How to pick or strum a guitar? Tips with & without pick

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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In music, strumming is a way of playing a stringed instrument such as a guitar.

A strum or stroke is a sweeping action where a fingernail or plectrum brushes past several strings in order to set them all into motion and thereby play a chord.

In this guitar lesson, you will learn how to play the guitar properly. This ensures that your practice and playing time are used efficiently.

It also reduces the risk of injury and helps your progress go faster when you practice more techniques.

So let’s look at both playing with and without a guitar pick and the right techniques for this.

How to pick or strum a guitar

Strums are executed by the dominant hand, while the other hand holds down notes on the fretboard.

Strums are contrasted with plucking, as a means of activating strings into audible vibration, because in plucking, only one string is activated by a surface at a time.

A hand-held pick or plectrum can only be used to pluck one string at a time, but multiple strings can be strummed by one.

Plucking multiple strings simultaneously requires a fingerstyle or fingerpick technique. A strumming pattern or strum is a preset pattern used by a rhythm guitar.

How do you play a guitar with a plectrum?

First, I’ll explain how to use a guitar pick for playing, but you don’t have to use one.

If you don’t have one or if you don’t want to use one, that’s fine. It is up to you. You can use your thumb and index finger to play the strings a bit, but I’ll explain more about that at the bottom of the article.

I would at least recommend making a choice, although I also really love hybrid and chicken pickin ‘, but that’s a choice too.

Some things are more a personal preference rather than a correct technique,  like the way you hold the pick and the angle with which you strike it.

How to hold a guitar pick

The best way to start holding a guitar pick is

by just sticking out the pick in front of you,
pointing the plectrum to the left if you are right-handed,
putting your thumb on it as naturally as possible
and then come down the choice with your index finger.

As for the grip on the pick, just do whatever feels natural. Your finger could be bent inward, it could be more parallel to the pick, or it could be the other way.

You may even want to try holding the pick with two fingers. That gives you some extra control. Experiment and see what feels comfortable and natural to you.

At what angle should you hit the strings

The second little thing I wanted to discuss is the angle you choose to hit the strings when you hit.

Most people have the pick pointed down to the floor when it fires. Some people have the pick angle more parallel to the strings, and some people point the pick up.

It really doesn’t matter. The important thing is to experiment with the angle you like best and find out what works for you.

The next tip I want to give you when you catch on is to relax. When you are tense, you are really inefficient and you are also going to introduce the possibility of injury.

If you feel tension while starting, just stop, relax, and start over. That way you don’t teach yourself a wrong playing position.

Strike from your wrist

I see many newbies lock their wrists and play mostly from their elbow, but that can cause loads of tension, so it’s best to avoid it and practice this technique.

One of the best explanations I’ve ever heard for catching is pretending you have some glue on your finger and a spring attached to it. Pretend you’re trying to shake it off.

When you do that, most of the movement comes from your wrist. The elbow can also help, but the wrist isn’t locked like that. Keep that little analogy in mind when trying to find your playing position.

Practice playing the guitar

It’s best to get started with your downstrokes. You don’t even have to use chords of you don’t know any, it’s all about strumming the right way, not the right notes.

Make the choice in your hand for your favorite way of holding the pick you have experimented with, and your angle.

Try not to lock your wrist and really focus on using it instead of your elbow. Pass all the strings in downward strokes. Now it’s just Rinse and repeat until it comes natural.

Once you are comfortable with your downstrokes, you should also start to feel comfortable with some upstrokes.

Do exactly the same. Make sure you don’t lock your wrist and only use your elbow. Just walk through the strings with ascending beats.

Many beginner guitarists think that if they play a six-string chord, they should go through all six strings. That is not always the case.

Another tip is to just hit the top 3 to 4 string with your upstrokes, even when playing a full six-string chord.

Then use your downstrokes to hit all six, or even just a few of the bass strings for a great sound and percussive effect.

Once you’ve practiced both up- and downstrokes separately, it’s time to add the two together and start making rhythms.

You still don’t have to know any chords. Just mute the strings. Strum from top to bottom, alternately, until you start to get the feeling.

Many newer guitarists have a hard time holding the pick when they hit. Sometimes it flies out of their hands. As a new guitarist you will have to experiment with how tightly you hold the pick. You want to hold it tight enough to where it won’t fly out of your hands, but you don’t want to hold it so tight that you get tense.

