What are the advantages of playing the electric guitar finger-style ?

6 minutes read —

As a guitar player, I’ve stopped relying on a pick entirely at this point. The transition went gradual. It all started with some innocent laziness preventing me from reaching for a pick at times—you know how they are, they always find a way to get lost—and then it morphed into a real passion for the technique. The current opinion I am holding is that picks are almost completely unnecessary and that we are losing more than we are gaining from that deal. I’ll try and convey why it is my belief in the following paragraphs.

Fingers have a wider tonal and dynamic range

The first reason is probably the most obvious one and it is tone. Picks are loud and they are very capable of bringing out the clarity in every notes. But they do so at an expense and that would be dynamic and tonal range. You can’t access those almost silent levels that easily with a pick, nor can you invoke those noticeably muted colors at will the way you would using your fingers’ flesh. At contrary, the finger-style guitarist is much more able to infringe on pick territory when attacking his strings with some might. He would have no trouble getting very abrasive snappy sounds out of the guitar when they are the most needed. So essentially, it seems to me that fingers win on versatility here, which is something I very much care about since the widest possible palette of sounds is desired to express any musical thoughts as spontaneously as possible. Plus, if you listen to guitarist Scott Henderson, he would argue that fingers just sound plain better, period, and he is much more of a tone geek than I am. The reasons : getting a fat guitar tones is about pushing the mid-range frequency and cutting on all the peripheral crap as to not busy the mix. Fingers compared to pick are more in line with this set of instructions at medium picking strength.
However, to get some of that extra slapiness back if you really want it, I might suggest cutting some low-end (I have wired a tone-knob for that on my guitar) and/or putting in fresh strings. Regardless, you will enjoy fine grain control over your tone through your fingers alone and that’s a solid plus.

More fingers means less work for each finger

The next reasons, is that we have multiple fingers on our right hand whereas the pick guitarist essential surrenders two of his just to operate that one pick. Granted, the pick is generally more agile as you can use your powerful wrist muscles to operate it. But what the fingers lack in strength, they make up for in numbers. You have at the very least 3 to 4 very capable fingers on that right hand, and they can share the work, each taking care of a separate string. Individually, they end-up having almost no effort to do to keep-up. In the long run, this is a major cheat. Coordination takes practice, yes, but once it’s there, the mechanics allow for a way easier time with any string-skipping lines, or arpeggios, or of course double stops and chords. And you might think that might be the case but the pick still wins when doing runs on single strings or adjacent strings, to which I’d say those sorts of speed are hard to achieve even with a pick, and then again if you watch Matteo Mancuso you will quickly realize finger-style alternate picking can and has been achieved. There is variety in the ways to do that ; playing lines alternating 2 fingers, 3, or even 4 I’ve seen. One thing I must add is that working those things up finger-style feels way more rewarding because of the direct contact with the strings ; there’s no barrier between us and the instrument.

But for balance, the truth is that many pick guitarists use hybrid picking to some degree which means they have an auxiliary RH finger helping with all of those things. You will also find very dexterous guitar players (or at least there is Andre Nieri who can do that) that occasionally hold their pick with their pinky in order to free their first four fingers and are essentially able to switch between pick and finger-style playing mid track. So essentially we are presented with a spectrum. How much pick do you want ? How much finger style do you want ? On the speed department they have different set of strengths. One is more horizontal, doing very good when sliding along strings, the other covers the vertical and has no trouble accessing all strings at all times. Any downside can be overcome either way.

Fingers can be just as fast and are more versatile

And in this next paragraph, I’ll mention a couple of ways why strict alternate picking speed isn’t such a major hurdle to overcome when playing finger-style. For one, no one is forcing us to strictly alternate pick anything. Although we might prefer to do so at times, legato playing reduces the absolute need for picking to a great degree with hammer-on, pull-offs and slides. In fact I personally believe legato lines often sound richer than their strictly alternated counterparts because they feature much more variety in their dynamics between all the notes in any given line. With experience this can be used to accentuate or subdue just the right notes when it is the most appropriate. So as long as legato playing is an option, we can side-step most RH speed trouble.
And two, tapping. Remember that we are freeing right hand fingers from having to deal with a pick ? Well, this is excellent news for our tapping prowess. Especially since the index is probably our strongest and most precise finger. And tapping can be used for such a variety of purposes it is unbelievable. This is especially true if you have a dampener on your head stock. You can use it to claim back all of the speed advantage pickers might have on you. But you can also use it to produce counterpoint, you can use it to reach very distant high notes in an instant, you can use it to assist in producing complex chords, you can use it as a pivot to reposition your left hand while the right hand is fretting a note and thus achieve more complex lines, you can use it to ring harmonics. And yes, you can bend and slide tapped notes so they are just as expressive as all the other notes. You might want to check Ichika Nito to get a glimpse of how far this can be taken.

Fingers are just funnier

So in the end what are we losing by playing finger-style, really ? I do not think speed is a valid argument anymore. And oh boy are we gaining. Greater tonal and dynamic range, better control of the whole string set, a wider range of guitar techniques available thanks to our freed right hand fingers such as the all-mighty tapping technique, or even pinched harmonics, which I forgot to mention also happen to be greatly facilitated when playing finger-style. But beyond all that, and take it from me : it is just plain funnier to play this way. You build more of a connection between you and the instrument. It feels that much more like an extension of yourself. So give it a try if you can. It probably gets more time to get the technique going than it does with a pick but I’m inclined to believe we can get way further this way.