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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  1. I know you really want us to learn for ourselves, but I think we sure would love to know which pick worked for you, just to get an idea.

  2. i normally play using fingers but trying to get up to speed with a pick now. done the same trying everything i could find. then i came across these bone picks http://www.thomann.de/gb/timber_tones_jazzy_tones_green_bone.htm

  3. I’ve tried to get into using a pick to play, though whenever I do attempt it, be it because of my technique or some other reason, I always get pain in my wrist and lower arm when trying to play with a pick for a certain length of time. Any recommendations on what I could do to remedy this? I believe that I use a dunlop medium sized pick. It’s purple, but I’m not certain on the size..

  4. I had a band leader,who asked me to use one on one particular song.

  5. Great article. Love the bit on food too!!

    Cody

  6. I mostly play finger-style, but in a cover band you serve the song. I think I’ve tried just about every kind of pick at this point and have discovered that Dunlop .60mm is the most versatile for me. It’s flexible enough to snap nicely when palm muting and JUST stiff enough to play harder and louder as well. (Altho I will switch to a .73 when necessary.) The other pickscovery was the Wedgie rubber picks. They let you play fast and hard, pick-style, but deliver a dull, almost finger-style attack. Nice compromise for some songs that need the thump.

  7. I use Fred Kelley Bumblebee pick’s. They allow me to play finger style and pick style within the same song. I like the light teardrop style for speed. http://fredkellypicks.com/bumble-bee.html.

  8. Jim Dunlop 1.0mm nylon, every time.

  9. Not a big fan of picks either, but I do enjoy the Dunlop Jazz I quite a bit.

  10. Whenever I need to play with a pick I use a Dunlop Tortex .6mm. Going to try some thicker ones (1mm +) to see how they work

  11. I am equally a disciple of people like Jaco Pastorius and Steve Swallow. I love the finger-style stuff for fusion, funk, et cetera, but when I find myself playing traditional jazz on an electric something doesn’t quite work. Its sound is too fucky (as in funk music,) and yet I didn’t want to switch back to the upright, which I completely despise after playing it for a number of years. The answer was to adopt Steve Swallow’s pickstyle technique, which allowed me to basically transfer my sound from fingerstyle into something that sounds a little more like the bass pedals on a hammond organ in the low registers, and like a jazz guitar on the high end. It’s simple, clean, and clear. I practice both about the same amount, and it’s really worked for me.

  12. I was the same way for a long time. Alternate back and forth now between pick and fingers. Prefer my fingers with fretless and a pick for fretted.

  13. In my cover band I always play fingerstyle. In my Helloween tribute band I switch between fingers and pick (as Markus does, actually) and my metal band I’m a pick player 99% of the time (the bass tone is part of the band’s overall sound). I’ve been experimenting with different pick options and I’m a Jim Dunlop guy. I started with .88 mm tortex , then I switched to .88 tortex triangle , then I started to feel them very light so, I switched to 1 mm tortex trangle (the blue ones).. I tried the 1.14 gauge, but I feel them too hard for my taste. 1 mm tortex triangle are the picks which work for me. But when I play guitar..nothign compares to my lovely Jim Dunlop 1.14 Ultex Sharp..

  14. Nice article Ryan! I’m open to using just about anything to strike the strings.

  15. Great pick players include Carol Kay, Paul McCartney, Chris Squire, John Entwhistle (early days) and Bobby Vega. A diverse group to say the least. Most play finger style too.

  16. I have always used my fingers, but after joining a band that covered Metalliica and other relatively hard rock bands I started experimenting with the pick. I’m still not very good at it ….sometimes chuck it in the middle of a song, but always keep a couple within reach especially at band practice. Trying like the devil to get that alternative up-down technique. Quite often I pinch my thumb and forefinger together and strum for a little extra punch when a section of a song calls for some power.

  17. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in the Comments section of this E-zine, I am a natural finger-style player who, however, has found a happy solution for songs that demand that plectrum sound: I play finger-style, but put Dunlop finger picks on my index finger and naughty finger so I also get that edgy, cutting sound that you can only get with a pick. Cheating? I dunno, but it works. In the meantime, I’m off to the kitchen to whip up a batch of Fettuccine Alfredo, ’cause your article made me really hungry! :)

  18. Depends, Personally I love Ultex 1.14mm Sharps for the extra clarity in the mid to upper registers, but if you want really a nice snarl I will always and forever stick with the 2mm Gator Grips.

  19. Whenever I need a pick type sound I always have it right there on the ends of my indexand thumb

  20. Hey Folks! I know many of you have been wondering about my favorite pick so here’s the deal: while I keep a variety of picks at the ready, my “go to” is the Dava pick. They’re difficult to find (I have to order them) but they’re easy to grip and provide a really unique tone.

