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Best Way To Hold a Guitar Pick

Question by JT

This may seem like a stupid question, especially for someone who has been playing for more than twenty years!

Recently, I have come across some great players online (blues, bluegrass) who say that in changing the way they hold the pick, they have greatly improved their playing.

They describe holding the pick with their index finger curled directly paralleled under their thumb as opposed to the index finger crossing perpendicularly under their thumb.

When I try this new method the tone of the guitar is stronger/louder but the control of the depth of the pick within the strings is much harder to control, especially in trying to play a smooth rhythm.

I know this seems like a small detail and may be just a player's preference, but I am curious as to how important the correct application of this fundamental playing technique might be.

Any insight is very much appreciated!


This is absolutely NOT a stupid question, no matter how long you've been playing!

This way of holding the pick you mention (the "fist" method) is actually more common than you might think, especially with players who use heavier gauge picks.

Let's just recap on the three main ways of holding the pick (you probably already know these, JT, but it's worth covering for those who don't).

The most common, and what I feel is the best compromise between control and tone, is the method I show in the beginners section, where you make an elongated O shape with your thumb and index finger:

The second way is the "pinch" method, which offers greater pick flexibility. This uses the flat of your index finger rather than the side. I think this method is best for those who use soft/light gauge picks and spend most of their time strumming...

The third way, often called the "fist" method, I think tends to suit heavier gauge picks (often favoured by bluegrass players)...

Obviously there are slight alterations of these 3 methods, such as how far the index is curled around. You mentioned the top part of the index finger being parallel with the thumb, so that's somewhere between the O method and the full fist.

It is, ultimately, personal preference.

So my first suggestion would be to experiment with different pick gauges, but while you're doing this, try the different holding methods, because they will work differently as combinations.

And these combos might change depending on the style of music you're playing.

When I played in a funk band, for example, I liked a light pick (less than 1mm gauge) and plenty of flexibility between my index finger and thumb for those 16th note strumming patterns (i.e. the smooth rhythm you mentioned). So I might not grip the pick so tightly to accommodate this flexibility.

But I'd also chop and change between a variety of different techniques (i.e. rhythm, lead), so the compromise of the "O" holding method worked well.

Over time, I've just got used to that compromise, and all my progress has been made using this one method (with pick gauges changing now and again for more focused playing, with recording for example).

That's a key point here - if years of progress has been made using one method, you may have to take quite a leap back if you switch to a new method. A fresh start is not always what you need.

"If it ain't broke...".

So in most cases, if you're beyond the beginner stage, it's best to spend very little time trying out different pick gauges and holding methods and just go with what you use now. You'll find and adapt your tone with any method you use, as your muscle memory develops, so try not to interrupt that important internalisation process.

You might go through short phases (as have I) where your curiosity gets the better of you and you revisit the pick gauge you use and even how you hold your pick. That's fine, but don't dwell on it, or change just because you see a great player using, or even recommending a particular method.

For every great guitarist who recommends one method, there will be another who swears by another method.

So, in summary, to get it "out of your system", I would get down to your local guitar shop, buy a range of pick gauges (if you haven't already), from very light (.38mm) to heavy (1mm +), and try out the three methods (including slight alterations) mentioned here over the next few days.

That's the only way you're going to know for certain which method feels the most natural to you.

Keep to your regular practice schedule and try playing songs and licks you already know using these different combos.

After a few days of experimentation, you should be able to eliminate those methods that simply aren't going to work for you and those which have potential.

If it's a close call between a few combos of pick gauge and/or holding method, I would personally just pick one and run with it.

Then, seriously, just forget about it and focus on your next playing goal!

Hope this helps.

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Picking-Hand Thumb Mutins
By: Bob

What do you think of muting lower strings with the picking hand thumb, as opposed to the palm?

Do you think that, as long as the index finger of the fretting hand - with the aid of relaxed, inward-folding non-picking fingers lightly resting on the strings below the string being played - is a plausible method for muting unwanted strings from sounding out?

I read about this from a Tom Hess article. Mr. Hess, whom I'm sure you've heard of, charges ridiculous prices to sell his methods.

Many thanks,

Try it
By: Mike

Bob, the simple answer is, if it works for you... it works. It's plausible if only because many guitarists use the thumb muting method.

I personally don't use my thumb to mute strings but I'm sure if I started using that method and forced myself to use it every day, I could make it work.

By: Anonymous

The way you explained mate is really so simple and very easy to understand it. The best thing about your explanation is you use the pictures to make your statement more clearly.

