So yes, there’s an alternative to fingerpicking your guitar with either bare fingertips or with carefully-shaped and pampered fingernails. Of various shapes, sizes, designs and made of differing materials, finger picks not only give you a third choice between nails and no-nails, they are also part of the traditional sound and playing style of certain instruments.
You could play the banjo or koto or sitar or qanun with your fingertips alone, but…it wouldn’t sound right, somehow. It would be too quiet in volume, too dull in tone. And with certain instruments, due to the tuned tension of the strings, their length and gauge, setting a string in motion takes just a tiny bit longer with pliant skin than it would with something harder and less flexible.
Imagine plucking a tuned-up mandolin. The strings, aside from being in pairs – double-course – and close together, are quite short in length (from nut to bridge) and are tuned really tight. They have to be or they’d be flopping around like rubber bands. For an example, think of tuning the lowest pair of mandolin strings to the same pitch (not only the note but the same octave) of the bottom string of a standard guitar. You’d keep tuning down and down, trying to match the one with the other, and eventually the shorter mandolin strings would get loose enough to maybe have the bridge fall off. It’s because the string length is almost half that of the regular guitar, and so the string tension has to be almost twice as much. Another example is the violin and the bass viol.
And for you old-time bass guitar players out there: I have to admit to it – and you might too – that before five-string basses became widely available, there were times that I had to tune the low E string down to D for certain songs the band was covering. Had to take care not to pluck it too hard so it wouldn’t bounce against the pickup pole-piece. Too loose and floppy; real easy to get the string in motion, but almost…too easy.
With looser strings – lower tension – your fingertips are more than enough to get the strings moving; with tighter strings, the inherent softness of skin doesn’t quite dig in enough. Or quickly enough. There’s the tendency for just a bit of lag, more friction because of the wider surface area of the fingertip as opposed to, say, your fingernail. But with some instruments, even a strong, well-shaped fingernail has a certain amount of give and therefore, slower response time.
ENTER PUSH-ON FINGER PICKS
You’ve most likely seen them in catalogs, online or being used by players you admire, made of clear plastic, shell-colored celluloid, stainless steel and just about any other material that the manufacturer thinks will be both comfortable to wear and afford good, clean sound on the strings.
The first time I bought a set, they were the cheap, clear plastic ones – one for each of the first three fingers and one for the thumb – and though they fit well enough, it felt weird when trying to play. This is after I’d put them on backwards, with the curved, pointed part curling down over my fingernails like little claws. I couldn’t figure what the fuss was about because these claws did anything but make the playing smoother. They grabbed the strings and yanked them.
So, okay…then, I figured they went the other way around.
Still, though: now I had a layer of plastic between my fingertips and the strings which seemed somehow counter-intuitive. It was awkward, clumsy, though in fact they gave a nice, bright, loud sound with a minimum of effort.
Then I tried metal ones, ones made of molded plastic that were meant to be worn over your nails. These were angled down at the strings and still had the cap-visor shape mentioned in a previous post, but they were still not comfortable or touch-sensitive as I might’ve liked. I stuck with natural fingernails for years; that and the flat pick, or a combination of both.
It was only when I decided to try lap steel guitar that I once more got out the fingerpicks. The steel ones. I found that fingernails just weren’t doing the trick with the shorter, more tightly tuned strings. It was part of the basic sound of the steel guitar to have bright, precise contact with the strings, and in the case of this particular instrument, it was a case of Fingers Not On Strings, because there was now steel on my picking fingers, as well as a bar of steel in my other hand: there are no actual frets on a lap-steel or steel guitar, and so no actual pressing down against them.
Now like any guitarist in the 70s – the decade of slide guitar – I had gotten into playing slide, both electric and acoustic; not having contact with the strings with one hand was already old-hand. With the lap-steel though, I just couldn’t get used to having both hands isolated from contact with the strings. That is until the day I took my fingerpicks to my day job and kept them in my coat pocket.
Every chance I got during the day I would reach in my pocket and slip them on my fingers, and just…get used to them. I answered the phone with them, had them on when I used a pen or pencil to write things down or scratched my nose, and by the end of that one day, they felt a natural part of me. Weird but true.
ALL THIS TO SAY…
Over the years I’ve collected quite an assortment of different sets of finger/thumb picks, of various shape and material, but have gravitated towards the simple, traditional metal ones. That’s just me, though.
For you? I still think it’s well worth at least trying finger picks for fingerstyle guitar playing. Probably not with nylon- or gut-stringed instruments like the classical guitar or the lute – because the tension of the strings is softer – but with steel stringed instruments, definitely.
Like always, give it a shot.
If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.
Fingers On Strings
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