You will have to develop a technique where you constantly adjust the choice. If you hit a lot, that pick will move a bit, and you’ll have to adjust your grip.

Making small micro-adjustments to your pick grip is part of the percussion guitar.

It is a lot of practice with hitting, hitting and hitting again.

The fastest way to advance your stroke is when you are not yet worried about the correct chords, you can practice that later or at another time and you can concentrate on your percussion during this exercise.

Here’s Your Guitar Sage with some more exercises:

Also read: why every guitarist should use a preamp

How do you play a guitar without a pick?

Most beginners are often curious about how to hit without a pick, most often because they aren’t able to execute using a pick yet!

While at this point from your learning I would recommend just using a thinner pick and struggling through it a bit, I will say that in my own personal playing I choose not to use a pick about 50% of the time.

I like hybrid picking where I also use a lot of fingers, and when I play acoustically there are also a lot of strumming passages where a plectrum just gets in the way.

When using a pick there is usually a most convenient way that most people do it, while when you don’t use one there seems to be more variety and personal choice.

For example, if you don’t use a guitar pick, you have much more versatility in:

  • when you keep fingers on the strings and when you don’t (great for muting)
  • when you use your thumb in addition to using your fingers
  • how you move your arm
  • and how much you move your arm
  • and whether your thumb and fingers move independently of the arm.

There are also more tone and attack variations you can play with to get the exact sound you are looking for.

Which finger do you hit your guitar with?

If you hit your guitar without a pick, you can hit it with one of your fingers. Most of the time the first finger, your index finger, is used for this, but a lot of guitarists also use their thumb.

Strike with your thumb

If you hit the string using your thumb, you get a much more leveled out sound, compared to a more bright timbre you get from playing a pick.

While strumming down try using the skin of your thumb, but with the up strums your nail can catch the string, resulting in a brighter and more accentuated upward strum like that of a pick.

However, this doesn’t always make the most sense musically. It may sound uncomfortable.

You should practice on using the right angle with your thumb where it doesn’t snag on the high E string on the upstrokes and you don’t get too much of your nail on the upstrokes.

Sometimes this means flattening your hand a bit.

When you strike with your thumb, you can choose to keep your fingers open and move your entire hand up and down, just as you would if you strike with a guitar pick.

Or you can use your fingers as an anchor on the guitar as support and move your thumb up and down the strings while keeping your arm more straight.

See which one works better for you!

Strike with your first finger

When you strum with your first finger instead of the thumb, you’ll see that the opposite is now true and that your nail will now hit the strings on your downstrokes.

This is generally a more pleasant sound, but if you wanted the head to hit both the up and down strokes, you could just squeeze your entire hand flat to achieve this.

You can use this technique to get a smoother and softer effect, if that’s the sound you want to go for.

Just experiment until you find the angle that works for you where your finger won’t snag on the string in its upward strums.

Also, people who strike with their index finger tend to use more of a finger movement and less of an arm movement.

Strike with your hand as if you were using a pick

If you’re looking for that clearer sound you normally get with a pick, but still don’t want to use one or just don’t have it with you and still want to show off your skills on your neighbors guitar, you can put your thumb and index finger together as if you were holding a guitar pick between them.

When you hit this way, your nail gets both the up- and downstrokes, simulating the way a pick would sound.

You could also move from your elbow, a similar technique to using a pick. This is also a great option to use in a pinch, such as if you accidentally drop your pick halfway through the song, which is definitely going to happen sooner or later.

Other variations

As you strum more comfortably without a pick, you can try to mix it up. You might hit the low E string with your thumb to then start strumming the rest of the strings with your first finger.

This way you can work on developing your own unique sound. Just stop worrying too much about what the right technique should be and start creating and seeing what feels most comfortable to you.

And remember: playing the guitar, while it involves technical aspects, is a creative and personal endeavor! Your game should contain pieces of yourself.

Also read: with these multi effects you quickly get a better sound

Strumming notation

Compare with pattern picking, strumming patterns may be indicated through notation, tablature, up and down arrows, or slashes. For example, a pattern in common time or 4/4 consisting of alternating down and up eight note strokes may be written: /\/\/\/\

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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