Thumb-picks-acoustic-guitar-fingerstyle

7 Popular Thumb Picks to Mix Up Your Solo Fingerpicking

I’ve taken a dive into using thumb picks in recent months.  Without being too obvious, I should clarify by saying that thumb picks are simply plastic (almost always) guitar picks that wrap around the thumb.  They provide A)  greater independence to the digits of the picking hand, while B)  keeping the attack and clarity of a pick.

They are used extensively by solo acoustic guitarists and dobro players.  Dobro players, in particular, also use finger picks to give that same attack and clarity to each part of the picking hand.

So why go with thumb picks?

There’s other ways to pick with your thumb, right?  Use the flesh of the thumb (a la James Taylor), or try hybrid picking (popular on both acoustic and electric). But there’s a few reasons to go with a thumb pick:

  • Great fingerstyle guitarists use them:  Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, Merle Travis, etc.
  • It gives clarity and attack, especially to the bottom end.  The low-mids can get muddy on the E and A strings.  A thumb pick brings those strings out.  Some folks think that a dreadnought style body with a thumb pick can actually be too much bass, but I haven’t had that experience myself.  (You can also boost your bottom end by this string strategy)
  • Allows for easier transition between fingerpicking and solos or strumming.

The world of thumb picks is not nearly as broad as general guitar picks.  But there’s still a fair few to choose from.  What do you look for when choosing?

  1. Flexibility. As always, the thickness of the pick is the major factor.
  2. Shape.  Do you want a rounded, traditional pick shape?  Or a thin tab?
  3. Fit.  This is crucial.  An ill-fitted thumbpick can making playing a literal pain.  Thumb picks can also be fitted by soaking in hot water (see this video).

Here’s a look at 7 popular thumbpicks to mix up your solo fingerpicking:

1. Dunlop Medium (Tortoise Shell) – A classic thumb pick. I’ve used this quite a bit with dobro. Great medium gauge for digging in, medium to thin point, little bit of a tight fit. I don’t prefer this for strumming, but it’s great for a clean picking sound. Purportedly the thumb pick favored by Tommy Emmanuel.

>> Buy From Amazon

dunlop-thumb-pick

 

2.  Zookies L-20 (White) – An innovator.  The plectrum is twisted relative to the rest of the pick.  Theoretically, this should allow you to maintain the right picking angle without keeping your thumb exactly parallel to the strings.  When I looked at this, it seemed to make sense.  But when I tried to use it, it didn’t feel natural (though I suspect it may be a life-saver for some players).

>> Buy From Amazon

zookies-l-20-thumb-pick

 

3.  Fred Kelly Medium Slick Pick – Similar to the Dunlop tortoise shell pick.  The plectrum is a bit shorter, and more rounded.  This gives a slightly less aggressive attack.  The fit is more comfortable for me than the Dunlop.  Along with that, however, it has a bit more of a tendency to slip off.

>> Buy From Amazon

fred-kelly-slick-medium-thumb-pick

 

4.  Fred Kelly Delrin Medium Speed Pick (Orange) – Another innovator.  This pick is unique in providing only a slim tab for the plectrum.  I was doubtful when I picked this up, but it really is great.  The only drawback is that it’s not the best for strumming.  I tend to angle the pick sometimes when I strum in order to change the tone.  But this technique isn’t possible with the thin picking tab.

>> Buy From Amazon

004IMG_1381

 

5.  Fred Kelly Delrin Bumblebee Jazz Medium (Black and Yellow) – This thumb pick combines the comfort of a traditional pick with the convenience of a thumb strap to keep it on.  You can tilt the pick forward or backwards to give you the angle of attack that you want.  This is a unique feature that gives you the sensation that you’re really playing with a normal pick.

>> Buy From Amazon

fred-kelly-medium-jazz-thumb-pick

 

6.  Herco Flat Medium Thumb Pick (Yellow) – This one also feels like you’ve got a real, full-size pick strapped to your thumb.  Even the medium thickness still feels a bit thin.  This is good and bad.  On the good side, it’s perfect for when I need to strum a lot.  But it is also less tight around the thumb, and can slip off if you’re not careful.

>> Buy From Amazon

herco-medium-thumb-pick

 

7.  Herco Flat Light Thumb Pick (Light Blue) – Very similar to the Herco Medium, but extremely thin.  Again, this is good for strumming.  But it’s grip is so light that it falls off as soon as I play.

>> Buy From Amazon

herco-light-blue-thumb-pick

 

Conclusions

I’m using the Fred Kelly Speed Pick for detailed fingerstyle playing, and the Herco Medium for songs with more strumming (especially if I’m also singing).

Question:
Do you use thumb picks?  Why or why not?  And let me know if you have a favorite that I missed.

 

  • Josh Golbert

    Thanks for laying that out. I have been using the dunlop .88 nylon standard for strumming and picking, but I still loose grip on it aver a while. Also the effort of keeping my middle finder out of the way when strumming was difficult (do I make a fist or try and straighten those fingers out…?).
    I tried a Dunlop plastic shell and it is great for picking ( I often assist with my index finger while anchoring with my pinky) or just picking out the bass when strumming. It is much easier for me to accurately get the a and d strings, for example.
    The problem with it is when strumming, it sounds way to hard and brash. I suspect it’s gauge is larger than the .88 I am used to . I have to actively angle the direction relative to the guitar and strings to get it to sound softer.

    Any thumbpicks out there that have a softer feel on the picking end, but hold on the same way as the shell thumbpick (which is relly good for me)?

    • guitarjournal

      Hey Josh,

      I’ve been using the Dunlop Medium Tortoise Shell above for a while, and it’s great for picking, but a bit too hard for me for strumming (don’t know how Tommy Emmanuel does it…).
      The Herco Flat Medium Thumb pick is much better for strumming. Only downside is that it doesn’t hold on as tight as the Dunlop. So I have to keep a grip on it with my index finger if I’m strumming hard.

      Another idea: For the longest time, I’ve used a Dunlop .60mm for strumming. I turn it around so I’m holding the long part and strumming with one of the blunt corners. Weird, I know. But the blunt corner feels like the right thickness, and holding it backwards give me more to hold on to.

      Jesse

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  • Elroy_Jetson

    I usually just use a regular flat pick on guitar. I haven’t really done much fingerpicking with any picks on guitar (yet) and I suspect I would use plastic picks there. But just FYI, on Banjo, a regular or fatter style thumb pick for me is too easily lost in the strings. Since getting good means getting fast, I do use the Fred Kelly speed pick (#4 above) when Scruggs style picking on Banjo (and metal National brand finger picks). I don’t really know if you should use metal banjo style picks on guitar – any comments?

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