Debunking The Ukulele Plectrum Nonsense | GOT A UKULELE - Learn Ukulele, beginners tips and reviews

29 May 2014

Debunking The Ukulele Plectrum Nonsense

"Oh no, no, no, it's a ukulele, you CANNOT play with a pick"... Heard that comment before? What a complete load of nonsense. Listen up, you can play how you damn well like.

ukulele picks
Left: Individual finger picks, Top right: Guitar picks, Bottom right: Leather pick

I'm not really sure where this myth really got started, but I am increasingly seeing such statements online. I suspect in the first instance, it goes back to traditional playing styles (Hawaiian, Music Hall etc), that don't employ the use of a pick, but you know what - the uke is just a musical instrument and if you can get a good sound out of it using loaf of bread, then why the hell not? Instruments and playing styles develop in all forms of music and I think that has to be a good thing. If we lived under a rule that the uke music could not develop then the instrument would be a very boring thing indeed....

Aside from the 'it's not traditional' purist debate, there also seems to be a couple of other key driving factors behind those who have strong views on the use of picks.

First up there is the 'damage' argument. This seems to be a suggestion that the strings, or the body of the uke are going to be damaged if you use a plectrum. Well, yes, if you go at it hammer and tongs, you might do, but, really, so what? Strings are consumables. Wear them down and you then need to spend about £7 on a new set (a couple of pints of beer). It happens, they are not designed to last forever. In fact you are supposed to change them now and again! People really shouldn't be precious about their strings - it's kind of like buying a car and not taking it on certain roads as you don't want to wear the tyres down. So long as you are sensible with what material you use to play the strings (i.e. metal may not be a good thing!), you will be fine.

And what about damage on the uke, such as wear on the top? Same applies - it happens, but do you own a ukulele to make music or to be a museum piece. Personally, I have wear on all of my ukuleles, but that shows me I PLAY THEM A LOT! Take a look at the uke below that probably gets played the most in my house, my Fluke - worn to shreds. Does it bother me? Not really, it still works. And no, this was not a cheap instrument, but such things don't get me down.

fluke ukulele

Now my own wear and tear may be on account of my playing style which is kind of rough and ready (and I play a lot of rock and roll), but I won't be the only one.

But time for the bombshell - I have worn strings and tops on my ukes like this and I DON'T use a pick. Read that again. It's because I grow my fingernails out for picking and the last time I compared, my nails are just as hard as standard guitar picks. See where this is going?

It is a simple fact that a medium guitar pick is really no harder on the instrument than strong nails are. So why are nails acceptable in the ukulele world, but picks are not? And what about the pro players that use individual finger picks like those in the first picture above? They are CERTAINLY harder than my fingernails and are used by many top players. Are they committing a cardinal sin? Of course not. Are they destroying a set of strings in each song they perform? Nope.

The misconception that guitar picks are too hard to use on a uke even led to the creation of the felt or leather soft picks, pushing the argument even further and giving players something that I would wager is actually softer than a human finger tip to strum with!! (we all have nails, and even if you don't grow them out, I would argue that a short nail is going to create more wear than a felt pick!).

The other argument seems to be one based on sound. I have heard people say that a guitar pick makes a uke sound too harsh or overly loud. Well, really that kind of depends on how you play it and the pick material you use. Just because you are holding a pick doesn't mean that you have to thrash the living daylights out of the instrument. Newsflash - it is possible to play softly with a guitar pick!

And therefore back to the felt and leather picks on the market - to my own ears they make the whole instrument sound TOO soft and muddy. The ukulele, particularly the soprano variety has a traditional staccato sound to it, and if we want to go with the traditionalists then the sound of strong nails on the strings IS the way a uke should traditionally sound. They are designed to sound jumpy and snappy. Felt and leather picks, to my ears, take all of that sound away from the instrument. And when you then consider that such soft picks are the ones that are considered to be 'acceptable', then.... you get my drift.. But hey - this if you want to use those - that is your right to do so.

