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Picks, how to choose one and hold it

The Justinguitar.com Beginner's Course

Using the right pick is surprisingly important for a beginner player. Later on you'll be able to use any old pick, but starting with a nice thin pick will help you loads with strumming when you are starting out.

O.K. Nearly there! I always recommend that you use a pick when you first start learning to play, and learn fingerstyle later (but it is up to you of course...) and so we just need to make sure that that you are holding the pick correctly.

Watch The Video Lesson

Holding Your Pick

Hold the pick so that it comes out of the side of your thumb and hold it with the tip of the 1st finger (see the pictures below). The rest of your hand should just be relaxed. Make sure that the pick is coming out of the side of your thumb – this is by far the most important aspect of the correct position.

Hold Your Pick 1Hold Your Pick 2

 

Recommended picks

jim dunlop nylon

Jim Dunlop Nylon Gauge: .38mm or .46mm
These are very thin and great for strumming. However, any very thin pick will be fine; just try and get as thin as possible. I think this type should be first choice for a beginner guitar player, as they are very forgiving when you are learning to strum. You might find it easier to use a medium gauge (below) when you start to play individual notes.

jim dunlop tortex pick

Jim Dunlop "Tortex" Gauge: .60mm
These are a little thicker; they're better for playing one note at a time but require more control and therefore are not so good for absolute beginners learning to strum.

jim dunlop jazz 3 pick

Jim Dunlop Jazz III Gauge: 1.38mm
This is a very thick pick that I use for electric playing. I never use it for playing acoustic guitar, as it sounds kind of dead, or flat, and has no percussive ‘click', but they are great for electric guitar. The thicker pick gives excellent control for complex stuff too.

I use them for both rhythm and lead playing on electric, and as it happens, the vast majority of pro players I know use this same pick!

Common Questions Answered...

My pick seems to turn around in my hand, what is going on?
This is really common when you start out. If you try and hold the pick too hard then your arm will feel tense; if you hold it too loose, then it falls out or turns around. The solution is practice. Don't let it worry you in the early stages; it will simply take a while for your hand to deal with holding the pick with exactly the right amount of pressure.

What angle should the pick hit the strings?
When you are strumming with a light pick, the angle of picking is not too important. However, if you feel like your pick is getting stuck in the strings, it might be because you are angling the pick in such a way that it's getting caught up. To get it right: start by lining up the pick with the strings, and then turn it so that the pick is angled down just a bit, say 15 degrees. This way the pick will glide over the strings rather than getting caught up in them. If the pick is strumming flat (parallel) against the strings it often gets hooked into the strings and makes your rhythm playing kinda lumpy. So you need to keep the pick at an angle so it will move easily over the strings.

I sometimes find my 2nd finger holding the pick too: is that bad?
Yes it is. Try and hold the pick with just your thumb and 1st finger. Using other fingers will most likely put your wrist at a strange angle and cause problems when you try to develop your technique further.

That said, many great players use strange techniques and hold the pick funny, but what I always recommend is starting the ‘right' way and really giving it a good go before you decide it doesn't work for you. George Benson holds his pick kind of upside down; Brian May uses a coin and Jeff Beck gave up on using the pick altogether, so it really is your decision in the end.

Often, people who start out using a thicker pick try and use three fingers to hold onto it when they strum. A better solution is just to use a thinner pick and hold it the right way!

Using your 2nd finger to hold the pick will:

• Change the angle of your hand, and so change the angle that the pick hits the strings, in a bad way. 
• Change the angle of your palm, which makes it hard to do palm muting. 
• Make ‘hybrid' picking almost impossible, if you decide to get into that later. 
• Mean that you can't use your 2nd finger for tapping. 
• Hinder your ability to manipulate the pick.

I know the ‘right' way can feel really weird if you started using three fingers to hold the pick, but I really think it's worth trying to get back to holding it with just your thumb and 1st finger. It will take a bit of time to get used to how hard to hold it. Like everything else, it's gonna take some practice!

Do I need to hold it different when I strum?
Yes. When you pick out notes one at a time, you don't want too much pick poking out, but when you strum it's ok to have a lot more pick showing from out of your thumb. As you play more you will learn to manipulate how much of the pick sticks out while you play; this sounds hard but it will just happen naturally. Don't stress about it! It will happen when it's ready, and not a second earlier...

I like the "back in the old days" style, is it really bad to hold the pick at the knuckle?
Well, no—there are many great players that played that way—but there are issues with it. I recently taught a guy who showed up with blood all over his guitar because his knuckle was hitting the strings a lot. That's no good. It also makes it hard to use ‘circle' picking which is a more advanced technique you certainly won't be doing in the beginner's course, but is very useful later on when you want to start speeding things up a bit!

I like the Jazz III but they feel too small for strumming...
Then try the Jazz III XL, which is the same shape and thickness, but a bit bigger; lots of people like them.

When I do a lot of strumming (with a pick) the nail on my index finger gets worn down quite a lot, it's kind of towards the right side (or bottom as I'm playing). Is this normal? Am I doing something wrong?
That means you are letting your finger hit the strings when you strum. This is a very bad habit; you need to adjust your finger position on the pick and the angle of your hand as you are doing your down-strums. You would be better off trying to fix this now rather than later. Go back to doing it nice and slowly and make sure that is not happening. It's going to be a bit tough to make the change but it's definitely worth it.

If you don't stop it now it will affect your sound later, and you'll hurt your fingers if you practise a lot.

Beginner products you may like from justinguitar.com
Justinguitar Beginner's Course DVD set
Justinguitar Beginners Songbook
Justinguitar Beginners Songbook
Beginners Course Book
Practical Music Theory

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Lesson ID: BC-107