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Learning to play classical guitar can feel quite intimidating, with a tremendous amount of technique to pick up before you start playing many recognizable songs.
If you bought a nylon string guitar to learn on, you might wonder: Can you use a pick on a classical guitar?
While traditional classical guitar technique really demands the use of the thumb and three fingers of your playing hand, you absolutely can use a pick while playing one. It’s important to be careful, however, because most classical guitars don’t have a pickguard, and so can be damaged if your pick hits the top while strumming.
Let’s look at why most classical guitar players don’t use a pick, what they do instead, and why a pick might be useful on a nylon string guitar.
Do Classical Guitar Players Use A Pick?
If you ask some players whether it’s OK to use a pick on a classical guitar, they will react like they’ve been possessed by the ghost of a disgruntled Andres Segovia, the player who essentially invented the modern classical technique. When Segovia began playing guitar, it wasn’t taken seriously as an instrument, but his performances, teaching, and arrangements changed that.
One of his playing tenets is the alternating use of the playing hand fingers. In particular, the index and middle fingers are strictly alternated. That, in combination with the use of the thumb and different kinds of stokes on the strings, give players a range of timbres they can employ depending on the needs of the song.
From the beginning of lessons, classical guitar players are taught particular ways to hold the guitar, with the thumb of the fretting hand in the center of the neck and the fingers of the playing hand resting on individual strings. All of this is designed to make playing individual melodic lines, as well chords and arpeggios, as fluid as possible.
To give you some idea of the complexity involved, this video covers some of the basics of playing hand technique, but doesn’t cover other things like holding the guitar, something that has to be mastered first.
Why Don’t Classical Guitar Players Use A Pick?
Modern classical guitar technique continues to evolve but still is focused on the use of the fingers. Part of the emphasis on technique is because that practice eventually produces the ability to fluidly and quickly play long lines of notes while producing the clearest possible sound.
Using a pick makes getting a clear sound somewhat easier, and for players without much practice a pick can also make playing faster.
Another reason some people reach for a pick is strumming, but on classical guitar that, too, is handled with the fingers instead of a pick.
The technique, called rasgueado, involves using the back of the fingernails to quickly play strings, has many variations, and is used in both classical guitar and flamenco, which is also traditionally played on a nylon string guitar. It’s part of what gives flamenco music its signature percussive sound.
This video shows how many different rasgueado techniques are out there for both the flamenco and classical playing styles.
Can You Use A Pick On A Nylon String Guitar?
If playing with your fingers produces a better tone and can be faster, why does anyone use a pick on any guitar?
First, remember that classical guitar is a particular style, and it is played on a particular type of guitar, one that is always strung with nylon strings instead of some of the more creative options. Nowadays, most guitars have steel — actually brass or bronze in the case of most acoustic guitars — strings.
Steel strings put a lot more tension on the neck and top of the guitar, and the result is a guitar that can be much louder, but one that takes far more force to play. That, in turn, is harder on the fingers.
That’s not to say you can’t play a steel string acoustic with your fingers — fingerstyle guitar has a long history and is still constantly evolving — but, rather, to show why a pick is a compromise that makes sense when playing an acoustic with metal strings instead of nylon.
The guitar’s role also evolved and expanded. Most classical guitar is performed solo or as part of a small ensemble.
That’s partly because an unamplified instrument like a guitar can only get so loud, and the use of gut strings, which were the precursor to nylon strings and the only kind of strings available when the guitar was first developing, also limited potential volume.
As the guitar became part of larger ensembles it moved from playing melody and counterpoint to performing as part of the rhythm section, steel strings and strumming with a pick gave players a fighting chance to be heard over woodwinds, brass, other strings and percussion.
Do Players Use A Pick On Nylon String Guitars?
People who know this next bit of trivia might have been wondering when I was going to bring it up: One of the players most famous for playing a nylon string guitar uses a pick.
Willie Nelson has been playing Trigger, his Martin classical guitar with a Baldwin under-saddle pickup, since 1969. And, famously, he uses a pick, playing so hard that he’s worn a hole in the top of the instrument.
This documentary from Rolling Stone looks at Trigger and what the instrument has meant to Nelson’s music.
Nelson is an accomplished musician, and if he’d wanted to play fingerstyle, as most nylon string guitar players do, he would have. Instead, he chose to use a pick for the same reason as he chose to use a re-purposed Baldwin acoustic guitar pickup, one of the first designed to amplify nylon string guitars, and he chose the LaBella Folksinger Black Nylon strings he uses — because of the tone he can get from the combination.
Nelson’s laid back, rubato playing style matches up perfectly with the articulated, clear sound he gets from his instrument, and his use of a pick is a major part of that.
Is It Safe To Use A Pick With A Nylon String Guitar?
Nelson’s guitar, Trigger, is a pretty vivid warning of what could happen if you play too hard with a pick on a guitar without a pickguard. But also, you should remember that Nelson has played pretty much only that guitar for an entire career, taking it on the road and into the studio for more than 50 years now.
After so many hours of playing, any guitar, whether it has nylon or steel strings, whether the player used a pick or not, and whether it has a pickguard or not, might develop a hole. But clearly, the scraping of a pick across the wood of the top took its toll over time.
Even if you never wore a hole in the top, you might scratch the finish on the instrument, though, which is much more of a risk when playing a classical or other kind of nylon string guitar with a pick.
A final wear consideration is the strings themselves. A pick is much harder than the flesh of your fingers or even a fingernail, and therefore will wear on the strings more than playing fingerstyle would.
However, the difference in wear would be very hard to quantify. Other factors, including the age of the strings, the general set up of the guitar, and playing style would all have as much of an effect or more than a pick.
Rather than reflexively deciding to use or not use a pick based on the ideas of others, it makes much more sense to consider things from the same angle Nelson did and use the techniques and gear that get you the sound you want.
That can seem pretty daunting because it requires a lot more work than listening to a few other players and reading a little bit about different styles and techniques.
Instead, you have to spend some time learning how to use different techniques and effects and from there choose what suits your style. It takes more work, but not only will you get better results that way, but you’ll also be more satisfied with the results you get.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.