To “Pick” or Not to “Pick”?
Many students ask when first learning ukulele, “Should I use a ukulele pick?” I usually respond by asking questions about the particular styles they are interested in playing and try to get a better understanding of the sound they are trying to produce.
Certain styles are more conducive to picking than others and other styles work better with just fingers and no pick. Whether or not you choose to use a pick is dependent on a few things: the style and sound you want to achieve, your experience with or without a pick on other instruments, and the type of ukulele you play.
Finger’s Advantage Over Picks
My short answer to the question of “should I use a ukulele pick?” is “no.” Most sounds and styles can be produced with only the fingers, and you can produce certain strums and picking that you cannot produce with a pick.
Using your fingers to strum and pick allows for more versatility in your playing and style choices. For example, producing more rapid strums and rhythmic variations is possible using different fingers to strum and are impossible to reproduce with just a pick. (For reference, check out rasgueado techniques used by Flamenco and Latin styles.)
You can also learn to pick rapidly with fingers for fast melodic passages by alternating index and middle fingers (check out this example). Of course, the biggest advantage with fingers is applying fingerpicking patterns for arpeggios to chords. Fingerpicking allows more fluid and faster arpeggios easier than picking across strings. (one more video to demonstrate)
The most important consideration for using a pick or not is the sound. There is a difference in sound between using a pick and using your fingers. Most picks are made of plastic. Most ukulele strings are also made of plastic. Plastic on plastic produces a harsh, loud attack – a sort of thwack noise. This strong attack on the string caused by plastic on plastic is usually not a desirable sound for most styles of music. It can be distracting to the listener and it is not often very “pretty.”
Picks Advantage Over Fingers
There are some styles that do require that sort of strong attack and picking may be appropriate, but most styles are better suited for the sounds of the fingers for strumming and picking and you can often reproduce a stronger attack with the fingers as a substitute for the pick. One such style that comes to mind is the la pompe style of rhythm for Gypsy jazz.
Another may be the flatpicking stylings of Bluegrass picking. Both of those styles are built around the sound of a strong attack by a pick and the motions and playing style afforded by a pick. For example, the stronger-attacked and shorter strum rhythms and the quicker, more fluid and staccato melody improvising. These are definitely two examples of musical styles that are hard to separate the use of pick from the sound.
However, I believe the benefits of using fingers outweighs the use of a pick – even within these styles. With the right adjustment of technique, I can easily produce the short, quick rhythmic drive of la pompe using only my fingers. I can also adapt a stronger fingerpicking technique that allows me to play faster, fluid melodies. There are slight differences to be sure, but the sound produced by the fingers is more suitable for the sound of the ukulele anyway.
Different Pick Materials, Different Sounds
Picks can be made of various materials which produce different sounds. If the strong attack of a plastic pick on the plastic strings is not desired, then there is a nice alternative found in the felt pick. A felt pick is exactly what it sounds like – a pick made of felt. It is soft and kind of squooshy and much thicker than plastic picks.
The softness of the felt allows you to pick the strings without the string attack while still allowing you to play with a pick. It still does not produce as great a sound as you can achieve with fingers but it can be a good alternative for those players who already have some experience using a pick on other instruments and who want to transfer their playing style to the ukulele.
Another viable option is to find a more rounded, thicker pick to help soften the attack – something like a “tortoise shell” pick or mandolin pick works well. If you decide to play with a pick, then experiment with different shapes, sizes, thicknesses and materials to find the right sound for you.
Only you can decide whether or not to use a pick. You will consider the style of music(s) you play, your desired sound, your experience with a pick or fingers, and the differences in technique. While learning to play with fingers leads to a more versatile player, it does have a longer learning curve to get some of the more advanced techniques.
Using a pick is also ingrained into certain styles and sounds (Bluegrass or rock), whereas using fingers is ingrained into other styles (Latin, Flamenco, folk, Blues, etc.). Ideally, you should learn to use both fingers and a pick in order to adapt and achieve your desired sound suitable for the styles you play. There is no right or wrong, just right or wrong for you. Go out and experiment with different picks and different techniques to see what works for you right now.