There are two main reasons you will want to play guitar without a pick. We'll cover the different styles and techniques for playing guitar without a pick in this article.

If you decide to play guitar without a pick, you will fall in two categories. You may want to play a genre of music that traditionally doesn’t use a pick, or you want to play a style with your fingers where guitarists normally use a pick.

How to Play Guitar Without a Pick

To play guitar without a pick, you will choose between two techniques: finger picking, or fingerstyle guitar, and strumming the guitar strings using a rasgueado technique.

When looking to play guitar without using a pick, you are either looking to :

  • Play a style of guitar in which players don’t use a pick
  • Play solos or strum chords without a pick

Learning to play guitar without a pick offers you more flexibility in terms of the style of music that you can play. It’s also useful to know how to play guitar if you’ve somehow lost your pick.

How to Sound the Guitar Strings

You have two main options in guitar to sound the strings with the right hand - using their fingers to strum or pluck the strings, or using a pick, again to either pluck or strum the strings. Other options, such as banging the guitar to produce vibrations, are special effects and are not commonly used.

The Genre of Music will determine which technique you use

When playing with the individual fingers, you will be doing a technique called fingerpicking. If you are strumming chords, you will use your thumb, fingers or a combination of both. Fingerstyle Guitar, as the name suggests, is a genre that involves playing guitar without a pick – what we call finger picking. But the advanced techniques used in fingerstyle guitar, such as rasgueado, are techniques you can use to play guitar without a pick.

Here are the genres of music that traditionally use finger picking :

  • Classical
  • Flamenco
  • Jazz / Chord Melody
  • Fingerstyle

And these are the styles of music that players commonly use a pick :

  • Rock, Punk, Metal
  • Jazz / Single Note Soloing
  • Singer/Songwriter

Some fingerstyle guitar players use Merle Travis picking, with a thumb pick.

I believe a thumb pick can be dispensed with, by growing your thumb nail long enough to pluck the strings comfortably. Flamenco guitarists have developed an advance use of the thumb called alzapua entirely without a thumb pick.

Strumming chords without a pick

The way I teach strumming without a pick involves the use of either only the thumb, or a technique borrowed from flamenco guitar called rasgueado, which uses the thumb and the fingers.

Strumming chords involves an up-and-down movement of the forearm. I teach strumming with the pick to absolute beginners, but once you’ve mastered the basic movement you can strum your instrument with or without a pick.

If you are using only the thumb to strum chords, strum down with the flesh of the thumb and upwards with the fingernail. If strumming with both thumb and fingers, strum down with the fingernails of the right hand and strum back up using the thumb.

When doing this technique, I prefer to keep the hand in an ‘open’ position in order to control the force and resistance of my fingers on the strings.

Strumming vs Fingerpicking

More complex guitar playing involves going beyond strumming chords with a rhythmic pattern. You can either play individual notes on the string or play chord melody with the fingers.

When playing fingerstyle, or finger picking, you will learn to use a combination of one or more fingers along with the thumb to pluck the strings. When playing guitar in this fashion, you can play more complex harmonies, including melody and a bass line simultaneously.

Disadvantages of playing without a pick

Playing without a pick opens the possibility to play more harmonically complex music. However certain things, such as speed and volume of playing are sacrificed when playing exclusively with the fingers.

Strumming the guitar with a pick can create a more percussive sound – the pick has an ‘attack’ on the strings that can produce a sharper and louder sound than merely strumming with the thumb. This ‘pick attack’ suits more aggressive playing styles such as rock, metal, or punk. The higher harmonics caused by the pick attack are beneficial for enhancing distortion or overdrive effects and for playing at louder volumes.

You can imitate this attack somewhat with the fingernails using the flamenco strumming technique. Good flamenco guitarists can play the guitar quite aggressively in this fashion.

Another technique that players with a pick are known for is the ability to play blazingly fast licks on a single string. This is what I call single note soloing. For effective solo techniques without a pick, we can once again turn to flamenco guitarists for help. Flamenco players also use their fingers to pluck the strings instead of a pick when doing single note soloing.

Soloing with the fingers

Flamenco guitarists have who have developed fast finger picking speeds using rest stroke. An example is Paco de Lucia, who rose to fame with his clear finger picking style.

To perform rest stroke, pluck the string and let the finger stop or rest against the adjacent string after the plucking motion.

The rest stroke motion is in contrast to free stroke, where the fingertip goes underneath the hand and does not enter in contact with anything else after the string.

Free stroke is the default technique used when finger picking. However it’s generally the fact that the alternating fingers in free stroke cannot pluck as fast as the same fingers using rest stroke. Fast single note soloing is still possible, however, without using rest stroke or a pick.

Certain guitarists have figured out how to use a combination of three fingers: thumb, index and middle fingers, or index, middle and ring fingers to play the strings. Matteo Mancuso uses his three fingers to play guitar solos without using picks. By organizing your left hand fingering around three-note-per-string patterns, it’s possible to play very fast single note solos on the guitar without a pick.

Learn To Play Both Ways

In conclusion, I am not a purist and I believe every guitarist should play the instrument as well as he or she sees fit. I also believe that we should strive to learn to play both with a pick and fingerstyle, as both techniques have a long and varied history in guitar playing.

I myself started playing exclusively Classical Guitar, which is a very conservative form of playing the guitar: the instrument is almost never played with a pick. My picking skills were therefore woefully inadequate when I first picked up the electric guitar. I have learned to appreciate both ways of playing the guitar, with and without the pick.