Beginner ukulele players often ask me if they need a pick to play their ukulele.
And my answer is, no. Most people don’t use a pick to play ukulele.
What’s a pick?
A pick, also called a plectrum, is a little tear-shaped piece of plastic. Many guitarists play with a pick, depending on the style of music. Guitar strings are often metal, which is hard on the fingers.
But ukulele strings are made of soft nylon. It’s very gentle on the fingers.
One of the many things I love about the ukulele is that it’s so uncomplicated and low-tech. You don’t need lots of gear to play a ukulele.
When we strum a ukulele, we stroke our fingers across the strings. When we play fingerstyle or fingerpicking, we use our fingertips.
The great Hawaiian ukulele players mostly strum with their fingers. If it’s good enough for Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, it’s good enough for me.
Beginner ukulele kits often include a pick, along with a ukulele, bag, tuner and songbook. I don’t know why they bother with the pick.
When to use a pick
Four exceptions to the no-pick principle:
- Chronic pain: I’ve known players with chronic pain issues, who are more comfortable playing with a pick than using their fingers to strum.
If it’s painful to strum with your fingers, first check with your teacher that you’re not playing too hard. Then try using a ukulele pick.
- Nice nails: People who have elegant fingernails, who don’t want the varnish chipped. But actually, good quality false nails should be fine with strumming.
- Hangnails and sore fingers: If you have a hangnail or a temporarily sore finger on your strumming hand, try using a pick for a short period. It means you don’t have to stop playing while your finger heals.
- Surf rock: If you’re determined to play surf rock on ukulele (and I don’t necessarily recommend this!) you’ll need to use a pick to get that tremolo sound.
Here’s my colleague The Ukulele Teacher (aka John Atkins) playing 1960s surf rock classic “Wipeout”, by the Surfaris. He does it a lot better than I could. I’m not a surf rock specialist!
Special ukulele picks
If you use a normal guitar pick on a ukulele it will sound loud and harsh, and it will wear out your strings faster.
A ukulele pick is made of soft felt. It’s a bit like a piece of stiff carpet. You can buy ukulele picks from music shops and online.
Picks are louder
Strumming with a pick (even a special ukulele pick) will make your ukulele louder. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Ukuleles are low-tech, low-volume instruments. It’s good to be heard, but you don’t want to drown out your singing voice.
Playing with a pick could be a problem if you’re playing with a group. A player who’s using a pick in an unsubtle and unskilled way will be making a lot more noise than the other musicians. This will affect the overall sound balance.
Strumming with a pick is different from strumming with your fingers. It takes practice to get used to it.
My verdict on picks
I think it’s just easier all round to not use a pick when you’re playing ukulele.
I know guitar players who are always losing their picks. If you don’t have a pick, you can’t lose it!
More about strumming
If you want to know more about strumming ukulele, check out my Strumming basics for ukulele post.
Hi, I’m Alice
I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.
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