine back in 1997: “When I play live I play really hard, very brash, even on the sensitive stuff (laughs). I play with my fingers, and I play with the pick, but if I'm playing something like 'Paradise City,' I'm talking about hitting the guitar really hard. If I'm playing 'The Thrill Is Gone', like with Bluesball, I'll be playing mostly with my fingers, you know, pulling the strings.”
There's one major point to be made in favor of the guitar pick, especially in the fans' point of view –
One thing's for sure – there's no right or wrong when it comes to playing with or without a guitar pick. It's all up to personal preference, and what sounds and feels good to you. Some guitarists have found their own style with the help of a certain guitar pick, others by not using a pick at all – it's all about what works for each individual person. Go ahead and try both ways and see what you like. If you settle for playing fingerstyle, just print up a bunch of personalized picks to throw out in the audience for good measure when you become a rock star.