If you want to protect your tenor ukulele strings, you shouldn’t play your uke too vigorously, using harsh picks. This article is here to give you some information on the types of picks that you can, or you can’t use for your ukulele, to help you protect your instrument.
Should you use a pick or not?
The first ukuleles were made in Hawaii, and their makers got their inspiration from Portuguese instruments that the sailors brought with them. For those instruments, the player didn’t need a pick or a plectrum of any kind and that’s why ukuleles didn’t use one either. People played those instruments using their thumb, or their index finger.
They also used both fingers in some cases. Furthermore, most of the signature moves and rhythms that ukulele players make come from those times and they are made with the hands, making playing the ukulele with no pick a common thing.
However, as time passed by, the ukulele became more popular and it quickly started to spread around the globe. Alternatives to the classic uke became available, one of which was the banjo ukulele, which had a banjo head but was played like a uke. Most of those that picked up such an instrument already knew how to play the banjo, and they used a plectrum.
That’s how picks or plectrums started to be used when playing the uke. Nowadays people use a pick if they want to, or their bare fingers if they feel that makes them sound better. The music styles played on the ukulele also evolved and you can find people playing adaptations to pop or rock songs, or other styles. Some of these songs and music styles require a pick to sound well, so that’s why those who play them use picks.
Because ukes have nylon strings, they don’t need a hard, thick pick. A thin pick will work great if you’re playing rhythms, and a medium one is good if you’re picking the strings. Baritone ukuleles, however, require you to use a pick because it’s the biggest type of ukulele and it’s almost like a guitar.
Holding the pick doesn’t require any special technique; you just hold it as you would with a banjo or a guitar pick. When you use a pick, you have to use the wrist to give you most of the momentum and offer you a smooth rhythm and motion. You can experiment with and without a pick and see what style is best for you.
The types of picks
The standard flat picks, also known as plectrums, are most often used by guitarists, and you won’t find many ukulele players using them; they have just transferred over to the ukulele with moderate success. Amongst the plectrums, there are 3 types of picks to choose from – the standard picks, felt picks, and the rubber ones.
The standard ones are made of plastic and have a snappy sound and you can use them in faster songs due to their quick articulation. They have different gauges in terms of thickness, and whilst the thin ones are better for strumming, the thick ones offer a fatter tone and more volume when you’re trying to pick single notes.
Felt picks are those that work on the same idea as standard picks, but they’re made out of stiff pieces of felt. They are usually harder to handle because they aren’t as stiff as the other kinds, and the tone and volume they produce are softer, so they’re good for strumming.
Finally, there is the rubber pick. These are somewhat difficult to use because they feel like they’re slowing things down and they also sound softer than their counterparts. Some prefer them because they’re great for certain styles, but they wear faster than the others.
These picks stay fixed on your thumb and they’re a nice thing to have because they let you keep your hand more relaxed and that’s how you also keep your wrist straighter. They feel like you’re playing with bare hands, but they give the fattest tone and the most volume.
Some use them as alternatives when they break their thumbnails, so you can do that too if you’re the kind of player that only likes to play with free hands. You can always practice with this kind of pick, just in case you can’t perform as you would normally be able to.
Most thumbpicks look and act the same, so choosing one is strictly a matter of preference. They cost you almost nothing and you can buy them from your music store or online if you wish to test them. There are some variations – for example, there are thumbpicks that are made to offer you better strumming, being easier to hold than flat picks.
Be careful when playing with thumbpicks; at first, you won’t be used to them and you may risk breaking the strings. You have to practice and learn that you need the pick to be at a slight angle, sliding a bit on the strings as you hit them, instead of plucking them hard. So don’t get a thumb pick that stays too fixed on your finger, you need some room for it to move.
These are similar to thumbpicks, in the sense that they come on your finger, slipping over the fingernails, and they create a surface that you use to pluck the strings with. They are different, however, as they can only be used utilizing an upward picking motion like you would normally do with the bare fingernails.
You may consider this a limiting aspect, but if you use a pick for each of your fingers you will see that it’s something that can add a lot to your playing style. Using these fingerpicks you get better volume, you won’t need to put that much force into plucking the strings, and you also have a lower risk of breaking one of your fingernails.
Furthermore, there are many variations, and that allows you to choose the picks most suitable for your style. If you wish to have a stronger, more metallic, and brighter sound, you can use metal picks. But if you want something that resembles the natural sound of fingernails, plastic is the choice for you.
There are fingerpicks that go under your nails and not over them, basically extending the fingernails. The advantage of these picks is that they can be used in up and down motions too.
What about guitar picks?
Because some uke picks are derived from the guitar ones, people wonder if they can use guitar picks. There isn’t a clear answer on this topic, but what you need to know is that the uke picks are slightly smaller than their counterparts. Some say you shouldn’t consider guitar picks when you play your ukulele, but others still regard them as effective little tools to be used.
What’s bad about bigger and stronger picks is that they cause scuffing to the instrument’s wood, leaving ugly marks, and at the same time, they wear the strings a lot faster. Felt picks or leather are the best when it comes to protecting your strings.
But you shouldn’t expect your uke to be in perfect shape if you play it a lot, no matter what picks you use. Wear appears even if you just use your fingernails to play the instrument, and marks on the ukulele’s top are a normal thing. And strings are expendable, so no matter how well you take care of them, you will still need to replace them.
However, if you wish to keep your uke in pristine shape for longer, and you also want a more traditional sound coming out of it, felt or leather ukulele picks are for that. But that is a matter of personal choice, and you might want to have more sound volume and a better string-picking experience, than protecting your ukulele for longer.