SEPTEMBER 18th, 2006
I've often struggled with whether or not to encourage students to use a pick. As a player, I've benefitted from being able to do both picking and fingerstyle, but for beginning guitarists, it has been my experience that saying "Do whatever you want" doesn't quite help. I think that for most people, the fingers are a good way to start, since they don't have to get used to manipulating the pick, but then later on they can't do the kind of riffs they want to do to play their rock and roll stuff. At the same time, if they've gotten in the habit of using their fingers only, then the pick seems like starting over, especially if it feels awkward.
The answer would be easy if every student knew exactly what kind of music they would like to play. For the ones who already come in saying "I want to sound like Jimi Hendrix," then of course a lot of things are much easier. The problem is for the students who have a more vague impression of what they'd like to be playing. For these guys, I've tended to tell them to do whatever they feel comfortable doing, but then later I've often regretted not spending more time picking.
Weighing the pros and cons, I lean toward encouraging picking over fingerstyle, the reason being that students can always come back to fingerstyle if a particular tune requires it, or if it is a sound that they really like. Even if they haven't done much fingerstyle playing, the principles of fingerstyle are simple enough that they can get into it fairly quickly. However, if they go for a long time and have never held a pick, they might be at a disadvantage.
With the exception of classical guitar, picking is the preferred approach for a number of different styles, ranging from rock to jazz. While there are always exceptions (i.e. Jeff Beck or Mark Knopfler), and many guitarists do use both approaches from time to time, I think picking provides a better foundation for the beginning guitarist.
Picking is the preferred approach for bluegrass players, as well as rockers. Of course, any discussion of guitar technique wouldn't be complete without the mother of all articles on pick and fingerstyle technique, by Tuck Andress (of Tuck & Patti).
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