This is a common question beginners ask when learning how to play ukulele and it is a very important one too! The overall sound we produce with our instrument depends on our right hand technique. And amongst other things, our right hand technique depends on whether or not we use the pick.
Do you need a pick to play ukulele? Traditionally, the ukulele is played with the combination of fingers and fingernails. But while you don’t need one, you absolutely may use one! The pick can be useful at times and it is your instrument after all! Let’s explore a little further.
Historically, the first ukulele players did not play with a pick. The traditional technique is to use a combination of fingers and fingernails to pluck individual strings as well as to strum. The traditional Hawaiian rhythms, for example, were always strummed using the thumb or the index finger or a combination of both.
As we’ve mentioned in other articles here, this kind of technique (fingerpicking) allows for specific movements, positions and gestures of the right hand that are not possible otherwise. It also produces a specific sound that would also be different with the pick. These are the main features of what we know as the normal technique and sound of the ukulele.
So if you are a stickler for tradition, you will not need a pick. Continue developing your left hand strength and your right hand’s fingerpicking dexterity and you’re good to go! But if there are issues that make you wonder whether you need a pick or not, read on because you’re probably not wrong.
When to use a pick on the ukulele
Now despite the tradition, ukulele music is evolving. The instrument is gaining popularity really fast and it is absolutely inevitable that the technique evolves to keep up with the new demands.
We as musicians are naturally creative and curious people. Musicians are always trying new sounds and they’re always pushing the technical possibilities forward. After all, our instruments are our toys! I don’t know of any instrument that didn’t go through an evolution at one point or another in its history.
It’s quite obvious to me that for the ukulele, the use of the pick is one such development. The biggest reason is that the instrument is no longer limited to traditional Hawaiian music. Ukulele players are now adapting pop and rock songs over from the steel-stringed acoustic guitar, which is played with the pick. There are singer-songwriters that sometimes accompany themselves with the ukulele instead of the guitar. Normally this kind of ukulele music is beautifully executed with a pick.
Ukulele ensembles sometimes have one or more of their players play with a pick for a difference of timbre (that is, the particular sound of a musical instrument). Within such groups it is a wonderful idea to use all the possibilities available on the instrument – it makes the music interesting and exciting. And it’s the same argument in recordings. Let’s say we have a cool 8-bar strumming pattern going around. Why not record a pick solo on top? The pick naturally produces a louder sound so the difference between solo and strumming will come out beautifully and naturally!
There are very practical reasons too. You might want to go for a pick if your fingernails are weak or take a long time to grow strong. Some people have naturally thin nails and these tend to produce a very metallic sound. If you get this kind of nails and don’t like the sound, the pick might be a good alternative for you. The same issue also applies to people whose fingernails break or get damaged often. It gets very frustrating to practice with the nails for weeks or months and then have to wait for days until a broken nail regrows.
What is a ukulele pick?
While you can use guitar picks on a ukulele, you might want to try the picks that are specifically intended for the ukulele. The main reason is that many guitar picks tend to be heavier and harder.
Most standard guitar picks are made out of plastic and this might damage the ukulele top and wear out the strings rather quickly. Felt, leather and rubber ukulele picks avoid this issue as they are smaller and softer.
How to Choose a Pick?
When you are choosing a pick, remember that the ukulele is a light instrument and has soft nylon strings so you do not really need a heavy pick. For playing rhythm, a thin pick is great because you can keep a relaxed arm and you get a lot of freedom and control on the motion of your wrists. For playing chords, a thin pick tends to run through the strings gently making a lovely strumming sound.
For a ukulele equipped with harder strings, a heavier pick might be better to be able to dig into the strings. For the baritone ukulele, the felt pick is standard.
But after all is said and done, the best pick for you is the one you like best. Use this article as a guide and buy a few different ones to experiment (they are cheap and it’s really worth your time and money!). See what feels and sounds the best. Don’t worry if you are not sure what to look out for at first. With practice you will quickly learn what you like and don’t like. For now, just make sure that it feels comfortable and you are pleased with the sound.
So when it comes to choosing a pick, your options are quite varied. As I’ve just explained, experiment with a few different ones until you get one that feels right for you.
Picks come in a variety of thicknesses: from thin (about 0.5 to 0.6mm), medium (about 0.80mm), heavy (0.80 to 1.20 mm) and extra heavy (1.20+ mm). Thin picks are suitable for strumming and achieving brighter tones. Thick picks require more finger strength but are suitable for faster music and solo playing.
Apart from thickness, experiment also with materials. A common material, of course, is plastic but I highly suggest you try out felt picks and rubber picks too. Felt picks are made out of thick and hard pieces of felt. Many people enjoy them for strumming. Rubber picks are enjoyed for the softer sound but they do wear out rather quickly so you might want to save these for a special song!
There are all sorts of fancy shapes for picks but the real choice is between sharper points and rounder points. Sharper points tend to produce a brighter tone and are suitable for soloing. Rounder points tend to produce a mellow tone and are suitable more for strumming.
Fingerpicks and Thumbpicks
These picks are special because you quite literally wear them on your fingers by simply slipping them on. If you like fingerpicking technique but struggle to grow good strong nails, then these picks are the perfect solution as they can act as replacements for the nails.
Will a pick damage my ukulele? You will not damage your instrument with the pick as long you are careful. If your playing style is particularly heavy or strong, you might scratch the body but in my experience, that’s an extreme and rare case. To avoid damaging your ukulele, choose one of the lighter picks.
You really don’t need a heavy pick for such a small instrument.
More realistically, what will happen is that the strings lose their brightness. This is natural and will happen over time anyway. Whether you play with a pick or not, you still need to change your strings every now and then. And please don’t worry that it will happen overnight or after a couple of songs, as some musicians seem to think. Even the cheaper strings are much more resilient than that!
In any case, the instrument is meant to be played! And the strings are meant to make sound! Wear and tear is inevitable. Would you buy a book and then not read it for fear of creasing the spine? I wouldn’t! I actually enjoy those little marks and stains around my favorite pages that show me how much I have enjoyed and learned from them. It’s the same for my instruments.
So with all that said, go ahead and buy a few picks! There are no rules to playing and choosing a pick. Experiment for yourself and see what feels good. See what fits your playing style and what helps you produce a sound you enjoy making!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.