Learning the thumb pick + finger picks – why is it so hard to play with these?

Ever tried to play with finger picks and a thumb pick? Learning it is one of those things that many people find real hard. Of course these people are usually not the youngest kind. Many of those (soon to be) banjo, dobro and steel player kids pick up the fingerpick style fairly easily. And aren’t kids like that in general? They seem to learn everything so fast. And for the rest of us old(er) farts, well… let’s just say it’s a steep learning curve. Why’s that?

Learn fingerpicks playfully

Learn to play with finger picks - these thumbpicks and fingerpicks are from an 1934 Gibson catalogYes, that about sums up the right approach. We were like those children once, too. Remember how playfully we approached problems? And by problems, I of course mean stuff that we were genuinely interested in. Mandatory things weren’t usually among them, so let’s politely put those aside now. For good. So anyway, you wondered why you suck at them freakin’ finger picks? It’s because you want it, and you want it now! Not only that, but you are too used to your previous/current way of playing style. It might be flatpick, or (as it’s usually the case) you already play fingerstyle, but with bare fingers, with or without the help of your longer-than-usual nails. Not the kind you put your house together with, but the ones on the business end your fingers, of course. Anyway, when you dive into something new, you tend to have all your expectations lined up in your mind. And – as it’s often the case – they just don’t allow enough room for that above mentioned, reckless playfulness.

Impatience will make you quit

That was certainly my case, too. I stumbled upon the finger picks first in my early 20s. I was already quite comfortable playing with a flatpick by that time. Actually, it was a so called hybrid style, cause I did utilize my middle and ring fingers a bit, too. Then one day, I noticed these tortoise shell Dunlops in a guitar shop. I bought two of them for the fingers, and I also got a thumbpick. I tried them on, and man… suddenly my right hand felt like alien activity has been detected in the room. It felt like I didn’t know anymore what my fingers were made of, nor their correct length. So after a couple minutes, I took the fucking things off. Just to go back to them the other day. And eventually the two fingerpicks have sneaked back onto my (middle and ring) fingers. While of course, I was still holding onto a regular pick at the same time, stuck in between my thumb and my index finger. That’s how I played for about two years. At first it was weird, cause I was used to the bare fingers to do the other part of the hybrid style playing. But since it wasn’t the most crucial element of my playing, I could live with it. And the finger picks started to move more and more, and it’s become more and more effortless. Then I got into Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler and I went with bare fingers for quite a long time.

Cutting the blade – a dead end street

It was all fun & jokes from then on, except the steel string acoustic guitar sounded like shit without a pick. No note definition, no volume whatsoever. During that time, I reached a point of desperation when I tried to play with the thumbpick again, but at the same time, I kept asking myself the same particularly ominous question. “Why is this thing so fucking long?!”. Now don’t worry, for I wasn’t looking at my crotch when I did this. Rather, it was the protruding blade part of the thumb pick that I’ve found obnoxiously, unnaturally long. So I took out my nail clipper and cut it down ferociously, until it was but a couple millimeters in length. This way, the resulting overall sensation was much closer to my bare thumb alone, with no protruding blade; the situation to which I evidently got so used by then. It was kind of, sort of okay that way, but I still preferred the bare thumb. I’ve since learned that many players go through the same phase, and some of them get stuck in it forever, i.e. they customize their picks and cut it to a shorter length, the way I described above. It probably comes from the same urge, the same innate instinct as well; the one related to familiarity and the comfort it means. If you ask me now, I’ll say I don’t recommend doing this to your thumbpick. Why? Because 1. it’s a hassle to prepare each one of your picks, and do it the exact same way. And also 2. because you might lose some volume and expressive control if you cut the blade of the thumb pick. You know, torque and that kind of stuff. Not to mention (that’s 3.) that each time you do this, you create a special item that you wouldn’t be able to buy in a shop. As far as customizing goes, heating the picks (both the one for the thumb and the ones you use on your fingers) in hot water is okay and sometimes necessary, cause you do have to make ’em fit. Snugly. Anyway, back to the story. To sum it up, we can say that the bare finger thing I got going was all right, especially since the majority of my playing was happening on electric guitars. But the lack of volume and definition on the acoustic guitar kept bothering me.

