Banjo Picks

Banjo Picks

Ive been experimenting with different picks for my banjo and each one ive tryed has had a setback or 2. is there any specific pick that works best for the banjo?

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Some people use a thick, stiff pick, others go light and floppy. Depends on your attack, the sound you want, your banjo….

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You’ll probably get a bunch of replies that swear by Dunlop 60s. That being said, you may have to do what I did and buy a bucket full of various picks and keep experimenting with differing thicknesses until you find one that suits you. However, if you’re waiting for that magic moment where one pick feels "perfect" and allows you to execute spot on triplets at will - sigh - you’ll be a long time waiting…

It’s a trail and error thing. I’m 11 years in and still change every once in a while.

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Which ones have you tried so far and what were the setbacks?

For meself I use the red or black Clayton .50mm plecs - my only wee complaint about them is that they wear out really fast! I have also used the light gray Jim Dunlop .60mm plecs. and if I can’t find a Clayton then the Dunlops are the ones I’ll grab - the reason I switched from them to the Claytons was that it seemed like the Dunlops "dragged" a bit, whereas I got a faster attack with the Claytons, but hey, that’s just me…

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IMO pick choice has to be related to string gauge so to be meaningful I use a black dunlop 1mm on banjo/mandolin/ guitar. top E 12 gauge.

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Upstairs - My experiments sound much like what you’ve gone through. I got the same feeling from the Dunlops - a bit to floppy and dragged - I based that on the fact that I don’t have a subtle touch or light wrist action. I eventually settled on Fender .50s. They were thin like the Dunlops but stiff like the Claytons. They worked for me - but your experience may be different. For Mandolin I go thick thick thick.

I hope Reverend chimes in on this, he has experimented with many picks too…

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I use 1.5mm rounded triangles. I used to use .8mm picks when I only played guitar but they didn’t work so well on mandolin.
I found the pickness (pick thickness) more difficult to adjust to than different instruments/scales/tunings.
I now use the 1.5mm for guitar, banjo, mandolin, and OM.

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Hardim! Hardim! Hardim! They look like a leprechaun ninja weaon too.

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I prefer 60mm dunlop, on standard gdae, and cgda

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You should try these:

http://cgi.ebay.com/10-Dun-Fluorescent-Nylon-Riff-Guitar-Picks-Orange-60-/390176167594?pt=Guitar_Accessories&hash=item5ad84fd6aa

They are Jim Dunlops as well and many will tell you they are a more colourful version of the standard grey but that’s not true. They feel different and have a different grip. They also happen to be practically impossible to get so that eBay site is your best bet.

After I tried these I won’t play with anything else, and a few banjo playing friends who I’ve given some to have said the same. Worth a shot for you anyway.

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The grain of salt: I do the greater part of my plucking as a guitar flat picker outside the world of ITM and am merely a happy dabbler at tenor banjo—but picking is picking, so …

As stated by wise folks above, the thickness of the pick makes a big difference in sound, so ideally you’d find the pick that gives you the sound you want—then be determined to make that pick work.

However, if you don’t have any pick leanings at the moment and if your main desire is to develop mondo chops (triplets galore), I’d go from the outset with a thick pick, like a Wegen. To me, thin picks like the Dunlop .60s are great for strumming, lousy for picking.

Or use whatever Gerry O’Connor uses.

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Our banjo players over the years use whichever pick I lent/lend them for the night, and never got/get back. They must have buckets of them by now.

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Gerry O’Connor uses 0.6mm Dunlops. (unless things have changed since he made that video) Therefore so do I, but after seeing this thread I think some more experimentation might be in order. I use 0.88mm Dunlops on the Mandolin.

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I’m with Lurcherjohn-you can’t beat the grip on Brain picks. I use the orange 1.14mm- it’s a beast! Seems to me the thicker the pick the more bass I get.

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Dunlop .60s here

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old guys told me that the heavier the string guage and the heavier the pick, the better your tone can be.

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but I better add that those were old guys here in the states

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I second the motions of jimtowat and Lurcherjohn. The Snarling Dog "Brain Picks" are great. They’re also marketed as "Cat Tongue", I think. They have a sandpaper-like nubs at the grip, which help keep them from moving, even when you use the lightest grip. I use .53 (green) and .60 (purple). I do carry a .73 (red) with me for really noisy situations. But mostly I play the purple ones.

If you click on one on this link, you’ll see a real closeup, so you can see the little nubs: http://accessories.musiciansfriend.com/product/Snarling-Dogs-Brain-Guitar-Picks-and-Tin-Box-?sku=110010

As JNE pointed out, I have experimented with a ton of different picks. I used to take the white Clayton picks, and take a hole punch to it in a few places, to keep them from moving in my hand. But the brain picks are better for that.

FWIW, John Carty plays with a very thick, stiff pick, basically like I would consider a mandolin pick. But he also plays with about the lightest touch I’ve ever seen…

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For those who prefer a thick, stiff pick, you might be interested in Bluechip Picks (http://www.bluechippick.net/).

They’re made from a special plastic (engineered for other uses) that is amazingly smooth over the strings yet tacky in your fingers. So smooth that your thumb will stick like a gecko to glass.