  21. Dunlop max grip 1mm. Forever.

  22. Don’t forget Matt freeman for great pick players he’s the reason I use one!

  23. I use the Herco thumb picks; thus I can switch between pick and fingers at will.

  24. I use a thumb pick. That way I can switch back and forth as often and as quickly as I want. It’s also a great alternative when you’re “palm muting” as it cuts through the mix a little better, in my opinion.

  25. Red jazz III best pick ever.

  26. Used to be in exactly the same boat, hated the idea of using a plectrum until I joined a Pink Floyd tribute band. I was encouraged to use one to gain the attack that Roger Waters had on his p bass. Now I regularly use one as it saves my fingers a lot (I suffer really badly from blisters, despite how often I practice and play) and for certain tracks the plectrum does indeed sound better, nice to read an article that goes over those details :)

  27. I agree with the Dunlop 1.0 that Michael King mentioned, BUT there is another I have found that works VERY well in terms of softer dynamics, the Pick Boy Ceramic picks. I grabbed a bunch several years ago for guitar actually, but when I tried them on bass I was VERY impressed with how the tone is softened almost to sounding finger style. They’re also heavily textured so they are easy to hang on to.

  28. I hated them when I first started to play. Why limit yourself to one contact point with your picking/plucking hand and the string.

    35 years later, I blame that on being young and dumb.

    Trying to get that attack without a pick often ended up with me restringing my bass between sets – and often down to two strings during the set. It’s taken me years to relearn how to play with a lighter fingerstyle technique. During that time I learned to appreciate the pick but it took learning how to play the mandolin to really teach me how to use the thing.

    Tortex 1.14mm – and the damned thing has curved around my thumb; guess I still need to work on that lighter approach. (I use 1mm on the mando).

  29. Jimmy Dunlop Green .88’s! Kim Deal!

  30. tortex .73 Yellow. Always.

  31. I’m currently experimenting with Timber Tones plectra. They sound great on my acoustic and electric guitars. Not so much so far on my basses – my fingerstyle on the bass eliminates so much of the attack – but I want to keep trying as some rock stylings need that attack

  32. Like Brian May, I have my own custom pick form a quasi-related source: I “laminate”-with double-sided tape–three CD’s, and I cut them in that wide equilateral shape. The axis perpendicular to the string is foreshortened relative to the base, so it looks like a big fingeranail. Then I feather the edges.

    Play over the neck where it meets the body for a rounder tone, and a quicker response. It’s the softest part of the string, I get a lot of dynamic range like that (I’m an experienced orchestral string bassist, and I still play classical music on the bass guitar). That’s very similar to the classic style of Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn.

  33. I use a variation of picks. For slow tunes when I play mostly long, sustained notes, I roll the tone knob back and use a Jim Dunlop 3.0mm Big Stubby. For normal rock tunes, I use a 1mm Everly Star Pick. For brighter stuff, I use JD Stubbys, usually 1mm. For really fast playing, I used to use JD Jazz Stubbys.

    It’s also fun to play with picks in weird ways. The guitar player for Bad Company used to use the opposite side of the pick instead of the pointed side.

    Stainless Steel picks from JD are cool too, but have a very specific place…

  34. Loved this article. I also loved the Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss references (I wonder what they would think of that?). I actually happen to use an Eric Clayton brand of pick called Raven. It’s a .60mm pick, but works great for me, given that I have large hands and play funk, djent, metal, jazz, and blues.

  35. I’ve never bought a pick in my life. Starting in the 80’s when eight-note chugging had to be played with a pick, I’ve scrounged “snipes” off of stage floors, reh spaces, studios. Never looked back. If the one I find is too thin/heavy/mushy, I throw it back and the Universe provides the next one.

  36. Dunlop Max Grip .88s FTW

  37. I did something similar to what you did in this article, i soon found that ultra thick picks were the only pick that would even let me practice the technique. So i now use the dunlop big pointed jazztone pick and dunlop 3mil big stubbies

  38. I am a finger player trying to use the pick and now I am using Carol Kaye pick. Its thick and strong build.

  39. I use a thumb pick of a fairly thick gauge, when I do use one. Basically what a pedal steel player would use I suppose. I can switch between fingers and picking on the fly, I almost never (I’ve broken a couple over the years) drop the pick – while playing, and when I’m not using it I can basically “clip” it to my strap within easy grasp.
    For me using the pick is an attack and tone thing. My ears decide then I go wit it.

    Respect,
    Joe