How To Strum Without A Pick

For most beginners, they tend to get curious about strumming without a pick because they can’t quite seem to get the hang of strumming with a pick yet! While at this point in your learning, I’d recommend just using a thin pick and struggling through it for a bit, I will say that in my own personal playing, I probably opt to not use a pick about 50% of the time. 

When using a pick, there tends to be one way that most people do it, whereas when not using one, there seems to be more variety and modification available to you. For instance, when not using a pick, you’ve got more options for how you angle your fingers on the strings, whether you use your thumb, your fingers, or a combination, how you move your arm, and how much you move your thumb and your fingers independently of the arm. There are also more tonal variations that you can play around with to get the exact sound you’re looking for.

Strumming With Your Thumb

Strumming with your thumb will give you a much rounder sound, as compared to the brighter sound you can expect with a pick. With the down strums, you’re using the fleshier part of your thumb, but on the up strums, your nail might catch the string, resulting in a brighter and more accented up strum. This doesn’t always make the most sense musically, though. It can sound a bit awkward.

Work on getting the angle of your thumb just right so that your thumb doesn’t get caught on the thinnest string on the up strums and so that you don’t get too much of your nail on the up strums. Sometimes this means flattening your hand out a bit.

When strumming with your thumb, you can choose to keep your fingers open and strum from your elbow, similarly to how you would when strumming with a pick. Alternatively, you can anchor your fingers on the guitar and strum using your thumb more independently of the arm. See which one works better for you!

Strumming With Your 1st Finger

If you instead choose to strum with your 1st finger, you’ll notice the opposite situation from when strumming with your thumb – your nail hits the downbeats and your flesh hits the upbeats. This is generally a more amiable sound, but if you wanted the flesh to hit both the up and downbeats, you could simply flatten your whole hand out to achieve this. This would give you a much softer and more delicate sound, but that might be just the sound you’re going for!

When playing with your 1st finger, just like when playing with your thumb, experiment until you find a good angle where your finger isn’t getting caught on its up strums. Also, people strumming with their 1st finger tend to use more of a finger movement and less of an arm movement.

Strumming As If You’re Holding A Pick

If you’re after that brighter sound you typically get with a pick, but you still don’t want to use one, you can put your thumb and 1st finger together as if you’re holding a pick between them. When you strum this way, your nail hits both the up and down strums, mimicking the sound of the pick. You’d also strum from the elbow, just as you would if you were actually holding a pick. This is a great option to use in a pinch, too, say if you accidentally drop your pick mid-song, which definitely happens from time to time!

Other Variations

As you get more comfortable strumming without a pick, you can try mixing it up. For example, you can maybe hit the bass note with your thumb and then strum with your 1st finger. Play around with this! This is a great way to develop and customize your own sound. Don’t get too caught up with the “right” and “wrong” ways to do this. Always remember – playing the guitar, while there are technical aspects to it, is a creative and personal venture! Your playing should have pieces of you all over it.