Monday, February 3, 2014

UE #114 Picking Your Ukulele

How about using a pick to play ukulele? It can change your sound and there several types of picks available. 

New interview: Paul Leslie of TAIT Radio has been a fan of my work since my first two albums: King of the Ukulele and Table for Two. The performers he has interviewed over ten years include Woody Allen, Gene Wilder, Larry King, Leslie Uggams and Willie Nelson. And now he can add Ralph Shaw to the list! Visit my homepage to hear the interview. 

Back in 1990 when I started playing ukulele I was told, by everyone who knew anything about ukulele, that I'd need to get a felt pick to strum with. I never questioned this advice and spent a good couple of years using a felt pick. And I don't regret it either. My granddad used one back in the 1920's. It's a chunky little chappie that's easy to grip onto and flail away at your strings with, without your fingers getting hurt: a bonus for beginners who want to develop their strumming technique and chording without the misery of torn cuticles.

But generally, the superior way to play is by using your fingers and thumb: picking, plucking and strumming with five digits offers a greater variety of sounds than can be achieved with a single pick. But, picks are cheap and they may have a surprising effect on your sound that could prove cool for one song, or just part of a song so I would definitely encourage you to try some out. 

Some ukulele purists respond negatively to the idea of playing ukulele with a pick. But exactly how an instrument is played shouldn't matter. Music is about sound, so whether you use a finger, a thumb, a pick or boxing gloves it's all in the choice of the musician. 

Here are my thoughts on some picks that I have tried over the years. I'd love to know if you have a favorite type of pick that's not listed here. If so please tell me about it and why you like it:
Large felt pick

The one mentioned above. Approximately 2 inches long and ¼ of an inch thick it emulates the action of a strumming finger. It's great for beginners by being easy to stay hold of. Get one that's as stiff as possible but with a little flex to it. Avoid felt picks that look fine but which turn out to be too weak and pliable. (sorry for the low-res shot making the felt appear even fuzzier than normal!)

Small felt picks

Useful for soft picking where the attack of a hard plastic pick is found to be somewhat harsh.

Jim Dunlop USA Nylon .60mm grey pick

These picks are great because they are cheap, have a sound I like, never break and are available everywhere. Their textured grip also makes them easy to hold. I've used these picks for years. However I find them slightly too pointy so whenever I buy a new one I trim the edge with nail scissors and a file to make it more rounded. These picks are great for making your uke strumming noticeably louder. You gain volume and a sharper attack but lose the softness that finger-playing gives. 

Moshay nylon picks

These are a handmade, more expensive, cousin of the above. They have a nice hole in the middle to aid grip or for tying a string through. They are slightly more flexible and therefore kinder on the face of your instrument.

Small plastic guitar picks

I've never been happy with these for strumming. They are hard to stay hold of and eventually crack and break. They can be good for melody picking though.


Larger plastic guitar picks

I've often seen uke players use these for melody picking. They are easier to hold onto than small picks (and easier to find when you drop them.) 

Felt-Plastic-Felt sandwich pick
Personally I'm not a fan of these as the felt part of the sandwich seems to wear out quickly. Thus you soon lose the softer felt sound and end up with more of the clack of the plastic. 


Fingerpicks are usually made from steel or plastic and are great if you're a skilled player. They make every note sound loud and clear so they take some practice as they tend to highlight your mistakes too. For most beginners I would not recommend them and instead suggest using your fingers to pick the strings. But if you want to see how finger picks can really be used to great effect do check out the work of resophonic ukulele maestro (or is it maestress?) Del Rey of Seattle, Washington


 plastic fingerpicks and steel ones above

I asked other uke players for comments about picks. Here's what I got: 

Leather picks are "easy on strings and instrument."

Fred Kelly picks come in a variety of designs. The company uses a Delrin material that "is far less harsh in sound and sound much like a finger nail. In fact, the Delrin material is easier on strings and soundboards than finger nails."

"I've been using a coconut shell pick I made a long time ago. It is rounded more like some of the jazz guitar picks and is not as brittle sounding as some of the plastic picks I've used when I need volume and articulation." 

Some More Notes About Picks: 

Don't just stick to using the pick
While holding your pick between thumb and forefinger use your remaining fingers to strum and play rolls. 

Places to stick your pick  

There are ways to keep your pick close at hand by temporarily "sticking" it to your uke allowing you to grab the pick easily when you need it. My favorite way is to keep an elastic band around the end of the headstock and slide the pick underneath it. 

Protect your uke with pickguard
If you think you'll be picking hard consider getting some pick-guard. This is a clear self-adhesive Mylar plastic sheet that can be cut to shape and glued to the front of your uke to protecting it from scratches. Put it on right away because once you've sustained some scratch marks the plastic will actually accentuate the look of them. I didn't do this and as a result my 6-string Kamaka, that I bought in 1992, looks like it was bought 50 years earlier and played thereafter by a music loving grizzly bear.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this informative article! I put the Pickguard on all my most=loved ukes. It really helps minimize damage. I also wanted to share the Zero Gravity picks for players who have trouble gripping like I do (from a swollen right hand due to surgery.) They are at Amazon at: