Do You Need A Thumb Pick To Play Acoustic Blues Guitar ?
A thumb pick is a plastic plectrum that a guitarist fits onto the thumb rather than holding a flat pick between thumb and forefinger. This gives the player freedom to use the forefinger to pluck the strings in unison with, or separately from the thumb without losing control of the plectrum. Some music historians say that the use of the thumb pick originated with the early blues artists who played the banjo in preference to the guitar.
The thumb plays a prominent role in guitar picking, being used for strumming chords as well as playing single notes. The index finger is mostly used to pick alternately with the thumb to play a pattern of notes that remains constant throughout the song as the left hand changes chords. In this style of playing the guitarist often plays solos with the thumb, and resumes playing the pattern of notes when he starts singing again.
The student guitar player looking for role models among the blues players of the past could study the playing of The Reverend Gary Davis, a pioneer of blues finger picking. He used a variety of picking techniques, employing bare fingers or finger picks, but he favored the use of a thumb pick in combination with a steel finger pick. There are several videos of The Reverend Gary Davis hosted on YouTube. The "thumb-and-index-finger" style of playing the acoustic guitar was used by other pioneer guitar players like Blind Boy Fuller, Doc Watson and Big Bill Broonzy.
In the early nineteen fifties, Earl Travis, a popular country singer dazzled his fans with fast picking, using his thumb and first finger. This technique was adapted by Chet Atkins, who picked with a thumb pick in conjunction with the nails on the first and second fingers. This technique is now known as "Travis Picking", and interested guitar students can find tutorials in books or in video guitar lessons on the internet.
The use of the thumb pick, as opposed to the side of the bare thumb, really comes down to the kind of sound the guitarist is looking for. There is no specific "acoustic blues sound", so if a guitar player enjoys the sharper sound produced by the thumb pick, he will benefit by practicing as much as possible while wearing the pick so that using it becomes second nature.
Some acoustic blues and folk music guitar players use the nails of the thumb and fingers to pluck and strum the strings. Playing this way gives a clean sound similar to that of a plectrum, but it is often necessary for the guitarist to reinforce the nails with some kind of adhesive to prevent breakages. A finger-picker's nails need almost daily filing to stay in shape, which does not suit the player who wants to just sit down and play without preparation.
Many acoustic guitarists learn to play using a plectrum, and later experiment with the thumb pick. They often find that up strokes using the thumb pick are almost impossible, and there is a pronounced difference in volume between the thumb and the fingernails. The difference in volume can be addressed by using finger picks as well as a thumb pick. This is also a solution for the guitarist who feels that maintaining the fingernails at the best length for guitar playing is just too much work.
Strumming the guitar can be achieved while wearing a thumb pick and finger picks but it takes some practice, especially performing up strokes. Finger picks are curved and tend to catch on the strings as the hand travels upwards after a down stroke. Some guitarists do not bother to use the thumb pick for up strokes because speed is not needed in acoustic blues picking.
For the guitarist who prefers the freedom to use up or down strokes that using a plectrum offers, any auxiliary notes can be played with the second or third fingers. It is even possible to play Travis Picking patterns in this fashion.
The student of acoustic blues guitar has a wide range of right hand techniques to choose from, and there is plenty of video footage on the internet showing how blues players from the past eighty years or so achieved their distinctive sound. Trying the various techniques means the student sacrifices the feeling of progressing in his guitar playing by settling into a particular style. This is just a stage on the guitar-playing journey, because trying flatpicking, finger picking, bare fingers, the thumb pick or finger picks may be necessary to find the right sound, and this experimentation will always produce a more versatile guitarist.