If you’ve recently embarked on your bluegrass banjo journey and have begun looking at fingerpicks (or perhaps have already bought a set), you’ve probably noticed that both fingerpicks and thumbpicks come in two basic varieties: metal and plastic. So which do you choose? Banjo instruction books aren’t much help in this department – the vast majority of them never even touch upon this question. Don’t believe me? See for yourself – open up any of these books to the section where picks are discussed and you’ll more than likely see a photo of a hand wearing a plastic thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks. And you’ll probably read an accompanying description saying something like, “You’ll need a plastic thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks.” No other types of picks are ever considered or mentioned in these books. If there are banjo books out there that break this rule, I’ve yet to come across them, and I’ve read a ton of banjo books. Consequently, you’re likely to assume (as I did years ago as a banjo newby) that the proper picks to use for bluegrass banjo are – surprise surprise – a plastic thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks (c’mon, you read it in a book, for crying out loud!). Which makes the discovery of METAL thumbpicks and PLASTIC fingerpicks even more confounding.
Contrary to what the books might tell you, you’re not breaking any cardinal banjo rule by opting for plastic fingerpicks and a metal thumbpick. Which brings me back to the question I posed at the top of this post. But before I answer, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of metal picks versus plastic picks.
Regarding metal fingerpicks, there’s one simple truth you can’t ignore: they are louder than plastic fingerpicks. Your banjo will sound considerably brighter with metal fingerpicks. Plastic fingerpicks are thicker and less responsive than metal. If less volume is what you prefer, plastic fingerpicks may be the way to go. An interesting side note: many players feel a metal thumbpick is too loud (some would say even harsh) and too often drowns out the strings plucked by the index and middle fingers. This idea centers around the theory that the thumb hits the strings with more force than the index and middle fingers (which may or may not be the case). Personally, I’m not a fan of metal thumbpicks – they tend to sound too shrill against my strings and generally don’t feel as comfortable as plastic thumbpicks do.
Metal fingerpicks tend to last longer than plastic picks do. They can also be bent and molded to the contours of your fingers so that they fit nice and snugly around your fingertips. Plastic fingerpicks lack this pliability.
So, which types of fingerpicks should you choose? Ultimately, this will come down to what feels and sounds best to you. If you’re just starting out, try playing with plastic picks for a while, then switch to metal (bearing in mind that you can use a mix of both – plastic thumbpick + metal fingerpicks OR metal thumbpick + plastic fingerpicks).
Ok, enough jabbering. Let’s get a’ pickin’!