Fingerstyle vs Fingerpicking vs Strumming: What are the Differences?

Fingerstyle vs Fingerpicking vs Strumming: What are the Differences and When Should I Use Them?

A FAQ Guide About Picking and Strumming on the Guitar

If you’re new to playing guitar, you may have realized that they generally require two hands to play. Sure, a lot of resources can be found on what to do with your fretting hand. But what about the other hand. Is it better to learn guitar with a pick or with your fingers? What’s the difference in sound between strumming and fingerpicking? And what is fingerstyle? Today I want to answer a few of the most common yet overlooked questions I hear about using the picking hand to play guitar.

Fingerstyle vs Fingerpicking: What’s the Difference?

The terms fingerpicking and fingerstyle sound very similar, and to many players they mean the same thing. However, there is a difference. Fingerpicking refers to plucking the guitar strings with your fingers rather than strumming with a plectrum (also called a pick). Fingerstyle, however, is a specific technique where you play multiple parts of a song—such as the melody, harmony, fills, and bass notes—all at the same time on just one guitar. Fingerstyle usually involves the practice offingerpicking as well, hence the name.

So fingerpicking is simply a method of striking strings, but fingerstyle can be it’s own genre of solo guitar performance. Fingerpicking can be used for accompaniment, like playing arpeggios in the background of a track mix, but fingerstyle is a self-contained method of playing an entire song without needing a band as support.

If you want to perform instrumental songs live by yourself, then fingerstyle is an essential guitar to learn. It’s also the go-to approach for playing classical guitar.

Is Fingerpicking Harder Than Strumming?

Yes, fingerpicking is slightly harder to learn than basic strumming because of three elements: rhythm, coordination, and dexterity. However in the grand scheme of things, fingerpicking is only marginally more difficult than strumming and these three elements should not discourage you from learning it:

  • Rhythm. First, picking individual notes requires a bit more rhythm than just hitting all the strings at once; if you’re fingerpicking pattern is off tempo, it will be noticeable.
  • Coordination. Second, moving three-to-five fingers across six different strings in a consistent pattern will take more hand-eye coordination and muscle memory than just hitting all the strings with one pick.
  • Dexterity. Third, you may notice a need for greater individual finger strength when fingerpicking, as opposed to holding a pick with multiple fingers and leveraging your whole hand for striking the strings.

If you’re trying to learn slightly more technical strumming styles like alternate picking, fingerpicking is pretty evenly matched in difficulty level. Compared to advanced strumming techniques like sweep picking or Rasgueado, then fingerpicking is a breeze.

Should I Use Fingers or a Pick for Strumming?

I recommend practicing to play guitar with both your fingers and with a plectrum when you’re starting out. When you’ve gotten comfortable with both, then choose which one sounds the best for your style of playing. The material you use for strumming is largely a matter of preference; playing with your fingers, nails, or a plectrum will all have a different tone and a different feeling in your hand.

  • Finger strumming, usually accomplished with the pad of your thumb, will sound much quieter or muted compared to any other method of strumming. Using your finger pad will also sound bassier or warmer.
  • Fingernail strumming, usually done with the index and ring finger nails, will be louder than your pads but I find it’s not quite as bright sounding as a plastic pick. Also, playing with your fingernails rather than a plectrum tends to sound clankier. Be aware, this style of play can and will tear polish off your nails or leave tiny dents in them, depending on how hard you strike the strings.
  • Plectrum strumming will sound the loudest, brightest, and clearest. It also stands out more in a mix. On the other hand, very brash and hard strumming can sound downright harsh and clicky in a full mix, too. The lesson here is: don’t beat the strings to death when you’re strumming, a pick does not need as much force as your fingertips to get a decent sound level.

Pro Tips on Fingers vs Pick When Playing Acoustic Guitar

I’ve recorded my fair share of acoustic guitars for both instrumentals and songs. I would like to leave you with a few useful tips I’ve learned along the way on when to play with fingers or with a plectrum, depending on the situation:

  • Fingerpicking sounds more Intimate. Try playing with your fingers if you want your guitar’s tone to sound more intimate, the guitar part is going to be central to the song, and especially if the instrumentation is going to be sparse (perhaps just guitar and voice, maybe some acoustic bass and a cajon).
  • Fingerpicking for quieter times. If you’re trying to play quieter and not bother your neighbors or relatives, fingers are easier to control for volume than a plectrum.
  • Softer voices need a softer touch. Softer finger picking or strumming may complement your voice better if you’re a whisper-y singer, or you have an especially breathy section in a song or your vocal range.
  • Picks for the big mix. Definitely use a plectrum if the guitar part is going to be in a full mix. I used to record two takes of my guitar tracks, one with and one without plectrum, for a song. By the time I get to the full mix, I usually mute the finger-strummed track because it’s just too quiet and muddled to keep.

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