Fingers, Picks, or Fake Nails Oh My! Part 2: Should I or Shouldn’t I

While it can be a real pain in the ass to those around me, I am gifted with an incredible desire to always get better at what I do. It’s the reason I wake up in the morning, and I honestly can’t understand any other way of living.  The day I wake up and don’t want to improve myself will likely be my last day. To me, self-improvement is my reason to live.

The way this shows up in my musical life is in my experimentation. I am incredibly inquisitive. I love trying new strings, capos, slides, guitars, tunings, and picks. My experiments have yielded tremendous results for me personally. But luckily I am also pretty self-aware, and I know that I typically respond favorably to anything ‘new’ and different.  I LOVE change. Embrace it, and actively pursue it.  I know change causes stress in many folks, but for me change is like taking a great big bong hit of the best weed I’ve ever had; it inspires me and unlocks music that may have never found the light of day otherwise.


But I’m also a pragmatist, and believe in analyzing things objectively as well as subjectively when I’m about to make changes. And I know how much I love new. But given the digital age we live in it’s not hard to gather empirical evidence as it relates to sound.

A little over a month ago I was inspired to try using a thumb pick instead of my thumb nail. I was almost immediately blown away by the sound I was getting from my guitars. The bottom end was bigger, I could play so much louder, and it just felt right. It’s good that I felt positive, because it was a huge change for me, and incredibly difficult. I use the flesh of my right thumb to damp bass strings while I’m playing, and with the thumb pick I couldn’t do that, I had to find other ways to damp strings.  It was hard, but for the most part I was doing okay with that aspect of my playing.

So, last week I recorded some video.  I ended up using a lot of pickup in the sound source because there was too much pick noise from the microphone. The video sounds fine, but I was thinking long-term. What’s it going to sound like when I record with no pickups?  I have to admit I started questioning whether or not I should commit full-time to the pick or go back to my thumb nail.  The volume from the pick is intoxicating, and I didn’t want to give that up unless I ‘had to’.

But I also have to admit to lots of fear creeping into my playing last week as I rehearsed for upcoming concerts this October in Tennessee and Arkansas.  I was constantly thinking while I was playing. Thinking and playing are things I try to never do simultaneously as thinking has a way of effing everything up. I couldn’t imagine playing a concert while on ‘high alert’.

Saturday, I was lucky enough to hang out with a friend I trust implicitly and I played for him with the thumb pick. I didn’t ask him for feedback or criticism, I just played for him. And without prompting he said, you know there’s a lot of pick noise in your playing that wasn’t there when we recorded you with nails.  And that was it for me and full-time use of the thumb pick.  After we said our goodbyes I ran a couple of errands and then went to my nail tech and had a thumb nail ‘installed’. I was right back where I started 30 days ago.

Before you start thinking, man Bonfield just wasted a month of his life on something he’ll never use, think again. In the past month I’ve played over 75 hours of guitar, written a new song, and learned how to palm mute using the thumb pick which is a new sound I can add to my sonic palette.  As far as I’m concerned this is the best musical month I’ve had in a long while. And I’m incredibly confident for my upcoming shows. Playing with the thumb pick was like jogging with weights on my feet, with that gone (except for palm muting) I’m playing better than I have all year, and I’ve played well this year.

So, if you’re ever wondering whether or not you should try something new on the guitar, the answer should always be yes. You can always go back to the old way of doing things if the new way doesn’t work.  And even when things don’t work out you’ll have gained knowledge and experience.  And maybe you’ll get a new sound or song out of it like I did.

Cheers, kb


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