Can you play electric guitar with your fingers?

When we talk about electric guitar techniques, the first things that come to your mind are legato, sweep picking, or tapping. However, there are some other techniques you can try. 

A common belief is that fingerstyle is only developed on classical or acoustic guitar but this statement is not true.

So, can you play electric guitar without a pick?

The short answer is yes, you can definitely play with your fingers in an electric guitar! The electric guitar is typically played with a pick but that does not mean it is the only way to do it. You can discover a wide range of brand-new shapes, tones, and sounds, everything thanks to fingerstyle.

Fingerpicking is a common method among acoustic guitar players but even so, it is also applied to electric guitarists. Fingerstyle is a classical guitar technique.

Although it is focused on the strengths and weaknesses of acoustic guitar, it could be also applied to electric guitars.

Since just a few players develop this technique, fingerpicking is a green area on electric guitar which is amazing to explore deeply and create new “guitar styles”. 

Reasons to play electric guitar with your fingers

As we have already mentioned, fingerstyle could also be enjoyable on electric guitar. If you are used to using a pick, by fingerpicking, you can unlock new areas of creativity.

You may think of different ways to approach your guitar which is wonderful to get out of your comfort zone and expand your musical creativity.

By playing fingerstyle you will reach different shapes on the guitar’s neck. For instance, it is easier to play arpeggios or strings that are not adjacent. Think about “Blackbird” by The Beatles.

It would be easier to play two or more strings at the same time using the tip of your fingers. When you have multiple notes ringing at once the most accessible way is by fingerpicking. What is more, your thumb will be free to play the bass more comfortably. 

As a matter of fact, string tension on an electric guitar is lower than in acoustics which is another great factor to have into account. Because of that, it would be easier to pluck strings with your fingers.

The difference in tone between fingerpicking and playing with a pick

It seems obvious for advanced guitar players who control both skills but it is relevant to mention that there are some differences in terms of sound and tone between fingerstyle and picking.

By using a plectrum, more commonly known as pick, you get a hard aggressive sound when you strum the strings. The sharpness of this distinctive sound is useful to play the rhythm because it is typically applied to play chords (the rhythm of the song).

In addition, when you use a pick to play, the attack will increase. This is due to you are striking your guitar strings instead of picking them with your bare fingers.

On the other hand, fingerpicking is a technique where you pluck the strings of the guitar with your fingers’ flesh. Fingerstyle would give a great rich tone but, as you are playing with your fingertips, the sound would be softer and the tone warmer.

It is commonly used on folk, blues, or even other styles that require a sweeter sound.

Should you pick with your fingernails or with your finger flesh?

Since we’ve already discussed the variations of fingerpicking and using a pick, we need to dig deeper in fingerstyle. How do I have to pluck the strings? With my fingernails? With my fingertips? 

Well, both options are ok. The main difference is how each style affects the sound. If you pick with your fingernails you will get an aggressive sound, if you play using your finger flesh, the sound will be softer.

The interesting thing about these styles is the combination of them. The attack your fingernails provide, added to the warm sound of your fingertips, will give a richer tone to your pieces.

Famous players that are known for playing with their fingers

As Eddie Van Halen is known worldwide because of his peculiar style and skills using a pick, there are also recognized guitarists who are eminencies in fingerstyle. Probably, the most popular is the Scottish guitar player from Dire Straits.

Obviously, we are talking about Mark Knopfler who claims that the secret of his right-hand touch is all in the flesh of his fingertips. Lindsey Buckingham, from Fleetwoodmac, has also a unique sound and style.

Another relevant figure who applies this style is Jeff Beck, after years of using the pick, of course.

How to start getting used to playing with your fingers

Picking with your fingers is in a way easier than playing with a pick. As you are using your fingertips, which are parts of your body, you get more control of them.

When using a pick you are adding an extension to your hand and it is more difficult to get used to it at first. In addition, the plectrum tends to sweep between your fingers, which makes it harder to master and most guitarists complain about the tons of picks they have lost.

As regards technique issues, playing fingerstyle on an electric guitar should be quite similar to playing on an acoustic. You should use your thumb to play downstrokes on the bass side and your index, middle, and ring fingers to play upstrokes on the high strings.

I know that at first could be hard but try to play riffs or songs you usually play with a pick. In that way, you will open up a new whole landscape of melodic ideas. 

It’s not fingers vs pick, you can do both

Each of them has its benefits and drawbacks but it is not a matter of sticking to one. It is not necessary to choose just one method, by combining both you can give a wider and colorful hue to your musical compositions.

Moreover, there exists a mixed combo called hybrid-picking in which you hold your pick between your thumb and index finger in a way your middle, ring, and pinky remain free to pluck the lighter string gauge.

Leave your imagination fly and create new rhythm patterns combining all the mentioned techniques and you will see how your tone and composition skills improve more and more.