Playing a Classical Guitar With a Pick (Tips From A Guitar Teacher)

I’ve played both classical guitar and a steel string guitar a lot. So, I thought I’d answer a beginner’s question that many people have, which is whether you can play a classical guitar with a pick. Here’s what I found.

It’s perfectly fine to play a classical guitar with a pick. A classical guitar has a loud, bright tone when played with a pick. But, classical guitars do not have a pickguard below the strings which protects the finish from a pick. Steel string and electric guitars have one for this purpose.

Below I’ll explain what you need to watch out for when using a pick on a classical guitar, whether you should install a scratch plate on your classical guitar, as well as, 8 tips when using a pick on a classical guitar, and some different techniques to get you started.

Can Using a Pick on a Classical Guitar Damage It

It’s possible you can tap the area below the strings with a pick when strumming. As it makes contact with the surface of the finish it can lightly dent it, or scratch the finish. The finish protects the guitar from scratches, humidity, and temperature changes.

When the finish is removed, for example, if you accidentally hit it with a pick, or you scratch it with a pick, it can decrease the life of the guitar. 

1. Use a softer pick because it requires less force to strum

Due to the risk of striking the surface of the guitar it’s generally better to start with using a softer pick. There are varying pick thicknesses. Some are soft like a piece of cardboard. Whereas, others are thick and stiff and barely bend at all.

Strumming with a stiff pick means there is more tension before the pick pushes through the strings. Because you’re working against the strength of the pick. But, with a softer pick you don’t need to apply as much force as you strum.

Using a firmer pick can make it more likely you’ll have more follow through in your strum because you need to use more force to strum. This extra follow through can make it more likely you’ll hit the surface of your guitar on the way down or the way up.

Therefore, a softer pick is better for strumming in general, particularly on a classical guitar that doesn’t have a pickguard preinstalled. But, softer picks are generally harder to pick solos, and fast runs of notes. 

So, once you get comfortable using a softer pick you can get a slightly firmer pick which will make it easier to play songs that combine strumming and past picking.

2. Optional – stick on a pick guard or scratch plate to protect the finish

Scratches and dents that cause a split in the finish won’t decrease the life of the guitar dramatically. But, they don’t look the best. However, in my opinion you could say that a pickguard on a classical guitar doesn’t look that good either. And the look of a classical guitar without a pick guard looks better.

So, at the end of the day it’s a matter of personal preference whether you want to risk slightly damaging your classical guitar, or stick on a pick guard to protect it. 

Spanish/flamenco classical guitars use scratch plates to protect them

A variation of pick guards are used on flamenco guitars. As you may know, classical guitars and flamenco guitars are almost identical in the way they look. The main difference is the type of wood that is used, and the action of the strings.

In flamenco guitar they use a lot of what are called golpe. This is where a guitarist taps the front of the guitar with their fingernails. Generally, they use a white or clear scratch plate below the string. But, black scratch plates can also be sued. And sometimes they’re used above the strings as well.

Here’s a video that shows the technique known as golpe and what the scratch plates look like. 

The scratch plates can also protect the guitar from the fan-like strumming motion known as rasgueado. This can be helpful to protect a classical guitar from a pick. But, is optional.

3. Ideal strumming technique – moving the arm vertically from the elbow

Provided you’re reasonably careful you can play a classical guitar with a pick without ever touching the area above or below the strings with the pick as you’re playing. In my experience using a pick on a classical guitar I found I never hit the area below or above the strings with a pick.

However, I read a book about pick technique which showed me that you should use a flat motion with the arm so that you’re not strumming at an angle to the strings which would make the follow through hit the surface of the front of the guitar.

Ideally, you want to keep your elbow joint fixed to the guitar and only move your forearm up and down like you’re swinging a hammer. Rather than moving your whole arm. The only part of your arm that should move is from the elbow down. This creates an anchor point for your arm, and makes it much easier to strum.

The angle of your arm should remain flat to the front of the guitar. In another way of saying the motion should be parallel to the face of the guitar. 

Rather than at an angle either sloping towards the top of the bottom of the guitar. Not only does this produce an even strum and makes it far easier. But, it also lessens the chances that you’ll accidentally hit the surface of the front of the guitar with your pick. 

The finish used on the interior and exterior of the guitar is different

The inside of a classical guitar is quite light colored and not shiny at all. In its appearance it looks like it doesn’t have a finish applied to it. Therefore, it’s a common misconception that the interior does not have a protective layer of finish on it.

But, interestingly, the inside of a guitar is generally finished, according to Tom Bills, a guitar maker. He says the inside of a guitar is finished to prevent the wood from bowing in response to humidity and temperature changes. 

But, the finish is applied in a thinner layer, and various different types of finishes are used to preserve the acoustic quality of the interior of the guitar.

Whereas, the outside finish is to provide a look that is aesthetically pleasing and to be more resistant to scratches, dents, heat, sunlight, and humidity.

