An Essential Guide To How To Strum A Guitar Without A Pick

Learning how to strum a guitar without a pick is just as important as learning to strum with a pick. Let’s look at some of the different options!


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In this free lesson you will learn…

  • How to strum without a pick
  • How to use only your thumb for strumming
  • What fingerpicks are and how you can use them
  • How to combine your thumb and fingers for different sounds

No Pick? No Problem! We’ll Teach You How To Strum A Guitar Without A Pick

Part of beginning to learn to play the guitar is the very practical problem of dealing with foreign objects like your guitar and your pick in a natural way.

  • In beginner guitar classes, we frequently start without using a pick so that we can deal with one foreign object at a time.
  • There’s a school of thought that so long as we’re beginners and everything is difficult, we might as well use a pick while we’re at it and get used to everything happening at once.

We got used to how the pick sounds, and once we’ve got a few chords under our fingers, we begin exploring how to strum a guitar without a pick.


Generally speaking, strumming the guitar with a pick yields a pretty, bright, chiming chord with a certain amount of depth and volume.

  • When you learn how to strum a guitar without a pick, you can manipulate your guitar tone to bring out a warmer, rounder sound.
  • Once you are accustomed to how to strum a guitar without a pick, you can even learn how to control brightness and volume with the part of your hand you use, as well as the angle of your hand.

So let’s pick up the guitar, tune up, and get ready to explore a couple methods for how to strum a guitar without a pick!


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The Thumb Knows How to Strum a Guitar Without a Pick

If there ever was a finger meant to intuitively strum a guitar without a pick, it is the thumb.

  • This is probably the first thing you used to strum your guitar.
  • Whether your guitar sounds good when you use your thumb to strum it is another question. Whether your thumb feels okay strumming the guitar is yet another.
  • The very first and most important thing about how to strum a guitar without a pick is that your hand has to be relaxed.

Wes Montgomery developed his signature sound and style by using just his thumb.

Check out his beautiful version of “Sunny.”

If your hand is stiff, fingers pressed against the guitar, or wrist locked up, it won’t feel good.

It won’t sound good. So please don’t ever do any of what’s involved in this photo below.


Get yourself a strap, if you’re going to stand.

  • You should never have to hold the weight of the guitar with either hand.
  • If you’re seated, you can still wear your strap to keep your guitar where you like it.
  • Secure your guitar with the crook of your strumming arm so it doesn’t wobble.

Now, we’re ready to strum with the thumb!

With a loose and relaxed wrist, fingers, and thumb, strum down with the side of your thumb.

Your fingers can be either straight and relaxed or curled and relaxed, as long as your knuckles aren’t scraping the strings.


This is a pretty good depiction of how to strum a guitar without a pick, showing a relaxed hand and a good angle for your thumb to brush all of the strings.

  • Keep your thumb relaxed and initiate the down-strum with your wrist.
  • Using your whole forearm tenses up your wrist, involves bigger muscles that are harder to control, and creates a raking sound.
  • After you’ve gotten used to creating a smooth down-strum using your thumb, try to strum upward.

Remember, the up-strum does not need to and should not be as full-sounding as the down-strum.

A good way to up-strum with your thumb is to let your thumbnail glide up the strings, hitting three or four strings in sequence.


These same principles – using the side of your thumb and keeping your hand and wrist relaxed – also come into play when you incorporate fingerpicking into how to strum a guitar without a pick.

  • You can use your thumb to pick out bass or melody notes, as in this version of “Wildwood Flower” made famous by Maybelle Carter.
  • Maybelle Carter’s style of strumming with her fingers was informed by the fact that she also played banjo and autoharp.
  • Thanks to Maybelle Carter, Johnny Cash got not only a wife, but also a distinctive rhythm guitar style of his own!

As a matter of fact, you can learn just about everything you need to know about how to strum a guitar without a pick by immersing yourself in the Carter Scratch.


How to Strum a Guitar Without a Pick, Ukulele-Style

One thing you’ll notice about Mother Maybelle’s strumming style is that she uses the thumb for the melody and her first finger for the rhythm.

That may seem upside-down, as many guitar players have inverted the process so that the thumb is in charge of bass notes and the fingers in charge of either melody or ornamentation in fingerpicking.

If you would like to know more about fingerpicking, where the chords on the guitar are picked one note at a time rather than strummed, check out this lesson:

Fingerstyle Guitar Lessons – 5 Easy Ways to Sound Amazing


Ukuleles can provide a good example for how to strum a guitar without a pick. Traditionally, a uke is strummed with the first finger, not entirely unlike Maybelle Carter.

  • If you haven’t yet treated yourself to a little dose of Jake Shimabukuro, here he is showing you how it’s done on his cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
  • Jake is a maniac on that ukulele – maybe the finest player around since we lost Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who can also school you on using your first finger to strum the uke.

