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The Great Bass Picksperiment

Bass and picks
Photo by Carl Raether

I was a pretty picky eater when I was a kid. Okay, a very picky eater. Oh yeah, and I still am. Wednesday nights typically revolved around my father making pasta and having to put up with my self-imposed dietary restrictions: I was an anti-tomatite. Dad tried as hard as possible, time and time again, to convince me that not all sauces were created equal and that pasta could be dressed in many different ways. Marinara, puttanesca, Olive oil and garlic, pesto, fresh tomatoes with basil, alfredo, vodka, pomodoro, you name it. Alas, until my mid-teens, I resisted these sophisticated options in favor of melted butter. It was finally time for me to branch out, to lighten up on my personal vendetta toward the tomato, and to conduct a few taste tests to find a new favorite sauce. I wanted to grow up, put my hard-headedness aside, try something new, and order from the “big kid” menu.

While my diet has evolved to being pro-mato, I can’t help but be particular when it comes to my sonic palette. Of course, I have distinct preferences for certain basses, amps, pedals, and pickups—we all do—and have spent far too long being obsessive over what I think sounds good. I’ve always favored traditional style basses, darker tones, finger style playing, and music pre-1970. Unfortunately, my personal preferences may not cut it in the real world of gigging and I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. Sometimes, you simply need to play the right instrument in the right way in order to get the job done (or at least to get called back). Therefore, when asked to play with a pick, I shall play with a pick.

My relationship to the pick is surprisingly similar to that of the tomato. I spent a long time despising the pick, looking down upon it, wondering how and why so many people enjoy the sound of the rigid, triangular plastic appendage instead of the organic, intuitive, and fleshy fingers. “I bite my thumb at thee, pick.”

And then, things changed.

One day, I found myself preparing for an audition with fairly challenging music. This was a gig that I wanted so I set to work immediately. I wrote out charts, learned all of the important licks, and studied the songs. Despite learning the notes, I found myself at a loss when trying to achieve the right tone—I was lacking the forceful drive of a defined attack and the heightened midrange to carry the groove in the mix.

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things: of felt and nylon and tortoise shell—of celluloid and delrin. And why to choose a heavy pick or whether light weight rings.

And so began “The Great Picksperiment.”

As someone who had never warmed up to the sound of a pick, my goal was twofold: to find something to give me the appropriate tone and to discover a pick that I was inspired to practice with. Picks tend to rub me the wrong way and the sound of an abrasive clicking against the strings certainly tries my patience. Integrating pick work into my practice routine meant that I had to find something that I could bear to listen to. With great determination, I went to a local music store, purchased a variety of picks, and returned home to begin the process.

I started with the basics… the Fender and Dunlop picks, from medium to extra heavy. I quickly discovered that the Fender medium I use to play a Strat doesn’t necessary translate well on a bass; the attack seemed too light and I needed something more rigid. Then it was time to switch it up; I moved on to the oddly shaped teardrop, the super thick triangle, and the short and stout jazz picks.

Felt pick, V-pick, red pick, blue pick. This one has a clicky sound, this one seems a little round. Some are thin, some are fat, some I drop and lack attack.

The difference from one pick to another was striking; some felt too light, others too heavy. Some would work for Paul McCartney, others for Metallica. At long last, I discovered a pick that I felt comfortable with; it wasn’t overly aggressive and would inspire me to practice the technique. The pick gave me crisp 16th notes, a great sound as I muted with my palm, and was genuinely different from my traditional finger tone. As my ear adapted to the sound of the pick, I began to favor it over my fingers—not for all things, but for some. Songs I’ve played many times over were worth re-learning with a pick, both to practice the technique and to more accurately replicate the tone and feel of the recording.

The Great Picksperiment was quite a success and whether you play with a pick on a regular basis or you’ve never entertained the option, I highly recommend trying it out. Go to a music store with a twenty-dollar bill, buy as many picks as you can, and discover what works and what doesn’t. While I’m still new to the world of picking, I’ve made a resolution to practice the technique, integrate it into my playing, and explore different tones. No longer must I limit myself to a single technique or to pasta with butter. Every type of pick gives you a different sound, as each pasta sauce gives you a different flavor. So, the next time you’re looking for a challenge or simply want to try something new, order something different off the menu, don’t write off the tomato, and consider your sonic palette with an open mind.

How about you? Have you tried your own picksperiment? Thinking about it? I’d love to hear what you have to say. Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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