Learn how to play with a plectrum!

Many beginners who are just starting to play the guitar wonder whether they should use a plectrum or not. And if so, what exactly do you do with it? In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at some of the advantages of using a plectrum (also known as a pick), how to hold it and how to use it. It’s not difficult, but, like everything else, it requires a little practice.

Advantages of playing with a plectrum

Choosing to play with a plectrum or not is not a decision that’s set in stone. For some songs you might decide that playing with a plectrum sounds best and for other songs you may like the sound of your fingers plucking the strings more. The most important thing is how it sounds to you and how it feels. It’s also worth taking a look at how some of your favourite guitarists play a certain song. Normally, playing with a plectrum gives you a brighter sound with a clearer attack than you get from playing with your fingers which tend to give you a sound that’s more ‘rounded’ and warm. If you’re just starting out, you’ll probably find it easier to play more quickly with a plectrum. As you progress, however, you’ll notice that being able to play with all of your fingers can be at least as fast. Styles like rock and metal are generally played with a plectrum, while many acoustic songs really require you to play with your fingers. For some classical music and styles like flamenco, you need to play with your finger nails! If you’ve decided you need a plectrum, take a look at our plectrum buyer’s guide.

Learn how to play with a plectrum!

How to hold a plectrum

Most guitarists who play with a plectrum hold it between their thumb and index finger and there are two common methods used for doing so. Take a look at the images below. Method 1: here you see the plectrum being pinched between the thumb and the tip of index finger. Method 2: here you see the plectrum being pinched between the thumb and the side of the index finger. Again, if you study your favourite guitarists, you’re likely to see both of these methods being used as well as different variations of both. Use the method that feels and sounds the best to you. Your other fingers can either be curled up into a loose fist or left hanging, whichever you prefer.

Method 1:

Method 2:

Fingers curled up:

Fingers left hanging:

How to use a plectrum / How to strike the string(s)

With the plectrum securely in place, strike the desired string (or strings) by moving your hand downwards (a downstroke) as if you’re trying to put out a burning match (see the image below). You can also strike the desired string (or strings) on the way back up (an upstroke) by moving your hand in the opposite direction. Do this repeatedly up and down in a smooth and rhythmic fashion and you’ll be strumming! Make sure to keep your wrist loose and don’t hold the plectrum too tightly or too softly. If you’re holding down chords, make sure you only strike the strings you need too. In guitar tablature, the strings that shouldn’t be touched are marked with an ‘X’. If you want to play single notes, your hand movement needs to be smaller and more accurate. Your hand should float just above the strings, but not touch them. It may take a while to develop your hand coordination and accuracy, but the more you practise the better you’ll get.

Downstrokes and upstrokes

As you can imagine, the combination of downstrokes and upstrokes is what gives guitar music its rhythm and the subject could easily fill an entire blog on its own. For now, let’s keep it simple. An enormous number of songs out there follow a simple beat that can be counted as 1, 2, 3, 4. An easy way to get started is simply to do a downstroke on every beat. If you want to put an extra beat in between, you could do that with an upstroke. These basic strumming patterns will be enough to get you started and help you to play chords and melodies in time.

Example (d = down, u = up):

Are     you     sleep  -  ing,  ||
1        2        3        4    ||  
d        d        d        d    ||   

Bro  -  ther     John?          ||
1        2        3        4    ||
d        d        d             ||

Morning bells are ring  - ing.  || 
1        2        3        4    ||   
d   u    d   u    d        d    ||   

Ding,   dong,    ding.          ||
1        2        3        4    ||
d        d        d             ||

Don’t hold the plectrum too tightly (or too softly)

Holding the plectrum too tightly is likely to give you hand cramps at best and injuries at worst. Holding it too lightly, however, means you’re likely to lose your grip and drop it while you’re playing. That’s why it’s important to practise regularly so that you can discover just the right amount of tension. One other thing about plectrums that you might discover is that they have a tendency to simply disappear! That’s why it’s always a good idea to have a few around you whenever you’re using one to play the guitar.

What’s your favourite style of music and do you use a plectrum or your fingers for it? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also see

» Plectrums & plectrum holders
» Guitars & accessoires
» Bass guitars & accessoires
» Other string instruments

» Plectrum buyer’s guide
» How to tune your guitar
» How do I become a guitarist?

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