3 Introductory Picking Styles

Guitar picking

There are three basic picking styles.

Acoustic guitar players typically break down into two groups: strummers and pickers. Their playing preferences are pretty self-explanatory. Strummers like big, ringy chords. They want the acoustic guitar to fill the room with notes. Pickers like to arpeggiate chords, pulling out notes and putting together little licks and partial chords to embellish their playing.

When learning to pick the acoustic guitar, there are three playing styles to learn: flat picking, finger picking and hybrid picking. (Because we’re using the verbs “pick” and “picking” so much in this lesson, we will use the formal name for the noun “pick”… it’s called a plectrum.)

Flat picking

This is the style of playing where the guitarist uses the plectrum to play every note. Most beginning pickers start here because they are already familiar with the plectrum and are intimidated by using their fingers. Flat picking brings out strong, accentuated notes and the guitarist needs to be careful to use varied attack so that the playing is dynamic (some louder notes, some softer notes). This style of playing can be compared to the “hunt & peck” approach to typing on a keyboard; it will get the job done, but it requires a lot of work and unnecessary motion.

Finger picking

This is the style of playing where no plectrum is used at all. Every string is picked with a bare finger or a fingernail. Certain styles of acoustic guitar playing fit well with finger picking, like classical or bluegrass. Some players choose to finger pick because of the nuanced tones that come from the strings when played by fingers only. Other guitarists finger pick simply because they prefer not to use a plectrum. This a very expressive style of playing but guitarists may find it limiting because it is difficult to transition from strumming with a plectrum to finger picking because all fingers are employed by finger picking.

Hybrid picking

As the name suggests, this is a combination of flat picking and finger picking. This style requires the guitarist to hold the plectrum between the thumb and forefinger (or use a thumb plectrum), picking some strings with it while picking the others with some combination of fingers that are not committed to holding the plectrum. This style of playing is very versatile; the guitarist can move from strumming to hybrid picking without putting down the pick. It also allows for accentuated notes to be played with the plectrum in the midst of finger picking. Guitarist who hybrid pick will often play single-note riffs in the midst of arpeggiated chords. The plectrum allows for this kind of embellishment.

Most guitarist learn to play with all three styles of picking. To get started, choose from this selection of fun picking songs to practice these three styles: