By Gary Peare | From the Summer 2014 issue of Ukulele
I like to tell my ukulele students that there are no rules for playing the uke.
Well, except one: never use a pick.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but before I tell you the right reasons to use a pick, let me give you three good reasons to avoid them.
Sounds Like a Guitar Playing with a hard pick makes your uke sound less like a uke and more like a guitar—a cheap, tiny one at that. If that’s what you want, just play a guitar, OK?
You Can’t Pick & Roll With a pick, you miss out on all of the uke’s wonderful strumming possibilities. There’s a whole world of strums—from rolls to triplets—that are simply beyond your grasp if you’ve got a plectrum pinched between your fingers.
It Ruins Your Uke Ever see Willie Nelson’s guitar? The one with the cavernous hole caused by picking? Normal strumming will produce wear to the upper bout of any uke, but picks will chew up your top faster than rats through a cracker. Want to hear a room full of uke lovers scream? Strum your 1920s Martin Style-3K with a hard pick.
Ok, now that that’s out of the way, there are several reasons would you might want to use a pick.
Ergonomics I’ve had at least one student use a pick because of arthritis. Some educators recommend felt picks for children’s delicate fingers. If strumming is painful, by all means, try using a pick.
Fingerpicking Rigid picks produce a harsh sound for strumming, but many fingerstyle players, like Hawaiian slack-key legend Led Kaapana, use thumb- and finger-picks to great effect. Since these picks are sized for guitar playing—especially the thumbpicks—some players file them down to avoid digging into the top.
Use It for Effect A felt pick can produce a nice mellow tone, particularly on baritone and tenor ukes. Really want to shred? A rigid pick is for you. Go for the sound that speaks to you. But don’t kid yourself that you need a pick for speed. Jake Shimabukuro lives a pick-free existence. Heck, he even wears his nails short.
How to Pick a Pick
Unless you’re really trying to channel your inner Amanda Palmer, avoid normal guitar picks—they’re really meant for steel strings. But a wide variety of picks are made especially for ukes.
The classic uke pick is the felt pick, which comes in a variety of shapes (oval and triangular), sizes, thicknesses, and degrees of hardness. The softer the felt, the mellower the sound. There are even thin poly-felt picks with a stiff inner core that provides a punchy attack without a plastic-y click.
Two nice alternatives are picks made of leather or rubber. Along with felt, leather is the classic material for ukulele picks and dates back to a hundred years ago. A more modern take on those are Wedgie’s rubber picks. They come in a range of thicknesses and degrees of hardness, plus they have a molded grip, making them a good choice for hands young and old.
Which one is the best?
Well, there really is no rule: get what feels best and works best for you. The best part may be that it’s an inexpensive experiment.
Where to Get a Uke Pick
Your best bet is your local music store, where you can handle and test-drive several options. The best selection I’ve found online is at Roy T. Cone’s Ukulele World. Cone stocks nearly 30 different kinds of picks, and even offers a variety pack, which is a terrific choice for first-timers.
One other place to check? Your wallet. With a nifty gadget called the Pick Punch, you can make your own picks from an old credit card, school ID—whatever. Experiment and invent your own signature plectrum.
While ukulele instructor Gary Peare frowns on people who use picks, he might see the value someday. Check out Gary’s blog, ukulelia.
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