String muting & pick grip
By: Aniruddha Biswas

Thanks Mike for strenthening my belief that we should experiment with pick gauges & holding positions. I am from an Indian small town. I started my guitar journey with an instructor. I was disappointed with him & everybody else even from the city cause they have insufficient+flawed knowledge. Nobody cares about string muting!!! Nor the like to experiment with pick gauge & holding. They just ask you to use a big & thick pick like them cause they are just playing rhythm. So I started to seek Online knowledge. I found a gr8 Guru in you. I learnt string muting by myself & I too use my palm to mute. Wish I could have gotten you from the begining!!! Your guidence can make me a good lead player. Thank you for devoting so much time for us who can't seek good professional guidence directly.

By: Anonymous

Pretty much what you said about everyone having their own preferences.

I just find in much more comfortable holding the pick between the middle finger and the thumb. The index finger plays more of a support role depending on whether I'm playing a chord or strumming individual strings.

Pick-Grip & String muting
By: Aniruddha Biswas

Its been a few yrs after reading & commenting on this Q&A. Now I use Pick-grip method 1 (Where you make an "O" with your thumb & Index finger), with very small gap between pick-tip & thumb. I use my thumbs to mute the strings above the pick & free fingers (mid, ring & pinkie) to mute the strings below the pick after reading Mr. Tom Hess's (a gr8 teacher) article. Keep up your good work Mr. Beatham. Your lessons are really invaluable. Thank you for giving them away freely. I am forever indebted to you.

By: Anonymous

Well done for not saying what most guitar "experts" say and start lecturing us on the right and wrong way to hold a guitar pick. I've been using the pinch method for 20 years and I've had 20 years of "experts" sanctimoniously telling me I'm doing it wrong and telling others not to do it. It works for me and it works for others. I found far better pick control using this hold, including soloing - and it was the technique which helped me master the right-hand work on Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)".

How the pick attacks the string matters
By: Anonymous

Go ahead and try this. Strum the top three strings from the high e to the next two lower frequency strings. Hold your favorite pick lightly, at an angle, and far from the tip. You’ll hear a lot of open sounding highs. It might even sound clangy. I use a vox Ac15 and a Humbucker. It sounds wonderfully full and open like this. Next, choke up on the pick so only a little of the tip shows, and hold it in a death grip in your fingers.

Strum again. You’ll notice it’s a lot darker, even muffled sounding. It’s awful. Nothing was changed about the amp or its settings, the guitar, etc. all that changed is how tight you hold the pick, how it hits the strings, etc.

Same pick, wildly different results. That is the tonal importance of picks.

Pickless NEW
By: Josh

Ok so I have had guitars my whole life. Always learned riffs from tabs. Know some chords and know a lot of parts of songs. But I have never used a pick because I just don't get the feel of the strings with a pick that I do my thumb. I find that I hold the bottom e string with my middle finger on my picking hand a lot. I have tried so hard to break this habit and use a pick. I can not seem to get the right feel for it though. So I am trying this place out because #1 its free and thats awesome, and #2 it instantly connected with me on a level where I felt like a 'this is it moment. So far just the holding of the pick and the pick thickness has helped me to get a smoother sound out of my strums. I am ready to get serious about playing these guitars. Not just in my room every night. I want to jam with other people and haven't since I was a teenager and am now well out of that time period. I look forward to going thru this and seeing what else I can learn to help my playing evolve into what I hope it will become. Smooth, flowing, and I want to build tension with highs and lows in my guitar playing. I really think this is the best lesson place I have tasted using. Usually by now I've had enough of other lesson pages. Thanks.

Best post on the subject NEW
By: Theodore

Really good and appreciate the lack of dogmatism.

Wanted to add that it seems like R+B and reggae players - people who want a lighter touch - tend to use the pinch method. As you mentioned bluegrass or players with a heavy touch like the fist, and the O grip is a nice in between and unsurprisingly the most common.

I'm starting to go back and forth between the pinch and O grip depending on the sound I want. The pinch method will let the pick flop around more in your fingers, so you'll need to mentally be OK with that. But ultimately just go with whatever most fits the tone you're looking for and feels comfortable.

Picking styles NEW
By: Bill

Great advice, I keep coming back to this question from time to time and always end up going back to my original style of picking. I think taking the time to try different gauge picks and holding styles occasionally doesn't hurt, but after many years of playing, you've probably developed the best style for you. Thank you for the article!

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