Banjo For Beginners

The ultimate guide to banjo for beginners.

Banjo Thumb Picks

Before getting into the specifics of different thumbpicks, I think it would be helpful to go over the history of the thumbpick. If you have watched Throw Down Your Heart featuring Belá Fleck, you know a little bit about the origin of the banjo and how it is played in Mali and Gambia. For those who haven’t seen the film, (it is amazing and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the roots of the banjo), the Gambians and Malian instrumentalists all play without picks. This leads to a more muted, subtle sound. Somewhere along the line, banjo players started to use finger picks and thumbpicks. By using picks, the players could get a cleaner, louder sound that was more geared towards performing for crowds. Between there and now, there were a couple of innovations. One, the invention and common usage of plastic allowed for plastic thumbpicks, which I will talk about later one. Two, the increasing popularity of the banjo made picks cheaper and more common. Three, Performers would go around with their finger and thumb picks, and set an example for other banjo players to use picks instead of bare handed playing. A quick aside; banjo players who follow the clawhammer tradition generally do not use picks, and sometimes will use nail hardener to keep their fingernails healthy and not chipped. This is keeping with the tradition of clawhammer, and the more muted sound lends itself to the traditional folksy style of clawhammer.

So why do we see banjoists playing with two metal fingerpicks and one plastic thumbpick? Why not use a metal thumbpick? I too wondered this, and then realized the sound difference. The plastic has a clean sound, and is quieter than metal. Also, the plastic wears to the individual playing style of each player and provides a worn in feeling. Another aspect of metal picks is they can get fairly dirty, leading to squeaky sounding notes. This can be prevented by rubbing the metal against some leather, or using a plastic pick. The most obvious aspect that I came across is the balance that a plastic thumbpick gives. Generally, a banjo players thumb is stronger than his/her fingers. This can lead to a loudness gap between the notes picked by the thumb, and the notes picked by the fingers. Since the plastic thumbpick is quieter than the metal fingerpick, the loudness evens out.

Personally, I use National thumbpicks, size Medium. They are fairly cheap, so I don’t feel bad about losing them or eventually breaking them. Some people have had great success with the Blue Chip Thumbpick, but they run around $40, so its an investment for a pick. As always, practice often and happy picking!

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