Author: Daniel, Bert


If you want to be a picker you gotta have a pick. Well at least for the most part. Iím just like the rest of you, I love to pick with fiddlers, who use that crazy thing called a bow. And I appreciate the bass players who make all that foundation sound with their fingers mostly. Iím perfectly fine with a claw hammer banjo player or ukelele expert who, like the bass player, uses his or her fingers to produce a good sound. But for most of us, playing music means using a plectrum, as the English refer to it.

I canít tell you how many plectrums I have experimented with over the course of years in search of a good sound. When I started with the mandolin about ten years ago, I chose the Fender heavy three corner pick. It was a wild guess. I had no idea which pick would be right for me among the hundreds of available models. I studied my mandolin instruction books and I tried to get the best sound I could but the result of my efforts didnít sound anything close to what I was hearing on my instruction tapes or what I heard on the bluegrass recordings I loved so much.

Maybe itís not my fault, I thought. Maybe Iím just using the wrong pick. I played around with some other styles. Mandolin pickers gravitate between two shapes for the most part. Some use guitar picks and pick with the rounded edges or the point sometimes, but most mandolinists use oversize versions of the guitar pick which have either all rounded edges or all pointed edges. My Fender heavy had all pointed edges and when I experimented with a rounded edge pick I didnít get much volume so I stuck with the pointed edges.

Using the correct pick for your style of playing is important. When Jethro Burns and Dave Apollon were discussing which hand was more important for playing they agreed. Itís the picking hand because if thatís not right it doesnít matter what the fretting hand is doing. All notes are shaped by the fretting hand and itís natural for any musician to struggle with all those complexities while trying to make good music, but as Chris Thile points out in one of his instructional videos, you have to focus on the picking hand first because itís the one that produces all the sound in the first place.

The greatest thing about picks is that you can experiment with them as much as you want to find the one thatís just right for you. That experimentation wonít cost you very much money. On a lark I once coughed up five dollars for a single pick. It was supposedly made from water buffalo horn and every bluegrass mandolin player knows that the greats all used tortoise shell, which is now banned. Maybe this would be the next great pick, I thought. After all, itís from nature like the endangered tortoise. Sadly, the buffalo horn pick wasnít for me and the five dollar investment sits in my case mostly unused. Iíve since heard of picks priced at a thousand times that. Ancient meteorites might make the best material for a pick, but Iím not willing to pay that much right now.

The best picks I have ever used come from a material I got interested in after watching a movie called The Graduate. Yes, Iím talking about that amazing substance called plastic. I can pick up a whole twelve pack of plastic picks for a modest sum and experiment to my heartís delight. When I find out about a new pick that I might be interested in, it takes me back to the days when I was a kid. For me picks are the baseball card or marble collection of the bluegrass baby boom generation. I love to swap them with friends and I love to assess their advantages and disadvantages.

A pick choice can be a very personalized thing. Iíve known people who swear by picks they fashioned themselves from discarded credit cards or filed-off ferry tokens. Iíve seen picks with words of wisdom written on them like ďLife is a song; love is the lyricsĒ. Getting a new pick is an easy way to feel like youíre doing something to improve your picking. Maybe if you had five grand you could buy Brendaís awesome custom Lewis handmade mandolin. I truly envy the musician who snarfs that thing up! But for the rest of us, until we can justify that chunk of change, we always have the hope that is engendered by a brand new pick.

I donít know much about picks for instruments other than the mandolin but I have played around with the guitar and the banjo a bit. I tend to use my familiar mandolin flat picks when playing the guitar but now and then I try the teardrop pick for guitar and even for the mandolin too. The most important things Iíve learned about banjo picks are that 1) you put them on facing the right direction (I had to have somebody show me the first time) and 2) you make sure they wonít come loose. I prefer the plastic thumb picks but if I could actually play that darn thing I might be a metal guy. I do prefer thin finger picks like the Dunlop as opposed to weightier versions Iíve tried.

So you see how it is? You just heard a so-called mandolin player go on and on about the subtleties of pick selection for a couple of instruments he has absolutely no idea how to play. Hey, we all need something to absorb our interest and the subject of flat picks, finger picks, thumb picks is endless. You can have the pick of the litter. (Note in passing, I once played in a pick up band called the Nose Flute Pickers).

Maybe you should try a new pick. Whatís your favorite pick right now?

Pick solid.
Posted:  5/11/2014

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