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The guitar must be one of the most popular instruments out there because it’s portable, it’s relatively easy for beginners and it’s simply cool.
But no matter how approachable it may seem there are plenty of guitar techniques you’ll need to learn in your musical journey, one of the most common ones is fingerstyle and strumming.
So, what is the difference between fingerstyle and strumming?
You can use either your fingers, fingernails or a pick with both techniques, however, when strumming all or several strings are struck at the same time with one motion of your hand. With fingerstyle, you are picking individual strings which require better finger coordination, dexterity, and accuracy.
Of course, there is a lot more nuance to fingerstall, strumming, and fingerpicking for that matter. If you want to learn more about the differences between these techniques, and which one is more difficult, to begin with, then keep on reading!
What’s The Difference Between Fingerstyle, Strumming, and Fingerpicking?
I do want to preface this by saying that while these techniques might be completely different that doesn’t mean that one of them is better than the other.
They all bring something unique to the table, and in my humble opinion, I think it’s good for both novice and experienced guitarists to explore these guitar styles.
Even if you don’t perfect one over the other, it can still help you get a better idea of how guitars can be used to create music.
So, let’s start exploring!
Strumming is one of the most fundamental guitar techniques that you can learn. A strum as the name suggests is a sweeping up and down motion that the guitarists use to strike several or all 6 strings at the same time.
Because of this seemingly simple motion, that looks so effortless, it might seem like there’s not a lot happening when a guitarist is strumming.
But there are, of course, different patterns of strumming, where you use different combinations of the up and down movement to provide the rhythm.
While there are different patterns and exceptions to strumming rules, Tony does a great job explaining the logic behind strumming.
In a sense, it’s not so much music that strumming provides but all or part of the rhythmic pulse and all or part of the harmony. That’s why strumming shines the brightest when it’s combined with vocals that provide the melody.
You can use your fingers or a pick when strumming, and it’s really up to you which one you decide to go with, but before you do, let’s see how both of these options work.
Strumming With Fingers
When you think of strumming with your fingers two very basic, but essential questions may arise.
Do you play with one finger or all of them and which part of the finger?
A common way of strumming is actually using your fingernails. In a way, you’re using your fingernails as a pick. This method will add some string clarity, but if the strumming becomes too intense and aggressive you might nick your knuckles on the strings.
Alternatively, you can also use your fingertips to strum the strings and instead of clarity you get a softer rhythm, you can even switch between the two methods.
I usually switch to my fingertips when strumming when I want to emphasize a soft and quiet part of the song, maybe even give it some warmth. But I must warn you that you will get a few calluses, which will eventually help make guitar playing easier and less painful.
You can use three of your fingers, the thumb, index finger, and middle finger, but it’s more common to see beginners use their thumb.
When it comes to the thumb strum technique you will use the pad as you strum down, and when you’re strumming up, you’ll use the top of your thumb in between the knuckles.
You can also use your index finger instead, but I find strumming comes easier when the thumb and index finger are combined. It will basically look like you’re holding a pick and as you go down, you’ll strike the strings with the top nail on your index finger and when you go up, you’ll use the nail on your thumb.
This does produce a clearer and crisper sound which works for a lot of guitarists including myself.
Strumming With a Pick
If you don’t enjoy playing the guitar using your fingers, then you’ll be happy to hear that this technique can be done using a pick.
While the up and down strumming motion might seem intense you actually don’t have to grip the pick too hard. You only need to hold it securely between your thumb and index finger.
The interesting thing about using a pick is that you can achieve different results by experimenting with the pick density and depending on the material you can also go for a more aggressive strumming style.
I actually don’t enjoy the long nail aesthetic, so instead of using my fingernails to strum my guitar, I use picks. I also feel that this way I’m more capable of producing a powerful and bright sound.
For less experienced guitarists a thinner pick will work best for strumming because you won’t have to worry about your pick getting stuck between strings and it will be easier to produce smoother strokes across multiple strings.
Now that the basics of strumming are covered, it’s time to move on and see what fingerstyle is all about.
When it comes to fingerstyle you can also use your fingertips, fingernails, and a thumb pick, but what sets this technique apart are the different methods like percussion, slapping, and harmonics.
Before we take a closer look at those methods I’m going to focus on the technique. Fingerstyle is not only about the guitar strings, it’s actually a very interesting technique in which you get to use your whole guitar to create sound.
Instead of having one instrument, you can become a whole orchestra of different sounds. Instead of just holding the rhythm as you usually do with strumming you get to also be the melody, the bass, and the beats.
So, let’s look at the different methods:
Percussion is the technique in which you incorporate sharp attacks on the strings, but you also use the body of the guitar to apply beats to a song. You tap or hit the top of the guitar with your palm while also plucking the guitar strings making the taps sound like drums.
Thumb slapping also offers a percussive element to your play, but instead of tapping the top of your guitar you basically slap the guitar’s strings. Slapping is usually performed by using your thumb either after each note or in combination with strumming where you get to use your other fingers.
