Should I Use a Pick with the Ukulele?

(This is a guest post by Ted Parrish, co-author of ‘Ukulele for the Complete Ignoramus‘)

To pick or not to pick, that is the question.

Folks ask me all the time what pick do they need to play the ukulele. And while the easy answer is “none”, there really is no easy answer.

nopick2Historically speaking there is no call for a pick or plectrum. The Hawaiians who invented the ukulele (by modifying Portuguese instruments that came to the islands with sailors) did not use a pick. In Hawaii you generally strum with the first finger or the thumb, often a combination of the two. The signature strums and rhythms of the islands come from the hands, and the most common way to play the ukulele is with the fingers.

The ukulele was destined for global fame, however, and after the Panama Pacific International Expo in 1915 ukuleles were to be found everywhere. A popular and loud variant of the standard ukulele is the banjo ukulele-played and tuned like a regular uke, but with a banjo head. And some musicians who picked up on the banjo uke already played the tenor and plectrum banjos, so they used their picks on the banjolele.

In in the modern era (that’s now!) it is perfectly fine to use a pick for a different sound. More players today are playing melodies on the uke, or adapting rock songs and other styles to the uke. So if a song or style demands a pick, then by all means go for it!

Ukuleles have nylon strings, so you won’t need a super heavy pick. A medium should work in most situations, and a thin if you are playing rhythm. The felt pick, long a standard for baritone ukulele playing, is cumbersome for playing the smaller sizes.

pickAlso, be sure to use a standard grip on your pick. I like to tell my students to hold their pick like you would a bug and examine that grip. That grip is incorrect. The most common way to hold a pick, the same grip used by guitar and banjo players for decades, is in this photo:

Just like with your fingers, use your wrist to help your hand strum in an arc for a smooth motion. Don’t grip the pick too tight; keep your hand relaxed. Experiment with your new tool and see what you come up with.

Keep on rockin’ the ukulele!

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NG-Uke-IGNOR-CoverMake sure to check out Ted & Wayne’s new book, ‘Ukulele for the Complete Ignoramus!‘ Written for the complete beginner, it’ll get you playing in no time. Comes with an instructional CD and you can purchase it on nativeground.com.

 

2 thoughts on “Should I Use a Pick with the Ukulele?

  1. I recently purchased a Gold Tone concert banjo ukulele and I would like to play banjo songs with it. Since it has nylon strings can I use finger-tip picks? You mentioned a regular pick in your article for strumming but not finger-tip picks. Also, do you know if anyone has written a book/lessons specifically on playing the banjo ukulele?

    1. Ted sent us this answer ‘The banjo ukulele is tuned and played just like a normal ukulele, and has the same strings. You can strum with your fingers, use a flat pick, or pick with your fingers. Metal or plastic thumbpicks are not recommended – not good for nylon strings, and won’t really give you any advantage – but feel free to experiment. Banjo picks are used on metal strings for volume and brightness, and uke strings won’t respond the same way. Just like you may use picks on a steel string guitar, but not usually on a classical guitar.

      Banjo style playing, however, is definitely encouraged. You can frail a uke, or use banjo rolls or other techniques. Try those bare fingered and see what happens!’

      It sounds like our book ‘Ukulele for the Complete Ignoramus’ would work for you! There are also some books about ‘clawhammer ukulele’ playing that I’ve seen.

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