Two young children playing guitar
Fingerstyle guitar generally produces a softer and more mellow tone than playing with a pick.

Are you wondering whether to choose flatpicking or fingerstyle? Let's earn about the unique advantages and disadvantages of flatpicking and fingerpicking guitar.

Both fingerstyle guitar and flatpicking are two different but equally valid ways of playing the guitar. Every type of guitar can be played both fingerstyle or with a pick.

However, certain styles of music require you to use either a flatpick or pure fingerpicking. Classical guitar is exclusively fingerstyle, and death metal guitarists almost always play with a pick. 

As well, the electric guitar is almost always played with a pick, whereas the classical guitar is normally plucked with the fingers. Again, there are successful musicians who effectively play the classical guitar with a pick, such as Vlatko Stefanovski. And other guitarists who only play fingerstyle on the electric guitar, such as Mary Spender

Should I Choose Fingerstyle or Flatpicking?

The choice of playing fingerstyle or flatpicking ultimately depends on the music that you want to play. For fast-paced, single note soloing or aggressive strumming, it's hard to beat the speed and volume that you can get with a flat pick. On the other hand, fingerstyle allows for playing complex music such as melody and bass, as well as intricate arpeggio patterns.

Flatpicking is effective both on nylon and steel strings. Some flamenco guitarists can successfully play fast scales fingerstyle, but this requires a lot of practice. It's also possible to play fast arpeggios with a pick - this is called crosspicking.

You will learn the techniques to play fast repeated notes fingerstyle in the online course, Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!

On the other hand, fingerstyle guitar allows for playing of more intricate pieces, such as classical music. When playing fingerstyle guitar, you can do things such as:

  • Play melody and bass simultaneously
  • Play intricate effects such as cascading harmonics
  • Play more easily across multiple strings

Is It Better To Play Guitar Fingerstyle or With A Pick?

As a guitarist, the choice of fingerstyle vs flatpicking will depend on the song that you want to learn, which is usually influenced by the genre of music

If you are undecided on whether you should use a flatpick or fingerpicking for guitar, 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 songs, such as The Unforgiven or House of the Rising Sun, can be played with fingerpicking, but the original version is played with a pick. It may be slightly easier to play these riffs with fingerstyle, but understand that the fingerpicking is generally a gentler technique.

Acoustic guitar with fingerpicking
An acoustic guitar is well suited to both fingerstyle and with a flatpick.

Is Fingerstyle Guitar Harder Than Playing With a Pick?

No, fingerstyle guitar isn’t necessarily harder than playing guitar with a pick. Both techniques have various degrees of difficulty. There are very easy and very difficult fingerpicking songs, just as there are easy and difficult songs that you can play with a pick.

Fingerstyle players can specialize in intricate polyphonic music. This is a fancy way of saying that with fingerstyle guitar, you can play melody and bass lines at the same time. Some guitar players who use a pick become experts at blazingly fast single note soloing with the pick. 

Can You Play Fingerstyle Guitar With a Pick?

Yes, you can use a technique called hybrid picking to play fingerstyle guitar with a pick. This lets you combine plucked notes with the middle and the ring fingers with your right hand with bass notes plucked with a flatpick.

Hybrid picking, however, limits the movement of your plucking hand, because you will have to hold the pick between your index and thumb at all times. This is why I recommend only using hybrid picking for songs that are mostly played with a pick.

Hybrid picking allows you to switch between playing fast scales or arpeggios with the pick and playing block chords simultaneously, something that you cannot do exclusively with flatpicking.

However, because you must hold a pick at all times, you are limited in the fingers available to play fingerstyle.

Should I Use a Thumb Pick to Play Fingerstyle Guitar?

Although a thumb pick can make it easier to do certain techniques like Travis picking, I prefer to grow my thumb nail longer than my other fingernails instead of using a thumb pick. If you are serious about trying a thumb pick, choose several different varieties as they are not the same.

Some thumb picks are flexible, allowing them to do things such as sweep picking or fast alternating movements. Other thumb picks are made of metal and are suitable for playing repeated notes with the thumb. 

The thumb slips on to the tip and extends at 90 degrees away from the finger. This type of pick is commonly used to play Travis picking, often without the use of any other finger picks.

Thumb pick on guitar
A thumb pick can also help with playing palm muting and fast scales.

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 advanced use of the thumb called alzapua entirely without a thumb pick.

Should I Use Finger Picks When Playing Fingerstyle Guitar?

I recommend playing fingerstyle guitar with fingernails (real or artificial) or simply playing without nails, in order to feel the contact of the string with the fingertip of the plucking hand. However, if you are unhappy with the tone that your fingertips produce, there are special finger picks that you can use to play fingerstyle guitar.

Some fingerpicks are made entirely of metal and cover the fingertip entirely. Other finger picks, such as Alaska picks, slip between the fingernail and the fingertip. I have never had much success playing fingerstyle guitar with finger picks, which is why I don't recommend them.

What Are The Benefits of Playing Fingerstyle Guitar?

Playing fingerstyle guitar without a pick opens the possibility to play more complex music. It's easier to learn a wider variety of music, from classical and folk to jazz and blues, if you start with fingerstyle guitar.

A flamenco guitarist playing fingerstyle guitar
You can play fingerstyle guitar more aggressively by using rasgueado technique, which involves flicking the strings and making contact with your fingernail to get a brighter sound.

What Are Some Disadvantages of Finger Picking?

Because fingerstyle guitar requires the precise co-ordination of both hands, it can be more difficult to play fast music with fingerstyle guitar. As well, fingerstyle guitar is generally more intricate and quieter than strumming chords with a pick.

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.

However, it's possible to play louder fingerstyle guitar using the proper techniques. You will learn these techniques and more in the online course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!