Bluechips come in a variety of gauges—I use a TP60-1R for mandolin. It’s 1.5 mm thick. And also shapes, from teardrop guitar style to larger triangular picks. All are speed beveled, and you can stipulate right- or left-hand bevel.

The good news is that they wear like iron—a year of heavy picking on mando and my Bluechip looks like it just arrived from the shop.

The bad news? These picks cost…wait for it…$35 USD *each.*
For that price, they should come with a GPS homing device. But when I spend that much or more every six months to rehair a fiddle bow, $35 for a pick that will last my lifetime isn’t so bad.

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I use a .50mm Dunlop Tortex for playing Irish music on both tenor banjo and guitar, but prefer something heavier when playing old timey fiddle tunes, about an .88 Tortex. Sometimes I take lead vocal in a bluegrass band and use a 1.14mm. Different picks for different tricks, a different plectrum for……hmm what rhymes with plectrum?

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Incidentally I noticed Jody Moran uses a .50mm Dunlop Tortex, Mick O’Connor uses a Dunlop nylon.73mm, and when I played with John Carty many years ago he was using a large red Herdim medium. Because John used one I used the same for many years but eventually settled on the .50 tortex.

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As I always say on this question - go down to the local music store, and buy two of each pick. Take them home, and play.

For banjo, I like a medium-thin Clayton triangle - the printing wore off long ago, so I can’t tell you what guage - but my banjo is not set up like yours, I may not be using the same string weights as you, I may not have the same scale length, it’s very unlikely that we share the same posture and hand position or hold the banjo at the same angle. All of those factors affect the way the pick and the string meet. Even if all of those were duplicated, we probably don’t have exactly the same preferences in sound or ornamentation, so even if we were twins playing on identical instruments there’s no reason to suppose that we’d be looking for the same sound - which means we’d be looking for different picks.

I find the banjo is very sensitive to pick weight and stiffness, more so than other instruments. If the pick isn’t the right one, it feels like tap dancing in cowboy boots, and sounds about as graceful. Take some time to find the right one.

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Gerry O’Connor’s web site (which is no longer in existence) stated that he uses at least two different thicknesses of picks depending on whether or not he is playing jigs. He uses a .73 for jigs.

In the end, use the pick that suits you best. I find myself using the Brain .60, Dunlop .60, and Clayton acetyl .50. The latter have changed their formula recently (the red letter ones) and are inconsistent. Angelina Carberry and Enda Scahill use the Claytons, Darren Moloney uses the Brain, GO’C and others the Dunlop.

I’ve asked every pro player that I know which picks they use and they all have different opinions. That should tell you something, but they all have different techniques too. The .60 thickness picks seemed to predominate, however.

By the way, I spoke to Matt Goins (Blue Chip Picks) about a way to prevent losing his picks. He has put a "finder" on his picks in the past - a chip that makes a noise when you clap your hands. He made it for a country music star who kept losing picks and it seems to have worked out very well. He also said he would never do it again as it was a lot of work ;-)

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I’m a fledgling banjoist, but I would say most of the input mirrors my experience so far. I have no idea yet what the ideal pick is for me. I’m going to start experimenting with lighter guages, because I played mandolin before picking up the banjo and that requires a heavier pick

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Fender thins 0.? have it on tone for me, found the same as Mr Jusa Nutter Eejit and settled on the fenders.

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Another thing to consider is that you can get an effectively stiffer pick by curving or rotating the pick as you play. Usually one conceives of the pick as held parallel to the strings, so the flat of the pick strikes the string all at once. Rotating the pick by some amount (about 20 degrees, maybe) means that the pick strikes the string edge-on, which can help tighten up the action and give a fatter sound.
If you’re using a fairly broad and relatively light pick - like the big Clayton triangles I prefer - you can also give the pick a bit of a bend with your fingers. Just like a curved sheet of paper, the curved pick is stiffer and gets a different response. I find this gives the same improvement in speed but keeps a thinner sound, which you might like.

It’s something to try. Nothing substitutes for knowing the tunes cold, of course, but the more you experiment with your picking technique the more comfortable you can be when you do find something that suits you well. Being secure in the technical aspects of your playing helps you focus on getting the tunes out, which is after all the point of the exercise.

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For mandolin, I’ve taken to sanding my picks with very fine wet-or-dry paper - P320 is good. With a bit of practice, you can do some very nice customisations - for example you can take a medium pick and take the business end down towards fine so as to have a firmer ‘grip’ but less attack, and also you can shape the point off to just your required degree of pointedness for good triplets. You do need to make sure you round the edges off otherwise you get a rather woolly sound, though even this wears off as the pick plays back in. Anyone else indulge in such doubtful practices??? ;-)

Ian

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I carry a little accessory bag (pencil case, actually) which has a transparent front pouch to display my picks. (A plethora of plectra, someone noted). One time, having mislaid the bag, a mate donated an expired credit card. No matter how I trimmed and sanded it with an emery board, it didn’t work very well.