For obvious reasons, the tone you get using your first finger to strum is different than what you get with your thumb.

You’ll use your fingernail for the down-strum and the pad of your first finger for the up-strum.

Your fingernails will give you a brighter and somewhat louder sound than the pads of your fingers, but you may find that on a steel-stringed guitar, the thickness of your fingernails affects how pleasant this experience is.



Pro-Tip: Using a set of fingerpicks is a fun way to replace the flatpick and produce a different tone on the guitar.

The most widely available are made of stainless steel. Due to the fact that they are curved, they’re not suitable for strumming with fingers.

You can use a thumbpick in combination with fingerpicks, and the thumb can do the strumming.

How To Strum A Guitar Without A Pick Using the Thumb and First Finger

The Carter Scratch is just one of the ways that you can use your thumb and first finger together to create a variety of interesting sounds on the guitar without a pick.

For a basic “boom-chicka” strum, you can pick the bass notes you want – the root of the chord, usually – with your thumb. That’s the “boom”.

Then strum the chord with your first finger, down-up. That’s the “chicka.”

This lesson from Adam Rafferty is a solid introduction to the “boom-chicka” strum. Also see our lesson, Alternate Picking: The Ultimate Guide for more information on where your thumb goes.

When you’re figuring out how to strum a guitar without a pick, you can perform the “boom” part of the strum without a pick by using a rest stroke.

A rest stroke is when you pluck the string with your thumb and let your thumb come to rest on the string below.


You can also learn how to strum a guitar without a pick by using your thumb and forefinger in combination as though you were holding a pick.

  • For this “fake pick” method, touch your forefinger and thumb together as though you were sort of pinching a pick.
  • Keeping your hand relaxed and your wrist loose, you can use your fingernail and thumbnail to strum the guitar.

You’ll get a tone out of the guitar that resembles strumming with a pick, so if your motivation to learn how to strum a guitar without a pick is that you currently cannot find a pick, this may be your thing!


One of the most interesting things about learning how to strum a guitar without a pick is that you can exert some fine tone control over the strings.

  • The “fake pick” method above helps you to get a little brightness and twang in your strum by using the fingernails.
  • Conversely, if you are looking for a rounder and warmer tone, you can use your thumb to strum down, as described above.
  • Use your first finger to strum up. You can hear a little more calm in that tone, right?

When you’re using your fingers to strum (particularly the pads of your fingers), controlling the angle is important to avoiding injury.

Point your fingers too far into the guitar and you’ll wind up catching them on the strings.



How to Strum a Guitar Without a Pick Using All Your Fingers

You can get a lot more volume and rhythmic variation learning how to strum a guitar without a pick but using your whole hand.

  • Mark Knopfler uses a clawhammer-type technique to thump out rhythm on songs like “Sultans of Swing” and “Money for Nothing.”
  • Here’s how to strum a guitar without a pick Knopfler-style. Your thumb is strumming down on the bass strings, or more often, picking a bass note.
  • This alternates with the first two or three fingers, which are curled in like a claw, hitting the strings with the fingernails.

The clawhammer name comes from a style of banjo playing you can see here, by noted banjo guy Steve Martin.


Another way to learn how to strum a guitar without a pick is with the fiery and impressive style of rasgueado!

Rasgueado is closely associated with flamenco guitar.

What sets it apart from other methods we’ve discussed is that it uses both the nail side and the pad side of the thumb and fingers in rapid succession.


Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again.

Using Other Parts of Your Hand and the Guitar

One integral part of learning how to strum a guitar without a pick is figuring out how to get your strum to sound percussive.

  • When you’re setting up a groove, with or without a pick, when the sound stops is just as important as when it starts.
  • You can control that by using your strumming hand to touch the strings and stop them from vibrating.

This technique is called palm muting whether or not you are using your palm to stop the strings, and you usually won’t be.

You can use palm muting with a pick, but it’s so much easier with your bare hand!

  • All you need to do is hit the strings with your strumming hand.
  • Try it a few different ways!
  • You’ll produce a different sound depending on how forcefully you hit the strings.

For more on palm muting, check out this lesson: Palm Muting: An Essential Guide

Now, try hitting other parts of your guitar!

Trust us – this is a thing! It is generally referred to as percussive fingerstyle guitar.

Here’s your percussive fingerstyle guitar pioneer, Michael Hedges, playing “Arrowhead.”

Hedges has inspired generations of guitarists since the 1980s to just start hitting their guitars to make cool noises!

Further Pick-less Exploration

For more on how to strum a guitar without a pick, there are loads of online lessons on fingerstyle guitar and strumming.

You can check YouTube’s seemingly endless selection of people with videos on fingerstyle guitar.

Better yet, find a teacher on a local message board! With a little guidance, you can incorporate strumming without a pick into your regular repertoire.

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