From the Dobro to the lap steel to the acoustic/electric guitar, thumb picks have many uses and avatars. They are more common in genres like blues and country, but you’ll also see them occasionally used in everything from Jazz, to Western Swing to flamenco.
Using a thumbpick can feel strange and awkward at first. Despite my love for the likes of Tommy Emmanuel, Merle Travis, and Buster Jones, it still took me a hot minute to get used to it. Over the years, I’m thankful for the efforts and I’ll share my insights to help you decide in favor of using one.
- Reasons to use a thumbpick
- Advantages of using a thumbpick
- Types of Thumbpicks
- How to Use Thumbpicks
- Tips for people who want to use thumbpicks
- Famous Thumbpickers – Old and New
- Best Thumbpicks for Beginners
- Final Thoughts
Reasons to use a thumbpick
It has its pros and cons, but it primarily acts as a bridge between strumming and plucking and eliminates the possibility of your guitar pick slipping out of your hands.
However, it wouldn’t be fair to categorize it as an option to a regular pick. Thumbpicking is a right-hand technique that has its nuances and tonal possibilities. A thumb pick is extremely convenient for playing certain styles and getting chunky tones. Moreover, it is essential if you want to play fingerpicking tunes in genres like folk, country, and acoustic blues.
Advantages of using a thumbpick
- More clarity, especially in the low end
- Frees up the index finger
- Better attack than the flesh of the finger (thumb)
- An alternative to flat-picking or hybrid picking
- Keeps hands in a natural position
Types of Thumbpicks
Thumb picks are also available in a variety of shapes, thicknesses, sizes, and designs. The most common of these are the standard metal and plastic thumbpicks found in a majority of the local stores and online markets. Occasionally, you may find composite picks and other unorthodox materials used to achieve specific tones.
How to Use Thumbpicks
Thumbpicking can add a whole new dimension to your playing but it won’t happen overnight or by fluke. You need to understand the ins and outs of the technique to get the most out of your playing. For instance, in many styles, the right hand (picking hand) remains low and close the strings/bridge for palm muting the bass notes.
If you are a beginner, you should check out Tommy Emmanuel’s Thumpicking Masterclass to get started. More advanced players can look up thumb-picking techniques like banjo rolls as demonstrated by Buster Jones in this video.
How do you wear a thumbpick?
A thumb pick is fairly similar to the regular guitar pick but it can be worn on your thumb like a ring. It has a loop (or pinch band) that you slide onto your thumb with a protruding edge that you use to hit the strings to play the note. Based on the shape of your thumb, you will have to find the sweet spot to wear as there is no “correct” place to position it.
Can you use a thumbpick to strum?
Yes. Besides its conventional use, artists like Pokey Lafarge and Tommy Emmanuel often use thumbpicks to strum and solo. The only difference is that you won’t be able to change the angle comfortably as you could with a regular guitar pick to achieve certain dynamic effects.
Tips for people who want to use thumbpicks
Avoid cheap no-name thumbpicks
Thumb picks aren’t expensive, to begin with. It is advised that you buy a reliable product from a known brand to ensure that they have the requisite quality. Let’s face it, you’ll shave a couple of dollars from the price tag with a no-name brand, but is it worth it if it eventually dissuades you from getting the job done?
Cheap picks are flimsy, poorly shaped, and rarely durable. They tend to warp and slip off. A bad quality thumb pick is not just a waste of time and money, it can also mislead you into thinking that thumbpicking isn’t your cup of tea – a great disservice.
Give it some time and experiment
You didn’t start shredding in a day or a month. You won’t sound nail Travis picking in a week either. Many guitar players start with a thumbpick and discard the idea at the first signs of discomfort. Don’t be impatient about your progress. Instead, be disciplined and you’ll wake up one day boom-chickin’ like a boss.
Additionally, you may notice some pain after a few minutes of using it in the initial stage. It is normal. Some of this can be attributed to ‘getting used to them’. It’s also possible that you are using the wrong size and the tightness is constricting the blood flow to your thumb, which brings us to our next point…
Get the right fit and size
An ill-fitted thumb pick is the number one reason why most beginners give up on the idea. They will cause discomfort and pain if they are too tight or keep slipping off because they are too loose. In the process, you’ll eventually stop using them.
The wrong size won’t work for obvious reasons but ‘fit’ refers to how it will sit on your thumb. ‘Sizes’ are generic as the human thumb has individual-specific, nuanced variations. A medium thumb pick can be the correct size, but it may not be the right fit. Luckily, you can use some DIY hacks to get the perfect fit, if the size is correct.
How to fix a loose/tight or long thumbpick
Fingerpicking blues can result in blue thumbs if your thumbpick is too tight. Rumor has it that Jerry Reed’s song Blue Finger was written to express a similar grievance. Soaking thumb picks in hot water to reshape them is the most common way to reshape them to fit your thumb. You can check out this video to learn more about it.
Lastly, the protruding edge of the thumbpick should not be too long as it may get caught up in the strings while you play at a fast tempo. If you like a particular thumbpick fit that has this problem, you can file the edge down to the appropriate length.
Famous Thumbpickers – Old and New
- Lenny Breau
- Chet Atkins
- Tommy Emmanuel
- Merle Travis
- Don Ross
- Brent Mason
- Johnny Winter
- Pokey Lafarge
Best Thumbpicks for Beginners
Our Top Pick
Dunlop 9003P Player’s Pack contains four high-quality thumbpicks. These medium-sized thumbpicks will fit most guitar players. Their thickness and material (plastic) render a warm tone and their curved edges made them ideal for boom-chick playing.
Best Budget Thumbpick
The classic D’addario shell thumbpick is available in multiple gauges and sizes. Celluloid is one of the most popular materials for regular guitar picks and it’s easy to see why – these picks are thick and can take some abuse. The curved edge and celluloid material has a natural feel, and as a bonus can be easily reshaped using heat (eg from a cigarette lighter) if you need them slightly larger or smaller. Overall, this is a durable thumbpick with a warm and consistent tone.
KGR Editor’s Choice
We’ve already featured the Golden Gate Pearloid GP-6 in our best guitar picks for beginners guide. These aren’t like the inexpensive thumbpicks meandering on the counter of your local guitar store. They are vintage-looking, highly durable, heavy pearloid nitrocellulose picks that are the best in the category when it comes to comfort, fit, and durability. They are available in medium, large, and large + extra thick.
A thumb pick is really useful for Travis picking, fingerstyle blues, folk music and country music (check out our favorite easy country songs). It is common for beginners to struggle with using one right out of the bag. However, with some amendments to your technique and/or pick, you will learn to use them effectively to expand your repertoire of playing styles and genres. Luckily, they only cost a few dollars, which makes them a worthwhile option to experiment with.