Take your pick

Nov 30, 2023 | Welcome Column

Today’s Grist Quote:
Pick that banjo solid
(Jimmy Martin)

Most bluegrass musicians need a pick to make their instrument produce a good sound. Bass players can use their fingers and probably will never need a bow. Fiddle players on the other hand do need a bow (unless they want to play pizzicato all the time) and they might have to cough up as much money for a good bow as they did for their violin. Fiddle bows are very expensive.

Picks are different. Good stocking stuffers. Most are made of plastic so they are generally very inexpensive. And it’s a good thing because picks get lost all the time. Picks get dropped into drains, lost in the grass at campouts, grabbed mistakenly by other musicians. There are a million ways for picks to disappear and they inevitably do.

But at least a pick is just a pick. People cut up old credit cards and use them for years to play their instruments. At least the lost pick was not a lost capo. Capos disappear frequently as well but they cost serious money.

The difference between an improvised plectrum, like a credit card cut out, and a quality manufactured pick can be pretty big. A good musician can make great music from tools that would limit the rest of us. But a good pick is not only a good tool, it’s a tool you can have lots of fun experimenting with. They’re cheap and experimenting can help you make a better sound.

Try a bigger pick, a smaller one, a thicker one, a thinner one, a sharp cornered one, a rounded one. Turtle shell was the pick of choice during the early days of bluegrass but that material is now banned for environmental reasons. Fortunately modern materials sound just as good.

Sure, picks are prone to get lost and they tend to be inexpensive to replace but it still hurts when you lose your favorite pick. About a year ago I bought a very expensive pick because I thought it would help with my banjo playing. It did.

When that pick disappeared I searched every place it could possibly be and came up with nothing. In frustration, I finally gave up and ordered another one. Before the new one arrived I found the old one in a shopping bag. My friend George Martin lost the same brand of pick at a jam we attended the next week so I offered him my extra pick. George found his pick in the laundry the next week so now I have a spare.

In fact I have lots of spares. I can cover any bluegrass instrument that uses a pick. My main instrument is the mandolin and every now and then I pull out the first pick I ever used for it, the Fender heavy tri-corner. It still plays well. Maybe I should have stuck with it.

Many bluegrass fan instrument aficionados know about IAD. Instrument Acquisition Disorder is a clinical malady that affects bluegrass musicians. They buy instruments that are in excess of their playing needs and they are sometimes even afraid to play them because it might mar the beautiful finish.

Pick Acquisition Disorder is much less serious. But I think I might have it. I have a banjo which I play occasionally but I have to admit that I can’t really play the banjo. Give me five more years. Yet I have so many banjo picks! Four different thumb picks in two different sizes, and six different types of finger picks. Some of these picks I have never even tried.

I love my picks. I have mandolin and guitar picks with my name engraved on them in case they get lost. (I would have a third one but it got lost).

Pick solid.



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