Guitarists have been using strange picking techniques for decades. Eddie Van Halen and James Hetfield use regular picks but hold them with three fingers. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons uses a peso. Queen's Brian May uses a British sixpence. Jimi Hendrix was even known to play guitar with his teeth from time to time. But for some players, no pick, conventional or otherwise, can take the place of bare fingers against steel. Here are ten guitarists who either regularly or exclusively gave the pick the flick.
10. Paul McCartney
McCartney is most often thought of as a singer and bass player, but his delicate fingerpicking is heard on “Yesterday” (that’s his Epiphone Texan) and, in a much more in-your-face way, “Blackbird.” It was on the latter that McCartney really came into his own as a fingerpicking guitarist, playing chords that were more reminiscent of what a pianist might play than a guitarist, and making full use of the entire neck. In 2006 McCartney told PBS's Great Performances that the technique was actually inspired by Bach's Bourrée in E minor, a lute piece which both he and George Harrison learned on guitar in their younger days.
9. Alasdair MacLean
As vocalist and guitarist for Scottish indie band The Clientele, Alasdair MacLean is a master of shimmery, Byrds-like, sun-dappled slightly psychedelic pop. His playing appears effortless and relaxed, yet he coaxes a surprisingly hard attack out of each note, demonstrating killer economy of movement and impeccable note choice. MacLean has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of interesting and unconventional chords at his command, which further highlights the cleverness of his fingerpicking patterns.
8. Robbie Krieger
The legendary Doors guitarist started by learning to play flamenco on an acoustic guitar, and get this - he didn't even own a guitar until he was 18. Krieger's playing is instantly identifiable whether he's playing bottleneck or conventionally, and although the focus of the Doors was more on the keyboard playing of Ray Manzarek and that charismatic chap on vocals out the front, Krieger was the one who wrote “Light My Fire.”
7. John Mayer
Mayer seems to come from the Jeff Beck school of going pickless - check out his expressive, vocal and very Beck-like solo in “Heartbreak Warfare” for a prime example. Mayer's fingerstyle personality on electric is also informed by his own acoustic style, as you can hear on tracks such as “Wheel from Heavier Things.”
6. Derek Trucks
At 31, Derek Trucks has been a famous guitarist for 22 years, and as the nephew of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, he has a strong connection to rootsy, slide-driven music. He also incorporates Pakistani and East Indian qawwali influences into his playing, which you can hear in his masterful command of microtones - the “notes between the notes.”
5. Lindsey Buckingham
Fleetwood Mac attained such astronomical pop success that it's easy to overlook the fact that Lindsey Buckingham utterly shreds, wailing on his axe using his bare fingers in aggressive ways that would make even staunch pick users wince. At times his playing has a gloriously ragged, on-the-edge-of-dropping-the-note vibe, bursting with energy and anger, yet he never actually loses control. Other times his playing is uncannily precise and hauntingly beautiful.
4. Tommy Emmanuel
A guitarist since the age of four, Emmaneul has had plenty of time to master six strings. Chet Atkins took Tommy under his wing back when Tommy was a hero-worshipping teenager writing letters for his idol, and in 1997 Emmanuel and Atkins released a duo album, The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World. It would be Atkins' last album, but Tommy keeps Chet's spirit alive in his almost impossible playing style. His electric stuff is not to be missed either, coming across as a more blues and country-influenced Eric Johnson.
3. Mark Knopfler
The Dire Straits main man is perhaps one of the most visible pickless axemen, especially thanks to his revolutionary “Sultans of Swing” solo. Knopfler's funky, cocked-wah tone on “Money for Nothing” was inspired by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top (Knopfler actually contacted Gibbons for tonal advice on the track), but listen beyond that groovy honk and you'll hear an almost Stevie Wonder-like, organ-inspired approach to rhythm.
2. Hubert Sumlin
Sumlin attained legendary status as the guitarist for Howlin' Wolf, a job he held from 1954 to 1976 apart from a tenure playing for Muddy Waters in 1956. After Wolf passed away, the band continued as The Wolf Gang under the leadership of sax/harp player Eddie Shaw, and these days Sumlin still tours and records. Rarely seen without a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, he often uses both his thumb and index finger to pick, and he’s a master of dynamics. Sumlin often combines palm muting with a clean tone for a snappy, sharp attack that further emphasizes his “hey, is that one guy or two playing that?” talents.
1. Jeff Beck
Like Hubert Sumlin, Jeff Beck tends to use his thumb to pick downstrokes, and his index finger for upstrokes. This also shifts the angle of his right hand to be ideal for manipulating the volume control with his pinkie finger. Beck even uses the edge of his palm to push down on his guitar's bridge for vocal-like upward bends. Flying pickless certainly doesn't slow Beck down - check out “Eternity's Breath,” “Scatterbrain” and “Space Boogie” from Live at Ronnie Scotts. At the other end of the speedometer, listen to his expressive work on “Nadia” and “‘Cause We've Ended as Lovers.”