BY DANIEL WARD | VIDEO BY MATT DEAN | FROM THE SPRING 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
When I hear the words “flat” and “pick” together, the first things that come to mind are fast bluegrass licks and big steel-string guitars. Don’t get me wrong, I love fast licks on big guitars, but I have also been using a flatpick for years on my ukulele, for everything from playing soft rock arpeggios to strumming funk patterns to picking out melodies so they can be heard over a group of strummers.
The fact is, good flatpicking technique is an important addition to any uker’s toolbox, and it’s a lot easier to pick up (pun intended) than you think. Even just a little bit of skill goes a long way, whether you are just starting out or have been playing for years. In this lesson I’ll explain the way I play with a plastic pick, and how to use that information to fit your own playing.
Let’s start with some background about picking, move into the how-to, and then go straight to the music and start playing. I’ve put together several short music examples that tackle different ways to use the pick, but it will help to get an overview before you begin.
Picks have been around for a long time, and musicians use them to whack on all sorts of instruments. A pick is just a tool used to pluck a string. Your fingers and the nails of your fingers are picks. When we thumb-strum, fingerpick, or pick out melodies, we are using our natural tools to pull sound from the instrument. Producing sound with something other than your fingers starts to make a lot more sense when you listen to different stringed instruments. The Japanese koto would not have its distinctive presence without the pick, and if you’ve ever played a steel-string guitar or banjo, you know that playing metal strings at tension is a bit like plucking thin cables on a tiny suspension bridge.
The plectrum, as a pick is sometimes called (from the Greek word plêktron,meaning to strike, or a spearhead), has been used on everything from guitars, mandolins, and lutes to kotos and the Chinese pipa. Picks have traditionally been fashioned from natural materials such as feather quills, tortoiseshell, and coconut shell, but most modern flatpicks are made from some type of plastic (or sometimes wood or metal). While dedicated ukulele picks—those big felt things—are designed for strumming, I find a traditional flatpick more useful, as it can ultimately serve any style.
There’s an incredible range of flatpicks on the market, in all kinds of different shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. Thinner picks are generally easier to use at first, as they give a lot more and slip over the strings and can also be great for strumming. I personally prefer a heavy pick, as it lends more bite to the sound, especially when it comes to playing melodies. You might try splitting the difference and starting with a medium pick, but it’s worth buying a handful of different sizes to figure out which works best for you.
The Basic Technique
The good thing about learning how to play with a pick is that you can use it on anything, and the technique itself grows and changes as you gain experience. It doesn’t matter if you end up using a pick to strum basic chords with a group or to learn fast bluegrass-style lines. Picking is just another tool for your arsenal that can be easily added to your fingerstyle technique without compromising your playing in any way.
Flatpicking’s primary advantages are speed and volume. I use the technique for all styles of music, from pop and rock and funk to world. Learning to play with a pick is incredibly simple: You hold it, and then you strike the string or strings with a downstroke or an upstroke. That’s it. Learning to do this might take some practice, but if you start with a fresh attitude and a little help, things will move along nicely.
The pictures here show how I hold a pick. This way works well for me, and it’s just one way to start. I know great players who hold the pick and play a little differently than I do, so let your technique develop in a way that feels most comfortable to you.
As you can see in Figure 1, the thumb and index fingers grasp the pick such that it faces down to the point. The thumb is straight across and forms a T if you draw a line to the point in your mind. In Figure 2, the thumb is lifted away and reveals the index finger at a bit of and angle as it holds behind the thumb. The angle is about four or five o’clock, with 12 o’clock at the top of the pick. The rest of the fingers are tucked loosely in a line behind the index like a slightly open fist.
Holding the pick this way, make a nice and loose wrist and shake your hand up and down, while making sure that the pick stays in the same place between your thumb and index finger. To get a better grip, I sometimes lightly lick the side of my index finger and rub it to the thumb right before I grab the pick to play. That’s totally optional, but try it—you might like it.
Your wrist will be doing most of the work, so get used to the feel of being strong with it, but also loose if needed. In this way, you can easily go from a light up-and-down strum, where the pick gives a bit at an angle, to louder single notes played in a melody with more of a straight up-and-down attack. Now let’s go play!
In Example 1 below, a simple group of chords is strummed all down to begin with. Start by playing slowly down the strings, letting each note come out, and then speed up the motion until you are flying across all the strings in one strike. As you go faster, feel the stroke lighten up, as if you are doing less work even though the sound is actually louder. Your wrist will have a pleasant snap to it when you let it go just right. Next try just the upstrokes, treating them like the down strums as you speed up.
When you’re ready, move to the down-up-down-up motion. Start slowly, letting each string sound and speed up as you did before. This time, the angle of the pick should change direction slightly as you get faster; it will feel a bit like dragging the tip over the strings at slow speed. Give into the snap of the wrist as you change direction for the down-up motion.
Example 2 below puts the strum to work with two familiar patterns. Here we have the famous down, down-up, up-down-up, and what some of us call the boom-chaka strum. The first pattern is even strums with two beats left out; the second starts with a strong down-strum on just the fourth string and answers with a down-up flip that gives it a bouncy sound, especially in low-G tuning. After just a little bit of practice, you’ll find you can pick any of your favorite strums quite easily using your new skills.
Example 3 is a simple arpeggio pattern that goes from string 4 to string 1. This is the same pattern as in the “Arpeggio Meditations” lesson in the Summer 2017 issue of this magazine, but played with a pick. The down-down-down-up movement in this pattern will help develop a smooth motion in your wrist for each string, while giving you a good sense of all four being part of a larger motion.
Example 4 is the entire “Arpeggio Meditations” etude, played with a rock ballad–style pattern that switches direction several times. While this pattern is flowing and sweet, it gives you a real workout with the ups and downs in the picking. Once again, pay attention to the feel of striking each string with a nice clear sound, but let your wrist move freely and get the sense that the whole pattern is one phrase.
Scale It Down
Example 5 depicts the C major scale (C D E F G A B) played with repeated notes first, and then straight up and down the scale. Playing two, three, and then four repetitions of each note builds your coordination and speed with upstrokes and downstrokes. Here the pick stays closer to the strings and strikes almost straight up and down.
The goal of Ex. 5 is to gain a good feel for up- and downstrokes on the repeated notes, before moving to alternating picking as you work up and down the scale from one note to the next. Playing with just a little more force and letting the side of your palm touch the strings near the bridge very lightly can help with the development of this skill. This is the style of flatpicking used for melodic playing and soloing.
Now let’s play a real piece. Example 6 is an excerpt from one of the studies in my book Melodic Meditations for Ukulele. Here we have a Greek-style dance melody with quick strummed chords and lots of scale runs. This is a perfect etude for developing strong flatpicking skills. Down-pick for the chords throughout, then alternate down-up down-up for melodies.
The hardest part is learning to alternate downs and ups even when the string crossings change in ways that make things more difficult. If you find yourself repeating a down- or upstroke, just go slower and keep trying until you break through. It’s OK to use consecutive strokes if it benefits a subsequent phrase, but you don’t want to be repeating because you haven’t done the work to get past it.
Take the time to play through these examples slowly and remember to always make music. You will develop your own personal grip and feel for the way the pick works, and soon enough it will be working for you.