Pedal Steel Lessons Pedal Steel Technique

Playing Pedal Steel Without Picks

Playing without picks can often provide a better feel and warmer response from the strings. Read more…

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Although pedal steel guitar is traditionally played with picks, you can play pedal steel without picks and still get a good tone. Many pedal steel players that come from a guitar background may find it challenging at first to get used to playing with finger and thumb picks.

There are advantages and disadvantages to using (or not using) picks when playing pedal steel. Better understanding these factors can be beneficial when deciding whether or not to use picks. 

Let’s take a look at playing pedal steel without picks, and why a player may choose to do so…

Tonal Warmth

One of the most beneficial aspects of playing pedal steel without picks is the warmer tone you can get from the bare fingers. Although not every player prefers a warmer tone, the tone and response you get from using your bare fingers when picking can feel and sound genuine to listeners.

Simply put, playing without picks can give you a more down-to-earth tone that can sound creamier than using picks. The fingertips of your picking fingers have more surface area than most picks, and are also more rounded (or less pointed) than many picks. This contributes to the warmer, smoother sound that can often be the result of playing without picks.

Feel and Response

Playing pedal steel without picks may provide you with a better feel and response for the strings, since you can literally feel how the strings are reacting to your picking. This can make it easier to time the notes you play within the music, however you can also achieve great timing playing with picks.

You may find that it is easier to block or mute strings with your individual bare fingers (which is ironically called pick blocking) when playing without picks. This is because you can dampen the vibration of the string(s) just by placing your fingertip against the string. This can also be done with picks, however you may find that it feels less natural to mute a string with a pick versus your fingertip.

Why Use Picks?

Knowing some of the benefits mentioned above, you may wonder what the reason is to wear picks when playing pedal steel guitar. Picks can actually provide a lot of sustain to the notes you pick and play.

By adding more strength to the strings you pick, you can make the notes ring out for a longer duration. This in itself adds sustain to the notes, but when you take into account the bar and volume pedal that are used with pedal steel, the notes can have a lot of sustain for musical uses.

Also, picks tend to add a brightness and clarity to the notes you play, since the plastic and/or metal of the picks has a brighter tonality than fingertips. The surface area of where the picks meet the strings is also a little more pointed than the fingertips. This is why some guitar players prefer to use their fingernails to pick strings, as opposed to their bare fingers.

Most pedal steel players decide to play with picks, likely because of the tradition of using them when playing. However, there are notable players who don’t use picks that are finding new and creative ways to get a tone that catches listeners’ attention. Russ Pahl is a successful Nashville session musician that often plays without picks, and Daniel Lanois is a producer and player that also pushes boundaries in these regards.

Do I Need To Change My Technique to Play Without Picks?

Ultimately, whether you decide to play with or without picks, your technique doesn’t necessarily need to change much when you play. The most important thing to keep in mind when picking with your right hand is to be sure to block or mute any strings that aren’t being played at that time (or that you don’t want to ring out unnecessarily).

When pick blocking, you can rest your fingertips on the strings to mute them just as you would if wearing picks. For palm blocking, you’ll still be using your palm and other areas of your hand to mute strings, regardless of wearing picks or not.

Playing Pedal Steel Without Picks

You may find that once you get used to playing either with or without picks, you can then switch back and forth to between the two options without much thought or effort. This is because your right hand technique isn’t changing, but rather the point of contact of your right hand’s fingers against the strings is (metal/plastic vs. fingertip).

Players With A Classical or Fingerstyle Guitar Background

If you have experience playing guitar in a fingerstyle manner, which is common for classical guitar playing, you may find that pedal steel is easier for you to play when using your fingertips instead of picks. 

Sometimes, the picks on your fingers and thumb can feel unnatural compared to the fingers themselves. This can be especially true in regards to the bands of the picks, which may feel hefty and awkward around the cuticles of the fingers. 

Furthermore, most pedal steel finger picks will need some minor adjustments made to their shape, in order to get them to fit well on your fingers. Properly shaping your picks around your fingers is perhaps the best thing you can do to make the picks feel more natural and comfortable as you play. By shaping your picks appropriately (and making them feel comfortable), you can reduce the irritation and pressure that sometimes comes with wearing picks.


Experimenting with playing pedal steel guitar without picks can be a a great learning experience. Besides the tonal difference, you’ll likely gain some insight into various picking and blocking techniques that you may have not noticed before.

It can be a good idea to get used to playing with picks if you’re looking to play more traditionally. However, you are certainly not limited to playing particular styles of music just because of your choice to use (or not use picks) when you play.

If you come from a guitar background, it can be a good idea when you first start playing pedal steel to try transitioning to using finger and thumb picks. You’ll likely find that they feel more natural to use as you gain experience from playing with them.

Thanks for checking out this page, hope it is helpful and makes playing more enjoyable! If you’re interested in diving deeper into playing chords and scales on E9 pedal steel, check out these guides…

The Chord Guide for E9 Pedal Steel (E-Book, Digital Download)

Pedal Steel Guitar Instruction Book

Learn the chords on the E9 neck in a way that makes playing simple and enjoyable…

  • Almost Every Chord You’ll Ever Need for E9
  • Intuitive and Easy to Use
  • Make Use of Pedal and Lever Combinations
  • Example Tabs of Chord Movements
  • Easily Utilize the Nashville Number System
  • Great For Any Key and Style of Music

Includes a bonus section of over a hundred pages of extra chord charts, key references, and more!

More Digital Downloads for Pedal Steel…

The Elixir of E9 Pedal Steel: Harmonized 6ths