Guitar Tip: Painting the Strum (Part 4)

The parts of a strum can be seen separately, but it is always better to think of it as a whole. Your arm and body position, and how you move your arm were the first two parts I have briefly mentioned.

When it comes to “Painting the Strum,” holding your pick is one of the most important parts, which is what this tip is about – holding the pick.

TortexRedFor the guitar artist, we call his brush a “pick.”

So where does this term come from? We should define our terms, right?

We use the word “pick,” but this is (somehow) short for “plectrum.” It comes from a Greek verb that means “to strike.” The verb has a related noun that means “something with which to strike.” The noun is transliterated “plektron” (or, because I’m a Greek nerd, πλεκτρον).

Naturally, therefore, a pick is something with which to strike the strings of the guitar. But this kind of strike is a very controlled strike, like the kind Michelangelo might have used for his stone sculptures. His “plektron” would have been a chisel.

Though they are definitely not my favorite, even modern artists like Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock hold their instruments in particular ways to create their kind of work.

Pretty cool, right? Guitar is no different.

Okay, so there are several ways to hold the pick, but I’ll tell you what matters most right off the bat.

What matters most is how tightly you hold your pick.

Here’s the tip: Hold your pick about as tightly as you might hold your fork.

That’s about as close of an analogy as I can come up with now. I did not mention a pencil or a pen as an example because I’ve seen many people hold a pen really tightly…white knuckle tight. I’ve also seen people hold pens very loosely, to the point where you can barely see what they’re writing.

With this in mind, here are a few ways that even famous guitarists have held their picks.

1. Index tip & thumb only

pick3The first way is probably the most common way to hold the pick, though I don’t hold it this way. The first (index) finger and thumb hold the pick near the tip of the index finger.

Because this is the most common way, most would say this is the “right” way, but I challenge them to explain why.

2. Index side & thumb only

pick1This is another very common way to hold a pick. I happen to hate this way, truth be told, but others would say the same about my way. 🙂

Like number 1, the reason I do not prefer this is because I have not learned to hold the pick this way. That’s the honest truth.

Though this method might keep one from losing the pick during the strum very well, my hand feels big. In other words, with this method, I feel my hand is very much in the way of painting the strum well.

3. Index, middle & thumb


This is the way I hold my pick. It is the way I instruct my students.

Because the most important thing is how tightly you hold the pick, here are the reasons I like this way.

First, I can control it. I like the pressure it puts on both fingers (index & middle).

Second, I feel my fingers are out of the way. Maybe its because my hands are already a little bigger, but when my middle is in use, it’s out of the way.

Third, I can add stronger texture to the strings if I hold my pick this way. I can actually squeeze it tighter with three fingers (more on this in a minute), which essentially causes the pick to strike harder, making a louder sound.

So there are thee ways to hold a pick. Keep in mind that the tip is not about one of these three ways. I encourage the last one, but the most important thing is about how tight you hold it.

Why the tip is important

Okay, so maybe you weren’t expecting the tip to be about how tightly you hold the pick. So why am I telling you that this is the most important thing?

Well, lets use the painting analogy again. Some brushes have very fine bristles. Some have very thick ones, which are naturally stiffer than the fine bristles. Picks are like that. Some are thinner, and bend more easily; some are thicker and really don’t bend at all. In fact, these are like the brushes you leave out after painting. Depending on the type of paint, that thing will become an un-cleanable stone, and you have to throw it away because it will not bend at all.

Yes, there is actually a purpose to picks that do not bend at all, but acoustic guitar players have little use for them.

Picks are sized by the millimeter (mm), and range from about .38mm to about 1.2mm. I use a .5mm Tortex pick like the one shown at the beginning of the post. They are made with different materials, ranging from nylon to metal. The Tortex pick is a synthetic material that simulates a natural tortoise shell.

Crazy, huh?

So the tip is important because there are at least three things going on with your pick:

  1. What finger position you use to hold the pick (options above)
  2. How stiff your pick is (gauge, material, etc.)
  3. How tightly you hold the pick

All of these work together, believe it or not, and it depends on what kind of artwork you want to make.

Yes! Like a tiny brush with very fine bristles, the very thin pick is not going to make a very dark or heavy stroke no matter what finger position you choose.

Likewise, like a paint hardened brush, the very thick pick has no “give” and will tend to sound harsh and uncontrolled when used for strumming.

I have chosen a gauge that falls in the middle, and have chosen to use two fingers in the back as I hold it.

Busted – I haven’t answered your question yet. Why is the tip important?

Here’s what I would say with all this in mind (who knew this much was involved in holding a pick?): How tight you hold the pick tends to be inversely proportional to the thickness of the pick.


In other words, if you want to strum with a light gauge pick and actually get some volume out of it, you will need to hold it tighter. If you want to strum with a heavier gauge pick and keep it from being too harsh or louder than desired, you must hold it a little looser (without dropping it).

I have decided that with a middle-of-the-road gauge, there is a good balance in how tightly I must hold it, versus how tightly I want to hold it.

I can hold the pick a little looser and get a softer sound, or hold it a little tighter and get a louder sound. I am more free to be the artist I want to be with my acoustic guitar.

In fact, since all strumming is merely brushing the strings up and down without stopping, I can change to any number of strumming patterns by tightening or loosening my pick at different times during the swings.

Accents in strumming are simply created by squeezing the pick as you swing.

In addition, changing the angle of the pick as I swing has a variety of effects.

The finger position, the angle, the pick type and gauge, and the grip are all important, but the most important thing is the grip – how tightly you hold the pick.

That’s why the tip is important.

I hope that helps. I welcome your thoughts!


Share this!