At the end of the day, the real purpose of a musical instrument is to transmit, like an antenna, the sounds you hear between your ears to your outside environment; in other words, it’s about creating a sound.
For the guitar, creating a sound (or “pulling tone”, as the old folks say) comes from both hands - your fretting and strumming hands. But it arguably comes primarily from your strumming hand, and how you pluck your strings.
For example, the contrasts between a booming forte, or a subtle pianissimo, is largely controlled by how you pluck, or pick, your notes on the guitar.
When Django Reinhardt, who had perhaps the most marvelous strumming & picking technique ever, would play flurries of tremolo strums, or dazzling single notes runs, those sounds emanated largely in thanks to how he’d pluck the strings.
Without your strumming hand, there’d be little sound, if any, projected from your guitar. Thus, your strumming hand and picking technique is vital to the core purpose of transmitting your music around you; again, you’ve landed upon another boundless facet of guitar playing, so enjoy the discovery and adventure!
There are two chief categories of picking; those are, fingerpicking, or using a plectrum. Fingerpicking, as you can guess, involves inciting a vibration of the string with your own fingers to produce a sound; whereas, with a plectrum, you typically use a triangular piece of plastic, held between your thumb and pointer finger, to vibrate the string.
As a caveat, certain exceptional cases exist; for example, Stanley Jordan doesn’t quite fingerpick yet doesn’t quite use a pick either! Instead, he masterfully uses a tapping technique whose percussive force vibrates the strings sufficiently to produce a sound. However, cases such as Stanley Jordan tend to be more fringe cases, which, while they’re marvelous, aren’t quite full “schools of guitar playing” (though they’re becoming more popular) to yet provide them their own category.
When comparing fingerpicking and using a pick, both have their respective strengths and weaknesses, in terms of technical facility. Musically, one or the other isn’t “better”. Actually, the greatest of players are often able to do both, while having a preference for one or the other.
Delving deeper into fingerpicking, there are a few subcategories of fingerpicking, each involving different combinations of the thumb and fingers of the strumming hand. In each variation of fingerpicking, though, the thumb usually handles the bass strings (the thicker three strings of the guitar), while the fingers usually handle the treble strings (the thinner three strings); though, just a broad strokes rule of thumb; a lot like basketball players switching defensive assignments as a play proceeds, the assignment of thumb and fingers to strings can continuously change as a musical passage proceeds.
At perhaps the most core level, there’s the example set by the great Wes Montgomery, who simply used his thumb, with mainly downstrokes (though with occasional upstrokes as well) to pick the strings. His dexterity with his thumb was so marvelous that his thumb was literally known as “The Thumb”!
Next, there’s the type of fingerpicking which employs the thumb and one other finger, usually the pointer finger. This type of fingerpicking is quite common for its relative simplicity, with the thumb usually taking care of the bass strings, while the pointer finger takes care of the treble strings. Players such as Freddie King and Merle Travis were known for this way of plucking strings.
Then, there’s the type of fingerpicking which, as you might’ve guessed, uses the thumb and two fingers. Particularly in genres like American folk and bluegrass, this technique is popular, since the added finger provides more dexterity and speed. Players such as John Fahey would often use their thumb and two fingers.
In genres such as classical and flamenco, the thumb and three fingers are often used, with the pinky occasionally used too! Employed to their full extent, the fingerpicking of these genres can be quite stunning. These styles differ slightly from the fingerpicking mentioned above, since the nails of the fingers are often grown and manicured to pluck the strings (rather than the pads of the fingers), producing a clearer, often more voluminous sound. Andres Segovia, the maestro of guitar, Paco de Lucia, the great flamenco master, are among the finest examples of these types of fingerpicking.
When it comes to using a plectrum, or pick, there isn’t quite as much variability in how it’s used, compared to the possibilities of fingerpicking, though variations do exist.
Certain players who use picks, such as James Hetfield of Metallica, sometimes favor a technique of solely downstrokes. This way of picking notes yields power and volume, though sacrifices on the speed and dexterity of the pick.
The most common way and recommended way of using pick is alternate picking, which means almost always alternating between downstrokes and upstrokes. This tends to be most popular since it allows for rapid note passages, while adhering to a simple rule of following each downstroke with an upstroke, and vice versa.
For absolute beginners using a pick, it’s best to start with only downstrokes with the pick, but steadily work towards alternate picking, perhaps within the first 3-6 months of learning the guitar.
It’s worth noting that hybrid styles of fingerpicking and using a plectrum exist too.
In fact, Hybrid Picking itself refers to holding a pick, while using the spare fingers to fingerpick. Players such as Danny Gatton would employ this technique from time to time, since it nicely offers many of the advantages of fingerpicking and using a plectrum, without being very cumbersome.
Also, finger-”picks” exist, which are usually plastic or metal attachments for your finger, so that you’re still fingerpicking, but the external “pick” material helps to amplify the sound. This is often used by acoustic players, perhaps in blues, folk, or bluegrass, usually so their instruments are better heard in a live situation, or for the brighter and fuller resonance of their acoustic instruments.
As a complete beginner, our humble suggestion is that you should start playing with a pick, rather than starting off guitar by fingerpicking. That is, unless you’re starting off by playing classical or flamenco guitar, in which cases starting with fingerpicking would be sensible.
The reason is that, as a complete beginner, for the first few months, your brain will constantly be crammed with fresh information, and fingerpicking will take up lots of brain-space, which can hold back your learning in other key areas.
Rather than having to understand which fingers are assigned to which string, and juggling how those assignments can change mid-song, by using a pick, you can, in some ways, put your brain on standby after telling it to simply do downstrokes or upstrokes. That simple binary instruction can help you focus on all the other items of information to file away in your head.
With the lower barrier of entry of using a pick, it’s great to start as a beginner with a pick, and in the future you can always explore fingerpicking, once you’ve become an intermediate and have made it past the initial learning curve of the guitar.
Now onto perhaps what you’ve been waiting for, here are the instructions for how to hold a pick in a comfortable, stable way. Though it’s quite straight-forward, there are a couple small nuances which are worth ensuring you’ve got in your brain.
Firstly, as if you’re camping and waiting for a bird to perch atop your finger, place your pointer finger out.
Next, like a waiter balancing his tray, place the pick across the end-digit of your pointer finger.
Finally, gently press your thumb against the pick to secure it in place. And you’re done!
As opposed to pinching the pick between the pad of your pointer finger and thumb, this way of holding the pick tends to produce more power and stability; it’s also quite ergonomic which is nice.
Try testing this picking technique by strumming through all the strings. Then try some plucking single strings in different sequences, then strumming 3 strings, and so on. Also, try plucking a single string with a downstroke, then an upstroke, and repeating, so you can get used later doing alternate picking.
Congratulations - you’ve taken your first step along the journey of plucking strings! There’s much more to this journey, but you’ve taken the fundamental steps of learning the different possibilities when it comes to producing a sound from your guitar via fingerpicking or using a plectrum, and plucking some of your first notes.