While not all banjo players use picks, those who imitate the three-finger bluegrass style pioneered by Earl Scruggs typically do. Picks make a clean, bright, loud sound that bluegrass musicians love.
These banjo players usually use three picks of two different types:
- A plastic thumb pick.
- A pair of metal finger picks.
As you would expect, you have plenty of options to choose from. You can select from different brands, gauges, sizes, and more.
Of course, it will take time to develop your own playing style and pick preferences, but you have to start somewhere. So what do you begin with?
First off, a word on materials. Plastic thumb picks are typically preferred for the three-finger banjo style because plastic makes a softer, mellower sound than metal, toning down the power of the thumb so that it does not drown out the notes played by the relatively weaker index and middle fingers. However, metal picks are easier to fit to your fingers, so some players opt for a compromise—thumb picks with a metal band and a plastic blade. Unfortunately, these tend to be expensive compared to standard plastic thumb picks. All-metal thumb picks are a durable option, but these can give undue emphasis to the lower notes, depending on your playing style, and they tend to squeak and scratch unless cleaned periodically. However, they do have adherents since, once broken in, metal thumb picks make a sharp, bold sound like none other.
Another aspect in which picks differ is the length of the pick. Short picks are handy for beginners, giving them a better feel for where the strings are. However, once most people eventually get used to playing with a thumb pick, they usually prefer the way a slightly longer pick feels. A longer pick does have the advantage that it can be more readily shaped to fit your needs.
Thumb picks also come with different angles. Hitting the string squarely with the flat blade of the pick produces the cleanest, richest sound, so you will want to use a pick that can help you hit that “sweet spot” every time. What angle will do this for you will just depend on your hand position and finger shape. For instance, people with arthritis prefer thumb picks with sharper angles to compensate for the angle of their thumb.
You will want to choose a thumb pick that fits your thumb well, and unfortunately there isn’t a way to do this other than to try out several. Large individuals usually prefer large picks, while small people prefer small picks. However, each brand will fit slightly differently. The good news is that even plastic picks can be adjusted, if necessary. Simply soak the pick in boiling water for a few seconds, just until it is pliable enough to shape. A pick that is a little tight is better than one that is a little loose because it won’t come off while you are playing. Don’t overdo it, though, or you can cut off the circulation to the tip of your thumb.
As with thumb picks, you have a choice of materials for finger picks. You can buy plastic finger picks, but you will lose some of that crisp, bright tone typically associated with the banjo. Most players prefer picks made of some type of metal. At opposite ends of the tonal spectrum are brass and nickel. Brass finger picks typically sound warm and smooth. Nickel finger picks typically sound bright, clear, and loud. Stainless steel picks are somewhat similar. Another option is cobalt, which is more expensive but incredibly smooth compared to the scratchier tones of some of the other metals.
One of the choices you will have to make about your finger picks is the gauge. Gauges typically run between .013 (light) and .025 (heavy). Most experts recommend starting out with the .025-gauge picks because they are loud and durable, albeit less adjustable. Many people, even professionals, continue to use this gauge throughout their banjo-picking careers. Those who prefer a brighter, thinner sound or a more flexible finger pick, however, might want to experiment with the lighter gauges.
If your fingers are small or if you find most finger picks to be uncomfortable, you might try getting a set of picks with a split wrap (see photo above). Having two bands that you can shape around your fingers allows you to adjust the picks for maximum comfort. If you don’t have a problem with standard single-wrap picks, however, you probably won’t see the need to spend the extra money.
A Final Word
Be aware that very few picks work perfectly for anyone straight out of the package. Fortunately, metal picks are completely adjustable, and plastic picks can be shaped with the help of boiling water, as described above. Be prepared to play around with your picks until you get them just right.
Also, note that picks do not have to be expensive. Remember that picks do break, wear out, and get lost before spending money on “premium” picks without a good reason. Besides, if you buy inexpensive picks the first time out, you can afford to try several different brands and types, which is the best way to find the ideal picks for your playing style.