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?
- Flexibility. As always, the thickness of the pick is the major factor.
- Shape. Do you want a rounded, traditional pick shape? Or a thin tab?
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
7 Popular Finger Picks to Clarify Your Fingerpicking
…If You Want to Put Those Thumb Picks to Good Use, Here’s How
Tommy Emmanuel offers a number of fingerstyle guitar courses. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s considered one of the best (or the best) acoustic guitarist in the world. He’s certified C.G.P. and rocks a thumb pick like no other.
So if you’re interested in learning the ways of the Jedi Master (when it comes to fingerstyle guitar, that is), then here’s your ticket:
More Courses from Tommy Emmanuel: