Guitar Player, March 1988

Guest Editorial:  In Defense of Fingerpicks

by Chris Proctor

      While perusing the Nov. '87 Guitar Player, I ran across the Pro's Reply in which Leo Kottke declared that "fingerpicks aren't necessary."  Keeping in mind that there is very little that is necessary in guitar playing besides a guitar with some strings, I would like to differ a bit with Leo, and explain why I thing that picks for the fingers and thumb are useful -- perhaps indispensible -- tools for many of today's steel-string players.

      What do Chet Atkins, Preston Reed, Bob Brozman, Stefan Grossman, Dave Van Ronk, John Fahey, Rev. Gary Davis, myself, and others too numerous to mention have in common?  One thing is reliance, in whole or part, on fingerpicks and/or thumbpicks in our playing.

      It is not a coincidence that as Leo has stopped using fingerpicks, he has also put the 12-string guitar away in large part.  It is very hard to concieve of proper speed and articulation of the 12- string's octave strings without picks.

      The use of flesh and nail was a technique originally adapted on nylon- and gut-string instruments, in which nail tear was negligible.  These days, many steel-string players who use nails must carry sound a kit that rivals a dermatologist's, with gelatin, different shapes of scissors, pieces of ping-pong balls, press-on nails, pieces of tissue paper, and unusual coatings such as aluminium oxide -- all for the purpose of protecting and preserving nails so that they can perfom a function for which they were never really engineered or intended.

      It is completely unnecessary to let the use of picks dictate your right-hand position in such a way that damage or injury will result.  At the workshops that I hold during my tours, I receive many questions from players who find it difficult or impossible to maintain a nails-only approach, as well as from players who are unhappy with the feel or tone they get while using picks.  I stress that they should find a comfortable position for the right hand, and then adapt their picks to the hand position, rather than vice-vera.  Far too many people lower their right hand in an awkward position near the soundboard, thinking that they mustn't bend, melt, or adjust their picks to allow for a more comfortable right-hand attack.  This is a complicated notion since, unlike the classical guitarist, we all tend to sit or stand in different ways with different-size guitars and different repertoire, so general advice has to be less specific.  But the idea that the right-hand attack can only be comfortable or sound without picks is incorrect.

      Leo is right in that there are some techniques that are more or less dependent upon whether you use picks.  It is more difficult, for instance, to use artificial harmonics with picks on the fingers, and right-hand tapping must be done differently.  But name a technical approach that gives you everthing.  In other words, neither choice will allow you to flat pick like Doc Watson, chicken- pick like James Burton or Jerry Reed or do Eddie Van Halen licks with much facility.  Picks, like any other choice of technique, will give you certain advantages, as well, such as clarity, speed, articulation on the 12-string, and unusual ways to get "sweep" harmonics.

      The point is that your choice of approach should be based in part on the kind of music you wish to play, the physical structure of your right hand and nails, the tone you desire and the size and action of the guitar that you play.  There are many ways to skin this particular cat, and I believe that the use of fingerpicks and/or thumbpicks must be considered one of the contenders, provided the user takes a few hours to experiment with and manipulate them to get the desired comfort and tone.

      Ed. note:  Former national fingerpicking champ Chris Proctor has recorded for the Kicking Mule and Flying Fish lables.  If you would like to share your opinions on an issue of concern to thousands of your fellow guitarists around the world, send a brief, double-spaced article to the Editor...along with a summary of your experience and qualifications.  If published, we'll pay you $100.00.  The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of our staff.

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