Banjo Hangout Logo
Banjo Hangout Logo

Premier Sponsors

Banjo Lovers Online

Discussion Forum

Want to hide these Google ads? Join the Players Union!

 All Forums
 Playing the Banjo
 Playing Advice: Bluegrass (Scruggs) Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: are finger picks essential

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

ZenTao - Posted - 02/06/2020:  10:27:19

Hi all,

Just starting out with Banjo. I've begun with clawhammer because I'd been playing clawhammer on my Uke for a while but given that I'm a complete newbie to the banjo I figured I should take a look at bluegrass too. What I'm finding (and I appreciate this is very early days) is that I hate wearing finger picks. I can get a roll going when I'm not wearing them but when I put them on it's like my fingers take on a different life.
I know there will be intonation differences between striking a string with a finger as opposed to a pick but I just wondered if anyone actually played bluegrass without picks? have there been any notable names in the bluegrass world who didn't use picks? or is it something I'm just going to have to work at and get used to?

Thanks for any advice.

dorse - Posted - 02/06/2020:  10:37:53

Short answer: To play authentic Scruggs style in bluegrass, you will have to use finger-picks. Ralph Stanley would do a claw-hammer tune occasionally with no picks, but that's probably about it.

Good Buddy - Posted - 02/06/2020:  10:40:37

Yes, they are essential.

Texasbanjo - Posted - 02/06/2020:  11:12:35

Definitely essential if you're going to play in a bluegrass jam or band. Fingerpicks help make the banjo loud enough to be heard over the screechy fiddles and loud dreadnaught guitars.

It does take a while to get used to them, but with practice and patience, you'll learn to wear them with ease and your picking will be more bluegrass sounding.

Culloden - Posted - 02/06/2020:  11:24:45

Finger picks are only essential if you want to be heard.

jan dupree - Posted - 02/06/2020:  11:48:51

I've seen a few players use only fingers when they are playing a folk type song, to get that certain sound.

ZenTao - Posted - 02/06/2020:  11:51:57

Thanks everyone. Pretty much what I figured the answer would be. Perseverance it is.??

foamer - Posted - 02/06/2020:  12:18:24

Jim Pankey's , Lession 1

nitehawk0z - Posted - 02/06/2020:  14:48:20


When I started, I found initially I could roll quicker without picks and things felt much more natural. However, you will reach a point at which you will want the slickness of a pick to release much quicker off the string and allow you to generate more speed, much more than with bare fingers. As was stated above, it you are targeting Scruggs bluegrass, they are essential.

One other thought. Definitely experiment with different brands, shapes/bends, material, etc. I still find myself experimenting with different angle bends around the fingertip. Sometimes even a 5 degree difference of bend around the fingertips, for me, can make a tremendous different in right-hand (picking hand) feel, comfort, speed, and tone. Also, I find the straightedge bands of most picks to be uncomfortable wrapped around my fingers, I've come to really appreciate the Dunlop picks as the bands tend to flare out more for more comfort. Just my experience....

Edited by - nitehawk0z on 02/06/2020 14:49:30

Jimmy Sutton - Posted - 02/07/2020:  02:56:47

In England one of our if not THE most accomplished pickers Pete Stanley who sadly passed away a few weeks back never used finger picks, just his natural nails. But I don't know how he managed it without busting them.

Here is an example of his playing on you tube:

bluenote23 - Posted - 02/07/2020:  06:43:24

PIcks are like a rite of passage. It's hard playing with picks. It took me a long, long time to get used to playing with them. So in a way, I want you to suffer as much as I did for the privilege of playing this instrument.

That said, you play faster and louder with picks.

kmwaters - Posted - 02/07/2020:  07:09:01

Clean and clear sound can only come from picks.

kjcole - Posted - 02/07/2020:  07:37:58

Two answers to that question.  1.  yes, and 2.  yes

Edited by - kjcole on 02/07/2020 07:38:51

Banjo Lefty - Posted - 02/07/2020:  08:31:47

The metal on metal sound is basically what defines Bluegrass. Without the picks, you're only producing a bluegrass-like sound.

doryman - Posted - 02/07/2020:  09:17:20

Chris, I was just like you. I hated picks at first and tried to play bluegrass with just my fingers. Give it time and you will come to enjoy picks. During a jam I will switch back and forth, some songs clawhammer-ish style with no picks and some songs bluegrass-ish style with picks. Once you become comfortable with picks you will find that some songs just work better with them. It's nice (and fun) to have the option.

stanger - Posted - 02/10/2020:  13:07:14


Originally posted by Jimmy Sutton

In England one of our if not THE most accomplished pickers Pete Stanley who sadly passed away a few weeks back never used finger picks, just his natural nails. But I don't know how he managed it without busting them.

Here is an example of his playing on you tube:

Many of the old bare-fingered players did bust their fingertips. They called it 'forcing' the banjo, and forcing was the bane of the professionals 100 years ago; those guys all developed very thick calluses on the tips of their right hand fingertips, and the forcing would tear off the callus, taking skin and flesh with it. It crippled quite a few of them because of the scarring and loss of tissue.

But that was back in the day when all banjos were open-backed and there was no amplification. 

These days, it's the speed and clarity the fingerpicks provide more than the tone or volume. The thing is: fingertips are designed for gripping. Fingerpicks are designed for slipping. The grip of the fingertip will always make playing slower  on any fast tune, at any volume level that's very high. But with a little bit of practice, fingerpicks will allow a player to play as softly, slowly, and quietly as bare fingers, but with more dynamics and expression.

If a player wants to use bare fingers only, nylon strings are real good for that. Steel strings just work better with picks for up-picking the banjo. 

There are so many different ones now that finding the right ones for the person just takes some time and experimentation. My own experiments ended long ago when Jim Dunlop began making his finger picks. I found his .20 gauge picks to be perfect for me and never needed very much tweaking to get a perfectly comfortable fit. 

But picks are really personal. Lots of good players still swear by the old Nationals, which I always found to be uncomfortable. The way a player wears the picks varies a lot, too. And there are folks who won't ever use any metal fingerpicks that prefer plastic picks or other resin picks.

 There's at least one set of fingerpicks that will be perfect for someone, though. And if a player wants to play bluegrass or any style like it, you have to use them to play it at it's best. Bare fingers will be a compromise always.



Jimmy Sutton - Posted - 02/11/2020:  03:13:08

The person to whom I referred Pete Stanley DID NOT use his finger tips. He used his nails. I believe that this is clear in one of the videos on You Tube but cannot be certain without looking through them.
I remember him saying that he ate gelatine to strengthen his nails ???

stevedenver - Posted - 02/13/2020:  05:35:17

All of the above.

Picks are the essence.

Especially for bluegrass.

But, there are a lot of other musical genres in which i use banjo.

Imho, its not either/or.


When i play tunes that are softer folkie, old time, even folk rock pop, particularly with 3 softer female voices (acapella) but for my banjo) i remove my picks to get a softer less intrusive sound. Imho, its the easy way to get a bit closer to open back plunk and softer attack without changing instruments.

The banjo can be very nuanced and expressive, including not using picks.

Play with picks. Develop the muscle memory.

Edited by - stevedenver on 02/13/2020 05:37:45

jwoodhull - Posted - 03/02/2020:  12:47:19

I used finger-tone picks for a long time. They give you the sound of picks and still let you feel the strings. Eventually though I found I couldn't get faster and swapped to regular picks.

Hangout Network Help

View All Topics  |  View Categories