BY AARON KEIM | FROM THE WINTER 2017 ISSUE OF UKULELE
When I started playing ukulele in 2003, it seemed that a traditional mindset held sway. New ideas, especially those borrowed from other instruments, were frowned upon. This included things like straps, pickups, low-G stringing, different tunings, and the use of picks. But now the ukulele world is quite a bit more diverse, and much more welcoming to these kinds of things. Retailers, too, now ofter a wide variety of products and accessories for ukulele, including picks.
Many of you are perfectly happy playing with your fingers. But, if you are looking for more clarity, more volume, or a different tone, a pick may be good for you. Also, you may already have a favorite pick from another instrument. I hereby give you permission to use it on your uke, with no worries about the haters. Personally, I wear a thumbpick and two plastic fingerpicks and got in the habit for two reasons. First, I was playing in a band with a drummer and wanted more volume and a sharper attack to the sound. Second, I was playing gigs on multiple instruments and it made sense to keep my picks on when I switched to ukulele.
But if you are new to the idea of picks for the ukulele, where do you start?
First, let’s go old school: The felt or leather pick (Figure 1). These were often sold with ukuleles in the ’20s and ’30s and are mentioned in many old instructional books (especially those by Mel Bay). They give a soft and mellow sound, nice for strumming chords on the couch, or for jazzy chord melodies. However, I find them a little underwhelming for picking melodies and for live performance, due to their soft sound; but that’s just my taste.
Next, let’s try a regular guitar pick (also called a plectrum). They come in different thicknesses and materials, but I prefer a thin plastic pick (Figure 2). They work great for louder strumming with a band or for fancy lead-guitar picking work. Many musicians who came up in the Canadian school system (including James Hill) learned to pick melodies this way. Want to use a plectrum but keep on fingerpicking? Just use the plectrum for the thumbpick role and your second and third fingers to cover the other strings in a hybrid style.
Third, lets talk about thumbpicks. Even if you have long fingernails, it can be hard to get your thumb nail into a proper fingerstyle position without bending your wrist at an uncomfortable angle. Wearing a thumbpick puts the picking surface on the side of your thumb, allowing for a more natural hand position (Figure 3). When wearing your thumbpick, you can still strum and pick with your fingers as normal, but the thumbpick is ready when you need it. Ledward Kaapana plays ukulele this way. Thumbpicks vary in size, shape, and function. I prefer the tortoise plastic National brand, but you will want to try them in person to find your size. If you are having trouble holding onto a guitar pick while playing, try one of the thumbpicks that is really a plectrum with a thumb strap to hold it on, such as the Fred Kelly thumbpick or a popular one by Herco. When not using it, just clip it to the strings on your headstock, like Taimane Gardner.
And fourth, what about adding fingerpicks to your thumbpick setup? Traditional metal fingerpicks (Figure 4) are often used by banjo and guitar players when they play their ukes. Del Rey is a good example. The metal fingerpicks do not allow you to strum down with your fingers, though, so I prefer a plastic fingerpick called an Alaska pick. With these picks I can strum downward and pick upward with my fingers, allowing for many styles of playing.
In order to decide what works best for you, I encourage you to go to a good acoustic music store and try out a lot of different picks. Buy a few different picks and take time to try them out. They will feel strange at first, but you will learn how to use them if you stick with it. If you keep an open mind (and ear) you might just find the sound you have been looking for.
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments, and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American, an old-time folk music duo based in Hood River, Oregon.