Do Jazz Guitarists Use Picks?

Jazz, for the uninitiated, might be a very hard to grasp genre because of its tall barriers to entry.

I, personally, consider professional jazz musicians to be elite musicians with a higher understanding of music.

However, we all have to make our strings vibrate.

Does the secret jazz tone lie in the soft touch of jazzists’ fingertips?

If you want a short answer about this topic, here it is:

Many jazz players use picks, however, many others play exclusively with their thumb and fingers or combine both techniques. The case for the pick is that it makes lines sound sharper, more aggressive, and facilitates playing fast. On the other side, finger-style playing makes for a rounder warmer jazzy tone.

In this article, I will try to answer the most common questions about the preferred picking methods for playing jazz.

By the end of it, you will have a clearer idea and more alternatives on how to approach the picking part of your jazz technique.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go!

Is jazz guitar played with fingers or pick?

The short answer is “it depends”.

Attacking the guitar strings is very important for every player’s technique, we all can agree on that. For jazz players, this is as important or more.

This is why every person chooses to do it the way it sounds better for them. From my experience I can tell you that most jazz players use a pick, however many other (and very famous ones) choose to use their fingers.

I think finger-picked strings tend to sound smoother, and this is, for sure, an effect that jazz players would appreciate.

However, the sharpness and the slightly more aggressive sound of playing with a pick complements the style of many other players.

There is no definitive answer to this question.

What kind of picks do jazz players use?

Jazz players tend to gravitate towards smaller thicker picks. This allows for better control of the attack and dynamics. However, there are no rules set in stone. Pick choice is a very personal matter, and ultimately players use what feels and sound better to them. 

Using large thin picks might be a stylistic choice for someone who needs that feel in their playing.

Music is about creativity and exploration, and you should always be testing new things.

Why do some jazz players don’t use a pick?

Picks are not mandatory for playing the electric guitar, and luckily jazz players know that. Attacking the strings with your bare fingers can achieve rounder warmer tones that work amazingly for jazz. Particularly, strumming with the thumb is a very common technique for comping (playing jazz rhythm).

Most fingerstyle players use their thumb for the low strings and fingers 1 to 3 for the higher ones, however, this is just an old convention that not all players comply with.

Famous jazz players that don’t use a pick

Here are some famous jazz players that don’t always use a pick:

  • Wes Montgomery
  • Joe Pass
  • Lenny Breau
  • Kevin Eubanks
  • Mick Goodrick
  • Laurendo Almeida
  • Ralph Towner
  • Wolfgang Muthspiel
  • Ben Monder
  • Andrew Marzotto
  • Stanley Jordan
  • John Abercrombie

Many of them combine fingerstyle with using a plectrum to generate different tones.

Advantages of playing jazz with a pick

Picks are more precise than fingers and facilitate the task of playing many consecutive notes. They also give a snappier, sharper tone to the guitar lines. This is why picks are mostly preferred for fast bebop lines, while fingerstyle is more common when comping ballads, for example.

Fingerstyle masters, however, can achieve amazing things without the need for a plectrum, but ultimately their lines are not the same in tone and feel like the ones played with a pick. It’s just a different flavor.

Are Dunlop jazz 3 picks intended for playing jazz?

As the name implies, probably Dunlop’s intention was to design the ultimate pick for jazz players. However, they perhaps designed the ultimate pick for all guitar players. This is an exaggeration, but it’s well known that lots of players outside the jazz world use this Dunlop pick in their different genres.

Picks are really not designed for specific kinds of music. Or maybe they are, but that’s silly in my opinion.

As I mentioned earlier, making music is a very personal task where you should always put creativity, feel and comfort in the first row seats.

Is it ok to switch between pick and finger style?

Of course, it is ok to switch between a pick and fingerstyle. Even many players choose to “hybrid pick” (pick for the lower strings and fingers for the higher) some chords due to string skips, for example. Having the ability to play both with a pick and with your fingers will add more colors to your palette.

In the end, you should play the way it suits your style better, at least when you reach an intermediate level. This will help you reach the uniqueness in your sound that many players look for.

Are thumb picks good for jazz?

Thumb picks are great for jazz, especially when playing basslines on the guitar. Tommy Emmanuel is a heavy user of this kind of pick and, and although he is not strictly a jazz player, you can see how this tool really suits his style.

The next time you go to your music store, get a thumb pick and give it a try. You will probably love it or hate it, I don’t know many people sitting in the in-between.