Why I Play With A Thumbpick

I always play with a thumbpick, and have for decades. I get asked about this a lot because it's extremely unusual for someone who doesn't do a lot of acoustic fingerpicking. I believe the thumbpick can be a very good choice for electric guitarists, and here I'm going to say why.

Customising Your Thumbpick

The first thing to say is that I don't play with an ordinary thumbpick. If you try any kind of modern single-note style of playing with one you'll soon see why: all the ones I've ever seen are shaped for downstrokes only, and are more or less impossible to alternate-pick with.

My solution is to sculpt the pick into the right shape using a nail file (emery board). Personally I like a sharp point on the end and bevelled edges. Your preferred shape may be slightly different: the nice thing is you have complete control, the same way wind players do when they cut their own reeds.

When you first use it, the pick will sound scratchy because of the rough edges from the filing. Perhaps you can polish it but frankly a bit of playing soon seems to smooth it out. Over time your pick will get eroded into a perfect shape by your playing; later it will get too short and have to be replaced. You should always have some spares, pre-sharpened and worn in, but then you always carry spare picks anyway, right?

All thumbpicks I've seen are hard enough to keep hardcore shredders happy. If you're used to playing with a big, wide pick, though, you may find there's something to get used to here.


I'm just going to list some:

  • You can still do all the same things you do with your existing pick (but see the next section)
  • All four fingers are available for picking, meaning you can switch from fingerstyle to lead playing instantly
  • You can use fingers to pick awkward strings while soloing without resorting to learning hybrid picking
  • Classical-style artificial harmonics are much easier
  • Your fingers also give you lots of timbral possibilities that are now much easier to access
  • You have the option to play chords clawhammer style, which gives a very controlled, clean sound (octaves, in particular, become crystal-clear)
  • You'll never drop your pick again
  • Play with a completely relaxed hand: no more exhausting death-grip on the pick
  • Adjust the pick angle by bending the first knuckle of your thumb rather than having to rotate your whole wrist
  • Go from picking to tapping and back instantly, without having to palm the pick or tap without your index finger


The only thing I've found genuinely tough to do with a thumbpick is pinch harmonics. For a long time I thought they were impossible and played harms the way classical players do, picking with the thumb and stopping the node with the index finger. Later I found out I could do a pinch harmonic by catching the string not with the flesh on the edge of the thumb (as usual) but with the outside of the knuckle of the thumb instead. This works pretty well for me.

The feeling of the thumbpick takes some getting used to, and some players may find the limited range of sizes makes it impossible to find one that's a good fit. Big thumbs are likely to feel constrained and that may just be too uncomfortable; people with very small hands may find the thumbpick tends to slip off, negating its benefits.

Thumbpicks aren't always available when other picks are. You probably won't be able to borrow a friend's or pick one up at the studio. I've been caught out this way before and had to do a day of recording with a pick I didn't like. That goes for other unusual or custom picks, too, and it's just something to be aware of when you pack your bags.

For me, the advantages have always outweighed the challenges. Even if you're not happy with your current pick, consider giving it a try and see what you think.