Ukulele playing: pick or fingers?

Advice & Tips

One question I was asked fairly regularly by ukulele students in the past was:

Which is better for playing ukulele – fingers or pick*?

This blog post will hopefully go some way to explain why both are equally viable options. There – if you came to this article solely for reassurance on your preferred method of playing, I’ve saved you the hassle of reading any further!

[*NB – when I say ‘pick’, I of course mean a plectrum, like those used for guitar playing. If you’re here to learn about the kind if pick you dig holes with, you’re very much in the wrong place!]

If you’re looking for more information on picks, this rather informative article here from liveukulele.com may prove to be of use. But for now, let’s dive into our two options…

Pick (plectrum)

A pick is an easy option to start with, as even the nylon strings if a ukulele (as opposed to the steel strings used on a typical acoustic guitar) can have an effect on your fingers; this is particularly true of your nails and cuticles (the skin directly under your finger nails). You also get a louder, more direct sound when using a regular guitar plectrum, which are generally made of plastic or synthetic materials such as nylon & tortex (fake tortoise shell).

If you’re used to picking & strumming a guitar, you don’t have to make any changes to your right hand style at all. Although the same could be said if you’re primarily a fingerstyle player…

Fingerpicking

If you’re adept at fingerpicking guitar, you’ll be completely at home on the ukulele. In fact, it has two strings less, which should make it easier! I often find myself using my thumb for the G & C strings (the two closest to your face) and only making use of my index and middle finger for the E & A strings respectively.

I’ve also noticed that I perform finger rakes with any finger, and use my thumb in a greater variety of ways. Also, any guitar picking technique, from muting to string slapping & body tapping, all work equally well on a uke. If anything, my ukulele picking technique is more akin to how I play flamenco guitar!

Finally, you may notice that the tone of a fingerpicked uke is less harsh than when plucked with a pick. It’s certainly possible to obtain a greater range of sounds by adjusting which part of your fingers and nails pluck or strike the strings than could be managed with a plectrum.

Is there a middle way?

Well, yes. There are a few alternatives. Firstly, there’s felt plectrums. These are fairly common in ukulele playing and provide three ease of using a pick without the harsher tone. However, they’re less useful for more intricate playing, such as plucking individual strings.

There’s also a type of pick which sits on your fingers, popular in bluegrass styles.

Thumb & finger picks, popular in bluegrass banjo & guitar playing

These thumb & finger picks originated banjo playing, and offer the attack of a plectrum while still using fingerstyle hand & finger movement. Having said that, they do take a bit of getting used to! Many players use only the thumb pick in combination with their fingers. I’d recommend experimenting to see what works best for you.

But which is better?

As always in articles of this nature, I can’t give you a definitive answer, other than telling you my personal preference. For me, I don’t use picks at all in ukulele playing. I prefer the tone & versatility of using my fingers. But that’s just me – I encourage you to try both and see which one feels right for you.

Finally, don’t worry about sounding amazing if you’re new to trying a new playing style. Consider what feels most comfortable, and what has the best potential for you to continue improving in your playing. Let me know how you get on!

Great Guitarists #1: Earl Klugh

Great Guitarists

In this series, I’ve selected artists who have been both an inspiration and influence on my own guitar playing or musical practice. I’ll try to include a few details about them as well as a track for ‘essential listening’. I hope you get something out of it. Do feel free to comment on my picks for Great Guitarists – perhaps suggest your own! First up…

Earl Klugh

Earl Klugh was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1953, and first picked up the guitar at the age of ten. His early influences included legendary Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, pioneering jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and Country/crossover star Chet Atkins (with whom he would later record). Many jazz players (including the pianist Bill Evans) as well as an array of Latin and classical players continued to inform the way Klugh developed his guitar technique. Like many Latin-influenced guitarists, Klugh has stuck largely with nylon-strung guitars for his entire career, but his wide mix of influences give him a unique voice of his own.

Klugh made his professional debut on flautist Yusef Lateef’s 1970 album, Suite 16, aged just 15, after Lateef heard him playing in his local music store. Later, Klugh joined the band of the legendary guitarist George Benson. As well as performing guitar live with Benson’s band, Klugh also played on two of his classic jazz albums (before Benson started to focus more on singing & becoming a more commercial star), White Rabbit (1972) & Body Talk (1973).

Releasing his eponymous debut solo album in 1976, Klugh has since released over thirty records, in a variety of formats, including solo, duo and ensembles of various sizes. Over his career, he has received twelve Grammy nominations, winning the award for ‘Best pop instrumental performance’ with 1981’s One On One, recorded with jazz pianist Bob James.

I first discovered Klugh in the late 90’s and often used his composition ‘Kiko’ (from his 1976 album Living Inside Your Love) as a solo guitar piece for auditions. It featured in my repertoire for performances long before I caught the bug for Latin music, and Klugh (along with Santana) were the gateway to discovering the wonderful genres of South America.

As a classically trained guitarist, the sound of Klugh’s instrument felt comfortably familiar, although his main way of plucking the strings (using his thumb in both directions, like Wes Montgomery) was a rather alien concept to start with. Try it though – it’s worth persevering with, as it opens up a whole new, and potentially faster, way of playing the lower strings.

The track featured in this video is ‘Dr Macumba’ from his 1977 album Finger Paintings. It’s a great example of Klugh’s style, opening with a funky latin-infused riff, through to his cloud yet melodic jazz phrasing. Although it appears to start as a fairly small ensemble piece, this tune turns out to be a bigger production than expected, including rather brief string arrangement providing a classic 70’s lift in the middle of the piece!

Dr Macumba’ by Earl Klugh

I thoroughly encourage you to take a look into Klugh’s extensive back catalogue of LPs and concert videos. Even if the Latin stylings aren’t your thing, there’s a lot to be learned about jazz soloing from his playing. As always, let me know what you think, and enjoy the video!