You’ve Picked up a Plectrum… Now what?
You’ve probably been playing the guitar for a while now. You’ve heard others talking about using a plectrum (or pick) and seen your favorite guitarists with dozens of plectrums stuffed into the mic boom in front of them. You might even have picked up a plectrum and started at it with a sort of strange curiosity. If you’ve already tried using a plectrum to play your guitar, you’ll be aware of how foreign it can feel. I remember when I first started using a plectrum. It was frustrating because I couldn’t play songs with a plectrum that I could when using my fingers. I soon found myself wondering how to use a plectrum properly. This guide will help you to choose the perfect plectrum for you and will try to help you to see a plectrum as an extension of your hand.
Holding a Plectrum
There are a few ways you can hold a plectrum but I’ll share the most common method, which is how I hold my plectrum. Begin by balancing the plectrum on the index finger of the hand you use to strum the guitar.
Next bring your thumb over to grip the plectrum loosely. You’ll want to cover about half of the plectrum with your thumb. You should note that I have large hands, so you might be comfortable with more of the plectrum visible.
Finally retract your other fingers so that the plectrum is proud of your hand. Grip it loosely so that there is a degree of flexibility. Practice loosely strumming air until you get used holding the plectrum.
Picking a Plectrum that Suits you
There are many different shapes and sizes of plectrum. Fortunately they’re not expensive. Check out my post about the best guitar accessories for beginners where I recommend a great set. The plectrum I’m using in the images above is a medium. I really like the medium (.60mm) plectrum for playing my acoustic guitar. It gives enough flexibility whilst maintaining the rigidity I need to strike cleanly. My preference is a slightly harder plectrum when playing my electric guitar and usually opt for 1.00mm.
I tend to go for nylon picks, however I have been known to use textured plastic too. I like the standard shape but have also used a large triangle pick when playing heavier rock music on the electric guitar. Very rarely I’ll use a paper-thin .38mm if I need to play super-softly on the acoustic.
A medium plectrum, around .60mm is a good choice for a beginner. It gives you flexibility and rigidity at the same time. So start with the medium and branch out from there. That’s not to say don’t experiment with other sizes. Invariably it’ll be a personal preference. One thing to make sure of is that you have plenty of plectrums as they’re good at going missing! In my experience I find all of my lost plectrums as soon as I’ve bought some more!
Introduce the Plectrum to the Guitar
It’s probably best to sit when playing with a plectrum for the first time. This will give you more stability. Start by strumming all strings whilst fretting an open chord. Just strum downwards for now to get used to how the pick moves in your hand on contact with the strings. It’ll feel strange at first.
Next, switch to strumming upwards only. This tends to be where most people start dropping the plectrum. If you’re using an acoustic guitar, it’s like that you’ll lose one or two inside the sound hole. Picks have a canny way of finding their way in there! You can usually fish them out with your hands or alternatively just reach for another plectrum and fish them all out later! Don’t neglect the up strum. I’ve known guitarists who have been seriously hampered because they’ve neglected the up strum with a plectrum. They rely solely on the down strum, which affects their play as well as being exhausting!
Once you’re getting the hang of both the up and down strum, start to put them together. Then begin to introduce a more natural style of strumming. You’ll likely drop the plectrum many times, but persists and you’ll get there. The next step is to begin fretting different chords whilst strumming with the plectrum. This might sound simple but it introduces another task for your brain to handle. Consequently it might take a little practice but once you’ve mastered it you’ll be well on your way to being proficient with a plectrum.
Playing Single Notes with a Plectrum
Now that you’ve mastered strumming with a plectrum, lets move on to playing individual strings. A really good song to practice this way of playing is Good Riddance (Time of your life) by Green Day. Most people know this song and if you can play it with a plectrum you’ll be quite proficient. Before you run off and find the tab for Good Riddance let’s start with some basic exercises.
Play the high e-string over and over with alternative down and up strikes. Once you’re comfortable move onto the b-string. This will add a little complexity due to the close proximity of the g-string and high e-strings. Repeat this exercise over all of the strings.
Fret a Few:
Next repeat the exercise however this time fret from the first to the fourth fret with each strike of the string. This will add some complexity as your fretting hand will now require some brain power too. Again repeat this with all of the strings until you’re comfortable.
Fret a Chord:
Fret an open chord and play each string from low-e to high-e striking up and down on alternative strings. Repeat this up and down the strings whilst fretting the open chord. Next you can change the chord that you’re fretting and repeat. This will help you to practice accuracy with the pick, whilst exposing you to scenarios you’re likely to encounter when learning new songs.
Let’s put what you’ve learned into practice. You can actually play this song without the need to move your fretting hand very much. All of the action takes place on the third fret. You don’t need to move your ring or little finger throughout this song.
The song starts with picking of the individual notes. You can do this with your fingers, but we’re here to learn to play with the plectrum! If you listen to the song you can hear the chord changes. The progression for the verse is G, C, D. Here’s the song with lyrics to help you along.
Try to make each strike of each string an up and then down strike with the plectrum. Start slowly, don’t rush. You don’t need to play at the same speed as the video. Get the technique right and you’ll be playing along in no time at all! If you can play this song using a pick, you’ll have a really solid foundation to move onto playing other riffs and solos using your new friend.
There are many different shapes, sizes and material types when it comes to plectrums. You can even get plectrums made of metal and wood! Ultimately you’ll settle on a type or types of plectrums that suit you. It’s important to keep trying other types however. You might find a new favorite pick, or at the very least you’ll be able to dismiss those that really don’t work for you.
Learning to play with a plectrum can seem counter-intuitive at first. It takes patience and commitment, but it brings a different dynamic to your playing style. Start slowly and gradually build up using the exercises above. Once you’ve learned to use a pick you’ll be able to move onto more advanced techniques, like picking with a plectrum and your fingers at the same time! It’s important to keep practicing. One of the most difficult skills to learn with a plectrum is precision picking. This is important for intricate riffs and particularly for guitar solos. Give yourself a solid basis and it’ll help you to nail those awe inspiring guitar solos that wow audiences!
I really hope this has demystified learning to use a plectrum. If you have any comments or questions please feel free to leave them below. Alternatively you can get in touch via my contact page. Good luck and happy picking!