Since Dynamo's New Years Eve gig at Acme on 12/31/15, I have (for the most part) been playing without a pick. I have had some relapses into playing with a plectrum from time to time and a few forays into playing with a thumbpick, but I just keep coming back to fingerstyle as a "home-base" technique.
The time, feel and tone of players such as Ry Cooder, Ted Greene, Derek Trucks, Charlie Hunter, Blake Mills, and Wes Montgomery, just to name a few, was an inspiration for me to start exploring a pick-less approach. I had always played hybrid style with a pick and fingers and would often tuck the pick behind my first finger and play with my thumb and fingers. However, I found this limiting. I could for the most part get the tone I was looking for while tucking the pick behind my finger, but when it came to playing complex lines or emulating some of Ry Cooder's rhythmic patterns it became clear that holding a pick in my hand was getting in the way.
There are many schools of fingerstyle technique but tracing the lineage of my heroes influences, I find myself checking out a lot of Delta musicians. Players like Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Elizabeth Cotton, Mississippi John Hurt etc. They each had a unique approach to the guitar that was learned very organically. Their techniques serve their individual styles and voices and have been very influential on American music. Another good source for me has been Fats Waller. Taking his approach of his left hand on the piano and applying it to the thumb and fingers in the picking hand on guitar has helped my time feel and articulation immensely.
I love seeing the connection that music has across styles and time periods. It is evident that there is a connection between so much American music. From the Carter Family to Duke Ellington to Bill Monroe to BB King and so on. Its all so connected like a roots system of a forrest. Hmm sorry, that was kind of sappy (no pun intended).
Fingerystyle has also sent me down a path of digging into Brazilian guitar music but I will save that whole topic for another post...
I had a brief, but interesting, conversation with the great jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson about playing with out a pick and he had some interesting insights. He said that playing fingerstyle most likely utilizes a different part, or parts, of the brain that playing with a pick doesn't- not necessarily for better or worse, but just different. This resonated with me because, in my experience, an almost intuitive sense to play counterpoint rhythms between the thumb and the fingers opened up when I dropped the pick- This is, after all, what the guitar is designed for, right?
I also think the physical connection to the instrument can help me be more expressive with my touch. I don't think you can't be expressive with a pick by any means, there are countless players to exemplify this- but I do think touching the strings with the flesh of both hands can help pull you in the direction of nuance and subtly.
The biggest challenge for me was adapting a way to play single-note lines. There has been a few ways I have tried to produce clear, well articulated lines with out a pick such as alternating fingers i and m (index and middle) and alternating p and i (thumb and index). I have found that fingers i and m seem to be best suited for lines that I want to sound even and smooth while using p and i for lines that have more edge to them, bluesy might be the word. Most of this decision making as to what technique to use happens subconsciously, so I work on both forms of alternating strokes in the practice room.
As of late, I have been exploring the thumb pick. The thumb pick helps articulate the notes I strike with my thumb and can help produce clarity in a line. I usually keep one on my pinky of my right hand so its right there if I want to put it on for certain situations that call for it.
I've started revisiting and practicing some of the classical guitar techniques I use to work on my freshman year of college while studying with Tim Schmidt. I work on the arpeggios out of the book- Giuliana's 120 Daily Studies for the Right Hand book that is pretty common in any classical guitarists training. I also have done quite a bit of research into the techniques used by dobro, steel, and banjo players. They usually play with a three finger approach using fingers p,i, and m. Rolls are useful for breaking up triad arpeggios into rhythmic patterns. It can commonly create a 3 against 4 pattern.
I use my thumb alone for some lines but most often I will use it counter-balanced with my fingers or to strum chords. I have found that using rest strokes helps articulate the bass notes. I play octaves quite a bit but when doing so I almost always play them with my thumb and a finger a la John Scofield as opposed to the Wes way of playing with just the thumb, although that is a very seductive sound.
I will still play with a pick for certain situations. I love acoustic/bluegrass music and a lot of those styles really call for a flatpick. Players like Tony Rice, Norman Blake, and David Rawlings are some of my favorites musicians and emulating their styles most certainly call on using a pick. On most gigs I do whether its with Dynamo or my group I will be playing fingerstyle but if I'm in the studio or on a gig and I'm hearing something that needs a pick I won't hesitate to grab one out of my pocket. For almost all of Dynamo's most recent studio record I used a pick. I felt that it helped unify the sound of the 3 guitars- Hank, Adam and myself. Both Hank and Adam having amazing sounds with a pick.
Hope my experience helps you on your path! We all have different hands, ears, goals and imaginations so its just a matter of exploring different methods and putting in the time.
Here are a few videos of Charlie Hunter that really helped me out. His right hand approach has probably influenced me the most. His playing really knocks me out.