Harmonics is another way to add unique, otherworldly sound effects to your guitar playing. You can use one hand to achieve this or percussively attack a string to produce a harmonic.
If you want to truly grasp the sound of a fingerstyle technique, then Chet Atkins is your man!
All these methods can be used interchangeably, and you can even add strumming to the mix. So, as you can clearly see as far as techniques go there’s a great difference between fingerstyle and strumming.
Since we’re talking about guitar techniques, we can’t leave out fingerpicking. When I first started my guitar journey, I kept thinking that fingerstyle and fingerpicking were the same thing, but this isn’t exactly true.
Unlike fingerstyle where you can play just with your fingers or with fingers and a thumb pick, with fingerpicking you only use your fingers to pluck one or multiple strings.
You can use almost all your fingers, apart from the pinkie to play each string individually, and unlike strumming, you play the melody, not the rhythm. You also don’t create beats as you would with fingerstyle.
While fingerpicking does sound simple or more basic compared to fingerstyle, there are many patterns you can follow with this technique. You’re basically playing multiple guitar strings, using different combinations.
When it comes to sound you will also hear a difference between fingerpicking and the other two techniques. Because you’re using your fingers and not your nails or picks the sound is softer.
That being said, when you use the fingerstyle technique you can also incorporate both strumming and fingerpicking.
Is Fingerstyle Harder Than Strumming?
I must admit that when I started my own journey of learning how to play the acoustic guitar everything was somewhat difficult. However, strumming came much easier for me, and I think a lot of beginners feel the same way.
The reason why fingerstyle is harder to master is that it’s more complicated and demanding than strumming. Don’t get me wrong you won’t learn how to strum overnight, but downstrokes and upstrokes are easier to master than playing individual strings.
But I don’t want you to only take my word for it, so let’s take a closer look at why most guitarists also find fingerstyle harder than strumming.
I think we can all agree that fingerstyle is more complicated because you need to rely on your finger dexterity and coordination, on both hands mind you.
Strumming on the other hand is much easier in the sense that you have to hold a chord and use downstroke and upstroke motions to pick all the notes. You don’t have to play each string individually or use various beats and slaps.
With strumming, you can also get to work on your strokes without paying much attention to your other hand.
With fingerstyle however will have to work on developing automated muscle memory on the picking hand, simply because you can’t keep your eyes on both hands.
That being said, different people find different things easier or harder in each technique, so for some of you picking each note separately could come more “naturally”. But I’m sure you can see how most beginners would feel more comfortable with strumming.
Playing individual notes doesn’t simply require accuracy, but it also requires strength. This strength won’t come to you overnight, but with practice instead.
It’s not only a physical strength that I’m talking about here, but also mental. As a newbie I was afraid of my guitar, I was afraid of the steel strings and the finger pain from using the fingerstyle technique.
In truth, it did hurt, but that’s because I was not used to the string acrobatics I had to perform. With time I developed enough calluses to not feel the pain and my fingers overall became stronger, more confident, and well-adjusted.
And it’s not that I didn’t have the same initial fears with strumming, but the unified motion of my hand across multiple strings felt easier and less intimidating. In other words, it felt less scary to use three fingers against multiple strings all at once.
Plus if you want to play a 12-string guitar by using the fingerstyle technique then you’ll definitely need more finger strength!
Timing is another reason why strumming is easier than fingerstyle.
While strumming all strings are struck simultaneously and you don’t really have to move your left hand as much. This means you can focus on your strumming hand and the pattern you’re playing. After all, your role is to provide the right rhythm to a song.
That being said, strumming can also have its own difficulties that you’ll have to face, and it also depends on how complicated the pattern you’re following is.
With this technique, you have to work on your arm and hand motion, which starts from your elbow all the way to your wrist and ends at your fingers that need to strum in a downward and/or upward motion the right strings at the right time.
With the fingerstyle technique, on the other hand, you have to perform many hand movements and you have to be more careful when each string is picked.
Plucking multiple notes at a time is definitely a skill that is harder to master compared to strumming where you play all or most of the notes at once.
The difficulty in remembering the sequence of the notes and which string is which, is also another thing. Furthermore, you have to be aware of all the other sounds you might have to create simultaneously like percussion, slap thumbing, and harmonics.
That’s why fingerstyle is harder to learn for most beginners or guitarists that are transitioning from the strumming technique to fingerstyle.
Polyphonic instruments are capable of playing multiple independent melody lines at the same time, and the guitar fits right into this category.
As you can imagine if playing more than one note at a time is more difficult then you’ll be stepping up the difficulty game when playing multiple notes played in different beats.
That’s what polyphonic rhythms are, playing notes on upbeats and downbeats as well as the beats in the middle.
Polyrhythms have their roots in the musical traditions of Africa, and you can hear mainstream music genres use polyrhythms like hip hop and metal, but I find that for beginners it’s easier to discern these intricate rhythms in genres like Jazz, Afro-Cuban music, and Indian music.
Now back to the guitar, I want to give another example of why fingerstyle is more difficult than strumming.