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Wrong sort of plastic (too soft) I think it would only work with tortoiseshell substitutes. I have been using Fender ones and exaggerating the point slightly. I’m happy again now (my last plectrum lasted for 25 years and had worn to exactly the angle and point I required. It was a disaster when it finally snapped - I can’t wait another 25…)

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Dunlop Tortex 0.50s or Clayton Acetyl 0.50s. they wear out pretty quick though

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I’ve used Dunlop black nylon 1 mm on whatever instrument for about thirty-five years, but I’ve never stopped trying alternatives. The only thing I really liked better was another Dunlop 1 mm (red) nylon pick that was just slightly harder and stiffer. As is my luck, when I went to buy some more, the item had been discontinued.

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BTW, I do end up switching to a new pick every couple of weeks. Triplets tend to round off the tips of the soft picks, and while they’re still playable, I feel that I get more control out of the finer point. (I could reshape the tips, but I buy the brain picks in bulk, so it’s easier to just switch to a new pick…)

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I have little experience of ( tenor ) banjos, but my golden rule now is to buy my picks in bright colours, so that you don’t lose them on dingy pub floors.
I prefer lighter more flexible picks for the tone I like on my instrument, but I’ve heard it argued that you can get the same tonal effect with a heavy/stiff pick held lightly. No doubt this all comes with practice and experience.

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"I’ve heard it argued that you can get the same tonal effect with a heavy/stiff pick held lightly"

You can, but if you like the light picks then that’s the right thing for you. It’s all about spending hours and hours over years and years obsessing about which pick to use so you won’t have to think about your pick any more. Once you find something that really works for you, don’t mess.

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Mike mentions a pick with "a chip that makes a noise when you clap your hands" - that must mean that when the punters join in clapping leadenly and off-time, the pick joins in! I sand down and sharpen my picks for mandolin like Ian does, and I use much thinner ones for tenor banjo. I have some "Dunlop USA .58mm" ones that seem about right. I also have a couple of real tortoiseshell ones that came out of old banjo cases. They are thick, but play uniquely. There is a very satisfying way they click and glide across the strings unmatched by modern ones. They must be more than 50 years old though - it’s right that they’re not made now.

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So, Aaron, is this helping you or exasperating you?
I have used Dunlop .88’s for about 30 years, and keep coming back to them. I switch from banjo to mandolin to guitar, no problem. Maybe it’s just a matter of getting used to a certain delivery, what feels "right" to you; maybe you will adapt to whatever you choose. Can’t help thinking of Johnny Keenan, who played with a piece of plastic plumbing pipe around his finger…

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Richard is right that turtle shell picks are awesome. They don’t make them anymore and I believe they were made illegal to manufacture (like how real ivory is illegal to import here in the states) but if you are a redneck…and if you own a banjo and a shotgun, you just might be a redneck, you can shoot a turtle, make turtle soup, then clean the shell and cut and shape yourself some picks.

If you don’t want to kill a turtle to make a pick, which is very understandable, you can use roadkill (provided you really are a redneck and not just a city slicker who plays banjo) The roadkill way is what I did when I made some turtle shell picks years ago. but just use rubber gloves to handle the shell fragments. Boil the shell gragments outside, too, unless you are making soup. But the shell material is easy to shape with a file, so while you can’t buy turtle shell picks, turtles are indiginous to the Americas and actually thrive near bodies of water.

good luck and good hunting

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Someone mentioned Wegen picks. I’ve been wanting to try some of those but just can’t see spending that much for a pick. Although they are cheaper than the BlueChips also mentioned.
The Wegen picks are used by a lot of Gypsy Jazz guitarists. They generally play with really thick picks, 2mm and up, and can get all kinds of nuance out of their playing.
I like thick picks and have found that by changing my grip a little I can get all sorts of different tones.
My banjo does sound much "plinkier" with a thinner pick, but I prefer the "plunkier" tone of a thick pick.

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Richard,

The shells of tortoises and NA turtles are not very good for making picks. They are too frangible. I’ve tried making picks from cow hooves (too soft) and a number of other materials, but find that spending a pittance for the Dunlops is more cost effective. I have some TT case candy that I have tried, but still like the modern materials.

Speaking of cost effective, spending $35 for a pick that enhances your sound is worth it. Violin bows often cost more than the violin because your right hand is the part of you that produces the sound. If you can get the sound you want with an inexpensive pick (the way i do), more power, but if a pick that costs 1/50th of the cost of the instrument really brings out the sound, then go for it and pay more attention to where you put it when you are finished. ;-)

The costlier picks are made for guitar and mandolin mostly. The materials that they are made from have a lot of advantages including slipping over the strings and grip enhancement. Blue Chip picks on a mandolin are superb. I don’t care for them on my tenor banjo (too thick for my style) but they sound great as a thumbpick on my five string.

Mike Keyes

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to be honest, Im never really that bothered about what I use, a few weeks ago I played 2 sessions back to back with the corner cut off a bank card. But if its too light it can be very annoying

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A friend of mine makes guitar picks from ground-down bits of VW Golf tail-light cover

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I prefer an Alice .46 mm pick as it is to triplet and looks good and doesnt make the strings down tinny or doesnt dampen the important crisp sound of the banjo