Check out our guide to the picks you can use for mandolin playing. Ultimately, of course, the type of pick you use is up to the you, the player. Different materials and thicknesses all contribute to the overall sound your mandolin produces, so you will choose according to the style of music you play. We hope that our guide will at least point you in the right direction.
When it comes to picking, there are all kinds of ways to go about it. How do you choose to hit the strings?
Fingerpicking / Fingerstyle
Some players prefer to fingerpick the strings, whether because they like the sound or they find it difficult to manage a pick (i.e. it slips while playing, etc.). Fingerpicking allows for greatest dexterity and ability to hit multiple strings at once, when they are not situated next to one another. The resulting sound is a bit softer than the sound produced by a pick. Playing with your fingers allows for multiple notes and cross rhythms. It is a gentle way to play the strings when you are learning the chords and notes, so as not to create too much noise. You simply cannot get the same effect with a pick that you do by using your fingers. This music works well for any music with a pleasant, warm and softer tone, like folk music.
Finger picking demands great co-ordination and dexterity and is more a method that you feel out than plan out. We have found it is beneficial to get lost in the music and to not overthink the finger picking while you’re doing it, as this will instantly cause a tangle! Typically, the lower strings are strummed with the thumb and the higher strings are played with the fingers. Here, more skill is required to get speed necessary to play full songs. You can use the edge of your (short) fingernail to get better volume if necessary. Typically your thumb will pluck the G string, while your index plucks the D, middle plucks A and ring plucks E. But you can play around and do what is most comfortable for you.
A pick, or a plectrum, will give a lot of volume, helpful for playing to an audience. This method offers different options for playing, including techniques such as downstroke (continual heavy strumming downward), alternate picking (down-up-down-up for different notes), sweep picking (virtuosic playing in jazz, downstroke for moving down and upstroke for moving up), economy picking (popular for solos: both alternate and sweep picking) and hybrid picking (picking with both fingers and plectrum).
Picks are useful when you want to create louder sound, or play heavier music like rock.
Some mandolin players use antique tortoiseshell picks. It is now illegal to produce products from tortoiseshell, but the antiques are still around for their durability. Picks are now made of plastic and sometimes even made to resemble tortoiseshell. Plastic will provide a stiff plectrum while also giving a bit of flexibility and being comfortable on the fingers.
The thickness of your pick will dictate tone and durability. It is advisable to select a pick with a thickness of 0.75mm or thicker. The thicker the pick, the more choppy and loud the sound. You will notice that acoustic guitar picks are thinner, but mandolin string tension is far higher than guitar string tension. This means the picks should be thicker in order to produce sound. The thicker the pick, the stiffer it will be. This helps with the quick-paced nature of mandolin playing; you don’t want your pick flexing about when you’re trying to play quickly.
You can go into any music shop and ask to sample the different picks they offer. Ultimately you will choose a pick (or finger picking style) according to the sound you want to produce. We also recommend buying a handful of picks at once, because they very easily become misplaced. It is always handy to keep one in your wallet, one in your mandolin case, and several in a jar on a shelf.
To hold a mandolin pick, you should bend all your fingers in toward your palm without touching the palm. Place the pick at the first joint on your index finger, tip pointing straight out. Keep your thumb straight and hold the pick like so. It is helpful to remember to keep your fingers curled inward while playing, rather than holding the pick and splaying your middle, ring and pinky finger outward.
Many players have suffered joint and muscle pains because they do not hold or play the mandolin properly. It is helpful to start off using the right techniques and develop these habits while you are still learning the instrument. This good and proper foundation will enable you to fly free and learn new picking techniques and songs later on without having to worry about changing the way you play.