Let’s take Travis picking, this is a polyrhythmic pattern in which you keep a steady beat by switching between two different bass notes using your thumb while simultaneously using your index and/or your middle finger to play treble notes.
To get a better understanding of this pattern you can listen to Merle Travis. This pattern was his own unique guitar style and this compilation showcases the complexity of this fingerstyle technique.
Should You Learn Strumming Or Fingerstyle First?
When it comes to learning a new skill, I’m an avid believer that you should take the path that inspires you most and if that’s fingerstyle then so be it.
That being said, you also need to nurture your motivation to play guitar. In my opinion, a beginner guitarist must find the task of learning a guitar challenging but attainable at the same time because if the challenge is too much to bear then you are more likely to lose your motivation.
This is what flow theory is and it’s something that I think a lot of creative minds can relate to.
That’s why I think learning strumming first will not only make your guitar journey easier but also more enjoyable.
This technique is a great starting point in getting a better feel of your guitar and how it works. You will get familiar with the 5 chord shapes along the fretboard. You’ll learn more about the notes, how they sound, where the bass notes are and how to create rhythm with your guitar.
You can experiment using a pick or your fingers. For me, the pick came first not only because I was afraid of getting hurt, but because I got to concentrate on the guitar and the strings and not my finger position.
Of course, if you have in your plans to learn the fingerstyle technique or fingerpicking then using your fingers to strum can be a better option. Not only will your fingers get used to the sensation of strings but dipping your toes into fingerstyle will feel more natural later on.
Another reason why strumming is a better starting point for beginners is the fact that you don’t have to pay attention to two hands at once, let alone pick multiple strings at once.
With strumming, you can learn the chords and how to properly fret the notes, in addition, complex chord shapes are rarely used in strumming.
If you’re thinking of playing a steel-stringed acoustic guitar or/and an electric guitar, then strumming is also a better option.
When it comes to genres fingerstyle is more popular for classical, flamenco, and folksy music and you can hear plenty of Archtop jazz guitarists using it. While strumming is more prevalent in blues, rock, pop, and alternative rock genres.
I also want to add that if you want to become a guitarist then you will have to learn both techniques at some point. So, even if you start off with strumming, fingerstyle will be right around the corner waiting for you.
Try A Hybrid Approach
You might have figured strumming out, and at the same time the fingerstyle technique might be too difficult to master at this point of your journey, in this case, you could try hybrid picking.
This is the technique of using the pick and fingers (usually the middle finger) of your picking hand alternatively or simultaneously.
This technique is not advanced as fingerstyle, but you’ll still need a lot of practice to understand how hybrid picking works.
It does make it easier to move between strings and by cutting down the number of pick strokes you can actually achieve a fluid sound. More so, the difference in sound produced by your fingers and the pick can create beautiful variations.
You can achieve great speed and flexibility with hybrid picking, and it’s a great technique for ballads and more folksy music as well as rock.
I do want to emphasize though that if you’re a novice then it’s best to start with strumming and then move on to hybrid picking and not the other way around.
What About Fingerpicking?
I know I said that hybrid picking is a technique that you can learn after mastering strumming and before you move on to fingerstyle, but fingerpicking is actually the second technique that is easiest to learn.
Strumming still remains the easiest technique for the obvious reasons I mentioned above. Unlike strumming, fingerpicking is used to play the melody part of the song, not the rhythm, at the same time it’s not as over the top as fingerstyle can be.
When learning the fingerpicking technique you will mostly use the thumb, index, and middle finger, however, with classical music you will have to learn to use all of your fingers.
Your chord hand will have a lot of finger movements as you pick each string individually and alternatively. You might also have to use specific techniques such as hammering and sliding.
The difficulty level of fingerpicking could discourage you, that’s why strumming is once again a better choice for beginners.
Sure with complicated strumming patterns, you still need a lot of coordination, practice, and an understanding of rhythm cause otherwise, you’ll be just making noise. But strumming is still not as complicated as the simplest fingerstyle and fingerpicking techniques.
Once you have strumming worked out then you can take on fingerpicking and when that is done you can move on to fingerstyle and who knows, maybe you’ll be the next Kaki King in her playing with pink noise era!
Strumming vs fingerstyle, which is the hardest guitar technique to learn, and which should you choose?
And what about fingerpicking?
As a newbie in the guitar world, these are all great questions to ask yourself.
When it comes to strumming you’re there to provide rhythm to the song by using your right hand to strike all or several guitar strings simultaneously with an up and down motion.
With fingerstyle, you can provide the rhythm or be your own independent band by using percussion, slapping, and harmonics. But most importantly you use your fingers to play each string individually.
Fingerpicking is a technique where you only use your fingers to pluck the strings alternatively or together simultaneously.
While they all sound fascinating, at the end of the day, strumming is the easiest of all three, and it’s a great technique to learn as a beginner.
Rember that as you move on you can pick up the other two techniques and combine all of them to create your own unique sound. Isn’t that the beauty of music!