Old time masters, bluegrass heroes

Why, oh why do those old-time music and bluegrass playing guys sound so good on both the records and in the live footages, even from decades ago? Part of it is, of course, the picks. And it’s a rather big part. And people knew it already back in those days. The whole idea of the steel string guitar was born with picks in mind. They designed those instruments so they could be heard with the banjos, mandolins or even horns playing at the same time. Now I’m not saying that acoustic guitars have ever been louder than those truly loud bastards of instruments, but they could at least make a statement, hold their own. All with the help of picks. And in the case of Lester Flatt, Charlie Monroe or Carter Stanley, thumbpicks and fingerpicks. So when I got deeper into the steel string flattop again, I realized that with my rather delicately performed fingerstyle utilizing my bare fingers, the thing has just not enough volume. Nor attack to the notes. And then there was Gene Wooten. Yeah. The man who influenced me to give these evil things another try, strictly rhythm guitar-wise. He was, of course, an exceptional dobro player in the first place. But he also had this very unique thing happening on acoustic guitar: a fast rhythm playing style. And he played it with the thumb pick alone. Man, I wanted to be able to play like that. So yeah, at first I tried my old Jim Dunlop that I shortened the blade of. For the record, I also had 3 tortoise (it’s really just celluloid that looks like tortoise) picks on my index, middle and ring fingers. The old, short thumbpick felt really comfortable after a little while, if a bit limited all around. But I had this thing in mind by then, I decided that I don’t want to use custom stuff if at all possible. So I got a brand new, unaltered celluloid plastic thumb pick as well.

Just keep on truckin’

The weird feeling came back immediately. I couldn’t play guitar anymore, not even a little bit. This time though, I knew it was part of the fun. Hehe. I knew I was going to tame these li’l bastards, no matter what. Everyday I carefully put them on, to play a little besides my regular, bare fingers playtime. Only about 10 minutes at first, maybe not even that much. But knowing how the brain works, I knew that it was going to learn in my sleep whatever new thing I practiced during the day. And indeed, my finger pick playing started to get better and better. Of course I wasn’t struggling this time, I knew I could always fall back onto my regular, no-picks fingerstyle, so I had no expectations. Just the pure, playful joy of having fun. And of course the curious excitement. The whole process was not unlike playing video games you have never played before.

Freedom picks – go special or be inventive?

By the time I got half decent with them finger picks, I noticed that Fred Kelly has a so called freedom pick. I thought it was exactly what I needed. The missing link. I could be able to play my downstroke strums with the back of my fingers again. All that without the picks flying off of my fingers, like in the case of the regular, old school finger picks. So I’ve ordered three Freedom Picks from the UK. Days went by, and when they’ve arrived about a week later, I already broke the barrier. I could play the fukken finger picks with quite an ease! Too bad, because my newly arrived amazing, special picks felt kind of useless now. Except the backhand strokes. They did them perfectly, and still do. Oh well. I’ve decided not to depend on a somewhat more exotic, special item that only a single manufacturer makes. Instead, I’ve figured out new ways to play rhythm. After more then 2 years of breaking the great barrier of playing with a thumbpick and fingerpicks, I still keep coming up with new playing patterns and rhythm ideas. Not only these things are fun, but I also have pure, acoustic volume! And I have a good attack on bass as well. It was something I always envied about bass players that used a pick. I can now do my own fingerstyle thing and still have the best of both worlds. The brain is an awesome device, man. It learns the exact way the new material, with its extra length and different surface reacts to the strings. After a while, it accepts them as part of your fingers. I can now even type on a computer keyboard with them on. What a joy it is to keep going back and edit your typing mistakes! Think about it. Don’t give up on finger picks too early.

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