Do I use plectrums myself? Not really, on rare occasion perhaps, but it doesnt offend my ears when I do. For me I prefer the flexibility of using fingers to pick and strum and I find harder with a plectrum. And that is perhaps one of the only good reasons I can think of as to why a pick may not be a good idea - at the end of the day four strong nails is equivalent to controlling four picks at once and I find that more versatile! Certainly the fans of things like split and fan strokes will agree with me there, as those sort of playing tricks are not going to be possible with a pick.

But that doesn't mean that using one is wrong, it's just my personal preference and if you want to use one, go for it. Want to use your nails, individual fingerpicks, guitar picks, leather picks, felt picks? Then do so!  Just please stop telling  others that it is unacceptable or that they will destroy the instrument...


AND! Be sure to check out my other ukulele RANTS - where I explode the many myths and bad advice that surrounds the instrument - CLICK this link! http://www.gotaukulele.com/search/label/rants

9 comments :

  1. I couldn't agree more. I just had a talk like this with a couple of guys who liked the worn look their ukes were getting and I said it was no different to a carpenter whose hammer gets aged and eventually needs to be replaced. Perhaps we give our musical friend a bit more sentimental value as it's been with us for some great times, but it's still a tool. It will get broken in and eventually die. That is provided we use it for making good times and not use it as an ornamental piece.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I read your first sentence 'Oh no, no, no, it's a ukulele, you CANNOT play with a pick' and I was motivated to post a video using a plectrum. Then I read the rest of the article, agreed with it and lost my motivation. Please could you write something that I can strongly disagree with :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I may have to write a response to this one!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Lots of people commenting on Facebook on this and missing the point of the piece. I am neither for or against picks - I take the view that if you get a good sound using one then go for it. The point is really that I never understand people who say "ooooh no you can't do that'.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I recently picked up the uke after years of flatpicking guitar, and pretty much learned on my own (chord charts, etc.). I didn't know any better so I used a pick. Recently, for just the reasons you lay out here, I have been weaning myself from it. Now I can do most songs both ways, but when I play the blues on the uke, I sometimes like the pick still. I'll probably end up doing about half and half--if that's all right! Haha. Thanks for the article. Very helpful to hear.

    ReplyDelete
  6. There is a place and a case for using picks on a Ukulele. In lessons with beginners we use a flatpick and also work on strums and playing single notes with bare fingers. Picks reduce finger fatigue and also gives them some versatility. Electric Bass Players have the same debates and can get pretty heated, until you say "Chris Squire"...

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've seen some great players play amazing things on the ukulele with a pick. However, I generally suggest to my students to learn to play with their fingers. My first reason being, I personally don't like the sound I get out of a uke with a pick. Secondly, there are so many cool strumming techniques that employ 1-5 fingers that are hard to imitate with a pick and right hand technique is something that I focus on with my students because I feel most everything else can be learned pretty easy from a video (this is an instance where live learning has the advantage). BUT, as you say, these are my personal biases. I wouldn't want to discourage someone who views a pick as essential to the way they play. As long as they are enjoying it! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Is ukulele playing, styles and techniques evolving in the same way that the guitar did? Simple styles being enhanced and improved on. Styles of uke are changing in the same way that lutes and other stringed instruments evolved into guitars with built-in synthesisers etc. therefore the evolution of the style of playing must evolve with the style of music. If this means use a pick or use your fingers then so be it. Use the tools for the job that will ensure you do the job the best you can. Pick or no pick, strap or not, accoustic or electric, effect pedals or clean? Where do you stop. Variety brings with it evolution.

    ReplyDelete
  9. THANK YOU!!! I just had someone tell me that using a pick would ruin the strings on my uke this weekend. The reason I had pulled it out was because I had a torn cuticle on my right index finger and strumming was getting painful. I don't use them often, but when I do, I use a very thin nylon pick. I don't see any difference between using a pick on a nylon stringed guitar and using one on a ukulele. I'm happy to see that someone agrees that it isn't necessarily a bad thing.

    ReplyDelete

Leave me a comment!

Do you enjoy this blog? Donate to help keeping it going!

If you enjoy this blog, donations are welcomed to allow me to invest more time in bringing you ukulele articles. Aside from the Google ads, I don't get paid to write this blog. Call it a labour of love! And, no, I don't get to keep the ukuleles that are loaned to to review...