Many people wonder whether you need to keep a guitar in a case. Or, if it’s OK to leave it on your bed, on the couch, or on a guitar stand for prolonged periods of time.

I explained this in detail by looking at what the top guitar manufacturers recommend in this article about whether it’s OK to leave a guitar out of its case.

What Can You Play on a Nylon/Classical Guitar?

There are three types of guitars that are most common, electric, classical/nylon string, and steel string, also called acoustic steel string. Various styles are played on some guitars and not others. But, you may be wondering how strict this is and what can you play on a classical guitar?

Generally, you can play any genre of music on a classical guitar. The main consideration is that if one learns songs, scales, and chords on a classical guitar, playing these on a steel string or electric isn’t exactly the same. This is because the fretboard has different dimensions.

As you may know, a classical guitar has a wider neck, and the frets are larger. Because of that if you predominantly play a classical guitar, and then play an electric guitar or steel string guitar it takes a bit of getting used to.

When you do, you will make a lot of mistakes and won’t be able to play the same chords, scale, and songs flawlessly on a steel string or electric guitar as you can on a classical guitar.

If your goal is to play songs on an electric guitar, then it’s better to learn songs on an acoustic steel string guitar rather than a classical guitar. Because the fretboard is much more similar. Whereas, a classical/nylon string guitar has wider frets, and the strings are wider apart.

I personally started by learning on an acoustic steel string guitar. And then I decided I really wanted to learn classical/flamenco guitar. So, I bought a classical guitar. 

I found when I played the same songs I knew on a classical guitar it was far easier. But, after I had been playing classical guitar for about 3 to 6 months I couldn’t play the new songs I had learnt on a steel string guitar. 

Because the frets are larger on a classical guitar – also called a nylon string guitar – playing on a classical guitar after learning on a steel string guitar is not too difficult. And adjusting to the bigger size is relatively easy.

But, going from the wider neck of a classical guitar to the narrower neck of a steel string or electric guitar is considerably more difficult. Because it requires you to be more precise with your fingering.

This brings up another question, of all the types of guitars – nylon, acoustic steel string, and electric guitar, which is the easiest. I’ll cover that next.

Is a Nylon String Guitar Easier To Play?

Certain types of guitar are easier than others. So, knowing whether you should start with a nylon string guitar and if it’s easier to play and therefore is more fun, are important questions. I surveyed 73 guitarists and here’s what I found.

Overall, nylon string guitars are not the easiest type of guitar to play. A survey of 73 guitarists asked what is the easiest guitar to play. The results showed that 80.88% voted for electric guitar, 14.71% said nylon string, and 4.41% said acoustic steel string.

Therefore, the vast majority of people said that electric guitars are easier to play than nylon string guitars. But, a nylon string guitar is easier than an acoustic steel string. The main reason based on my experience is that an electric guitar goes through an amp.

This makes whatever you play sound much better regardless of how well you play. There are also various guitar effects that can make even a very beginner sound like an amazing guitarist.

Many people also wonder whether they should start with an acoustic guitar, either a nylon string or steel string guitar, or an electric guitar. I explained this in detail in another article I wrote about whether electric guitar is easy.

What’s the Best Pick for a Classical Guitar?

With all that being said I thought I’d summarize what pick is the best to use on a classical guitar. Here’s what it is.

As a general rule, a softer pick is better for a classical guitar. But, this is only for a beginner. Once you gain a bit of experience and are comfortable using a pick either a soft pick or a hard pick is perfectly fine on a classical guitar. 

Hard picks are better for playing very fast runs of notes. Whereas, a soft pick is better for strumming. Certain songs are better suits to a soft pick because they have a lot of up and down strumming.

A soft pick has more give to it, so you don’t need to use as much strength to push through the strings. For that reason strumming a lot is less physically demanding using a soft pick.

But, a soft pick needs to spring back which adds a bit of time in between each stroke of the pick. 

So, if you’re doing fast runs of notes, then a hard pick is better because it is very rigid and you can play with much more speed.

Therefore, depending on the demands of the song, either a hard pick or a soft pick will be better. Picks are very inexpensive so you can have a collection of soft and hard picks, and use either or depending on what kind of song you’re playing.

Do Classical Guitars Have All Nylon Strings?

Classical guitars appear to have steel strings on the top 3, and nylon strings on the bottom three strings. But, do classical guitars have all nylon strings?

Classical guitars have all nylon strings. But, the top 3 strings have nylon fibers that are wrapped in metal that have a shiny metallic copper appearance. Whereas, the bottom three strings are made completely of nylon or other synthetic material. 

A thin metal wire is wrapped around nylon the fibers of the top three strings using machines. As the top three strings are played, they weaken due to wear on the frets and from the consistent stretching. 

Over time the spaces in between the loops of the wound wire become larger and the nylon fibers are visible as thin white fibers that protrude from the side. They’re also visible after the string snaps.

Steel strings guitar strings are made of a piece of metal wire. The top three strings also have additional metal wound around them. Whereas, the bottom three strings are just the exposed wire itself without another wire wound around them.

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