I started a series on guitar picks more than a year ago. I always intended to complete the series with a post about thumb picks. I had even started this and saved a draft. So, sorry for the delay. Here’s the third post in the Picky series.
Few electric guitarists play(ed) with finger or thumb picks. The style and instrument most associated with the use of thumb and finger picks is bluegrass banjo. Yet some guitarists, particularly acoustic steel string players, do use thumb picks or thumb and finger picks. If you are playing an alternating bass with your thumb, a thumb pick can really make the bass line stand out.
Classic Plastic Thumb picks
The classic plastic thumb pick is the first type I tried and and the easiest type of thumb pick to find. Most music stores carry them. For me, these have all the same concerns and remedies as I described for plastic finger picks.
First there is sizing. Although you may easily find plastic thumb picks at your local music store, that doesn’t mean they will have a selection of sizes to fit your finger. Even if they do have small through extra large sizes, you still may need to fine tune the fit by briefly boiling or steaming the plastic and bending it to better fit your thumb.
The second problem is the length. If no one ever told you, you may not think to try this. You can file the length and shape of the pick to suit your playing preference. I have found that many plastic thumb pick designs are too long for how I typically hold my picking hand. I end up mis-picking the strings. Use nail file, emery board, sand paper or other file to shape and shorten the pick end. Be sure to use a fine finish so the tip is smooth.
Finally there is the issue of adjusting to the thickness and feel of the thumb pick. Keep trying and you’ll probably get it. However, there are other styles of thumb picks besides these classics and I find I like others better.
Fred Kelly Thumb Picks
My current favorite thumb pick is the Fred Kelly Speed Pick. It is the one in the bottom of the accompanying image. The other pick in the image is the Fred Kelly Slick Pick, also very nice. The first thing I like about the either of these picks is that their lengths are beter for the way I play – I don’t have to file anything to make these work.
I find the speed pick is particularly nice when I want a pick for the bass notes but I don’t want to use finger picks on my other fingers. Everyone’s playing style is different, but for me a standard pick would over power the other notes. The speed pick produces a more balanced volume for me.
These picks are (I believe) made from nylon. They are nice and smooth. They are also thinner than the classic plastic thumb picks and that also makes them more comfortable for me.
Metal and Metal with plastic Thumb picks
The first image in this post shows two metal thumb picks (bottom right of image). Metal picks probably fit bluegrass banjo better than guitar but since these are available, I’ll talk about them. The main advantage of metal thumb picks is you can adjust how tight they fit by just bending them. If you don’t like the sound of metal on the round wond bass strings, you can get a metal band with a plastic picking surface. The picking surface can then be shaped and filed to suit your preference.
Other Styles of Thumb picks
The truth is, I don’t often play using thumb or fingerpicks. When I do, my favorite combination is the Fred Kelly Speed Pick on my thumb and either ProPik or thin gauge brass fingerpicks on my fingers. However, there are still other variations. Fred Kelly has something called the Bumblebee which is a cross between a flat pick and a thumb pick.
The image below is similar to the Bumblebee but this design is from Herco.