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 Playing Advice: Bluegrass (Scruggs) Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Earl Scruggs Picks

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robinvater - Posted - 09/11/2013:  13:26:56

Hey Y'all is there any picture of Earls Scruggs Picks and the way hes wear them. and how much bend. Thanks blushblackeye

Banjov1 - Posted - 09/11/2013:  14:32:05

I'm not positive but Tony Trischka and Pete Wernick went to great lengths to get photos of how a lot of players wore their picks in their book  "Masters of the Five String Banjo". I think (but I'm not positive) that Earl was in that book, and you could probably find the shots you're looking for in there


kmwaters - Posted - 09/11/2013:  14:44:53

Here is a pretty good look that gives you an idea.  He really kept them curved to conform with the curvature of his fingertip until about the last 1/8 in where they flared very slightly away.  My guess is the distance from the pick tip to the nail end is about the same - 1/8 in.  He has a good picture in his own 5 String Banjo Book and most likely in the Masters Book too.  There are many reasons to put the Masters book in your library.  Sometimes you can even find it used on Amazon and save a little.

jwoods - Posted - 09/11/2013:  15:37:50

BHO member Dave Magram talks about that in a reply to a post on a recent thread. He has also done some research on pick bending, and is worth a read...



You wrote: “I have to adjust the angle of my hand position to do this, and it feels strange, and a bit uncomfortable at the moment, but I think I can adapt to it with a few hours of practice.”

That sounds like a very bad idea.  If play with your hand or wrist in an uncomfortable position, you run the risk of hand cramps and even carpal tunnel nerve damage. My advice: “Bend the picks, not your wrist!”  smiley

Many new players don’t realize that nearly all really good players reshape their fingerpick blades to achieve more striking effectiveness and better ergonomics. How many is “nearly all”? In the excellent book Masters of the 5-String Banjo (Trischka & Wernick), 89% of 68 leading banjo players interviewed said that they bend their pick blades to curve more around their fingertips.

Earl Scruggs discusses at length in MOTFSB book how he holds his right hand and bends his fingerpicks. Here is an excerpt: “I bend my fingers back – more than most players do, I think. Because of that sharp angle, and the way I pick at the strings, I have to bend my picks back until the part that contacts the strings is flat with it… Most of my picking motion… happens after the big knuckle…” (Earl Scruggs, MOTFSB, pg. 26.)

What is the optimal angle to bend the fingerpick blade? I have found, after a lot of experimentation, that around 32 degrees is the optimal angle; and based on photos, appears to be the angle used by Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Ralph Stanley, etc.  

New evidence supporting the “magic” 32-degree angle: A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Kenny Ingram, who graciously allowed me to trace his fingerpick shape on a notecard.  When I returned home, I measured the angle of Kenny’s fingerpick blade with a protractor. It was exactly 32 degrees!  big

Fingerpicks come “out of the box” with about a 55-degree angle of blade-tip to band; that is a big difference from 32 degrees! When the picks are too straight, the string “slams” into the blade, causing pick noise and slowing your picking down. The pick blade should be re-shaped so that the string hits the pick at a glancing angle and quickly glides off it. I’d suggest 32 degrees as a good starting point, and not less than 29 degrees. (I have met one well-known banjo player who bent one pick to 30 degrees and one to 29 degrees.)

Many players also rotate their fingerpicks around their fingers slightly to strike the string squarely in the middle of the blade, and I highly recommend it.

To shape the blades and bands properly, be prepared to spend 20 or 30 minutes gradually and carefully re-shaping your fingerpicks with a needle-nose pliers—it is time well-spent!

See the diagrams of blade angle and how to rotate the picks on my homepage that a number of BHO members have found helpful:  


What’s the correct hand/wrist posture for you? Since I cannot see your picking technique or how you have your picks shaped, try this experiment: 1) remove your fingerpicks and pick the banjo with your bare fingertips (not your fingernails), 2) find the most comfortable position for your wrist and hand to do this. Your goal is to re-shape your fingerpicks so that you can maintain the same comfortable  hand/wrist posture that you used without fingerpicks.

As other people have pointed out, your picks should remain as close to the strings as possible for speed and energy efficiency.  I find that I typically maintain a “striking distance” of about 3/16” and a “follow-though” distance of about 3/16” after striking the string. There are some photos on my homepage showing this.The idea is to keep your picking motions precise and economical.

You wrote: “I am using Dunlop .020 metal picks…”.  I would recommend a heavier gauge-- .025” is the standard thickness. A thin pick is less energy-efficient and can cause pick noise. I prefer “Roy’s Own” fingerpicks (all are .025” thick) because the metal alloy used is very close to that used for the legendary old Nationals, and they pull tone and volume far better than Dunlops do. In fact they pull volume and tone better than any other pick I’ve tried-- and “Roy’s Own” fingerpicks are only $10 a pair. cool

Finally, you may want to hire a banjo instructor for at least a few lessons to help you learn correct playing habits so you don’t hurt your hands. There are a number of instructors who teach via Skype if none are available locally.


MickG - Posted - 09/11/2013:  17:31:21


Originally posted by robinvater


Hey Y'all is there any picture of Earls Scruggs Picks and the way hes wear them. and how much bend. Thanks blushblackeye

Here is a print screen from the Jingle Bells video on YouTube. It's not a side view but it doesn't look like he has them bent much at all. They look about like the Roy's Own I use as they come in the box.

Notice how much he has the picks rotated on his finger so the blades hit more square to the strings.



Earl's Picks


Dave Magram - Posted - 09/14/2013:  18:46:36

Jwoods, thanks for the nice shout-out regarding my extensive pick-bending research out here at the Intergalactic Banjo Science Institute (where we are just full of Banjo Science—or something along those lines). big

A little bit of clarification may be helpful…

A couple of years ago, in response to a question asked on the BHO, I studied the photos in the Masters of the 5-String Banjo book  (and elsewhere) of the fingerpicks of the banjo players who I most admired when I was learning—Scruggs, Reno, Stanley, Shelton, Osborne, Crowe, Keith. I used a straight-edge and a protractor to carefully measure the angle that they bent their pick-blades as shown in those photos. (BTW, the MOTFSB book is a a great book—400 pages of in-depth interviews, tablature, and personal equipment preferences of some of the greatest banjo players ever.)

Based on my measurements, all of these gentlemen bent their picks at what looked to me to be very, very close to the 32-degree angle I’ve personally found to be optimal over the last 40 years of playing the banjo.

However, I had no way to verify how accurate my analysis of these photos was. Then in June, 2013 I met Kenny Ingram at a festival, who graciously allowed me to trace his fingerpick blades… Kenny’s pick-blade angle was 32 degrees exactly! Not 31 degrees, and not 33 degrees, but exactly 32 degrees! Pretty compelling , wouldn’t you say? I mean who wouldn’t want to sound like the Big K? cheeky


MickG & Robinvator,

It is very difficult to estimate the the degree of pick blade curvature without a side-view photo. I did find side-view photos of Earl Scruggs’ fingerpick blades in the MOTFSB book . I  also took some screenshots from YouTube clips of the old Flatt & Scruggs TV shows that showed close-ups of Earl’s fingerpicks.  (Here at the IBS Institute, we leave no stone unturned when it come to attempting to unravel the mystery of the magic of Earl Scruggs’ playing.)  My analysis of these photos show that Earl appeared to bend his fingerpick blades at a 32-degree angle. He also seemed to rotate his picks slightly as you observed.

The “Roy’s Own” fingerpicks are my personal preference also. However, based on my measurements, they come from the factory (BHO member Doug Hutchen’s garage) with a 55-degree angle between pick-blade and pick-band, 23 degrees straighter than the 32-degree angle I believe that Earl used. That’s a lot of degrees different!

I have found that even a  1 or 2-degree difference makes the fingerpicks much less useful for me. The reason that I know this is that I once inadvertently  tried to play my banjo with the fingerpicks I use on my pedal steel (blades bent at a 30-degree angle)-- and they were nearly unusable!


To all,

If you are completely happy with the tone, volume, and speed you are getting with your fingerpicks shaped the way they are now, and are able to play for several hours without any strain or discomfort— then keep doing what makes you happy.

OTOH, if you are not completely happy with any of the above, or are just curious if the pick-blade angle used by so many great banjo players might improve your playing, it is a very quick and inexpensive experiment. Just get a needle-nose pliers and shape your pick blades like the diagram on my home-page and try playing your banjo for an hour or so—and see how it works for you. cool


Edited by - Dave Magram on 09/14/2013 18:50:57

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