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As you are learning to play the banjo, you might wonder if you can play without picks. Many of the greats don’t use them, and you’ve heard that they help you feel more in tune with your instrument. Perhaps, you also enjoy the softer sound and different music techniques that can be produced by playing without picks.
There are many ways a banjo can be played without picks, like Clawhammer, old-time, or even with a bow. However, if you are a beginner, you should master banjo-picking first. Once you progress and become comfortable with that style, you can take on more difficult playing techniques.
One of the most significant differences between using picks or not using picks is the music style. You cannot play “Scruggs Style” or “Bluegrass” very well without them. It is not impossible to play these styles, but it becomes more challenging in regard to volume and speed. Without picks, though, you can play slower songs that are softer in sound.
It is also a good idea to practice without picks when you don’t want to be disturbing to anyone. Picking a banjo with fingerpicks can be quite loud and other people in your house or even next door may appreciate you using your softer fingertips instead.
The video below shows two of the best discussing their specific banjo style in which Béla Fleck uses fingerpicks and Abigail Washburn does not.
Alternatives to Traditional Picks
You can play the banjo without picks, of course, but what do you use instead? You still have to get good action on the strings for a great sound. So, here are some fun alternatives to banjo picks.
Perhaps the best way to play the banjo if you choose not to use picks is to use your fingertips only. I often play this way because it is much quieter and doesn’t disturb everyone in my house as much. You can play using the same three-finger picking style but you want to be able to achieve the same amount of accuracy or projection.
If you do play using only your fingertips, you will also want to spend some time practicing with fingerpicks as well. If you don’t, you will get used to using your fingertips and the picks may be distracting once you try to play with them.
If you are familiar with playing guitar, this technique may be easy for you. If you have a six-string banjo, also known as a banjo guitar, you’ll be right at home using a guitar pick. It can be played just like a guitar and like a banjo all in one.
You can strum all of the stings at one time or pluck one string at a time. You can play upwards and downwards. The sound is beautiful and sounds like old folk music you would want to dance to.
You can also use a guitar pick on a regular 5-string or 4-string banjo.
As for a four-string banjo, it is actually common to use guitar picks or flat shaped picks to play them. Without the extra couple of strings, this particular instrument is easier played by strumming all strings and plucking individual ones in a fast motion.
Some people will have their nails done with acrylic to play the banjo instead of using traditional picks. You can use your natural fingernails too, but your nails will eventually break, leaving you to play with just your fingertips or picks.
Playing with a Bow
This technique might not be as common but it does have a very unique sound. It is very high pitched and squeaky, almost like a violin, but with the usual banjo sound mixed in. You can use a bow that is typically used for a fiddle, violin, or cello.
There is an insert you can purchase, which you place in the lower section of the bow between the stick and string of the bow. You should place the insert in the lower part of the bow, leaving enough room for the strings of the banjo to be strummed. The insert has three notches which could come in handy to use if you would like to play one string at a time.
You can also play without the insert by strumming the strings with the bow and playing notes, but it does make it a little difficult to reach all of the banjo’s strings. This way of playing is unique and a fun type of experiment.
Playing banjo without a pick doesn’t always fall into a specific music category, but there are two particular styles where non-pick banjo playing comes in to play.
This style sometimes is referred to as “Frailing.” It is almost always exclusively played without the use of picks. It is different than traditional picking of the banjo. Instead of picking upwards, in Clawhammer Style, you pick downwards.
The hand is placed in a claw-like position using the wrist movement instead of finger movement, like strumming a guitar. The middle finger or index finger and your thumb are extended, and they pick the strings with fingertips or fingernails. Clawhammer refers to the shape the hand will be in when playing, and the way you strike the strings like a hammer.
Old Time Style
This style is similar to Clawhammer, except it is a little more traditional in the way the banjo was played a long time ago when the instrument first became popular. All playing techniques are used in this style, such as strumming, fingerpicking, and frailing without picks. You typically use your fingertips and fingernails just like clawhammer style. It uses the same hand position and hand techniques as the Bluegrass style.
Until you’ve built up the skin on your fingers, or if you have trouble building callouses, you’ll want to keep your fingers safe so you can pick on your banjo without, well, a pick. Here are some great options.
You can use these if you find it difficult to play banjo because of pain. When practicing, you may be playing for hours at a time, and that can really wear on your fingertips. Especially if you have difficulty building callouses or you haven’t yet developed any callouses.
These are made with silicone that fit on your fingers and are supposed to be comfortable and won’t make it difficult to feel the strings. They should feel pretty close to natural. They have various sizes, and it is important to get the right size, or else they will feel slippery and uncomfortable while playing.
These gloves are made with nylon and help protect the fingers and help musicians that may have health issues that may impair their ability to play. They even help if your hands become sweaty while playing. Also, they help in cold weather to keep your hands warm. They may even extend the life of your strings if you decide to only play with them. You can get some with silicone at the fingertips so that your strumming will be better than if you just got the regular gloves.
Liquid Callus Formula
This substance can be bought in a small bottle. You apply to your fingertips, and it hardens to protect the skin. It feels almost like a real callus and can help your fingers to build a natural one. It also helps to repair any damage on your fingertips. When you are finished playing, you can wash it off with soap and water, and it is non-toxic. You can also feel the strings correctly, and it will not affect your playing capabilities.
History of Banjo Playing Without Picks
The tradition of playing the banjo goes back hundreds of years, and it has evolved as time has passed.
The banjo originated in Africa and came to the United States and other countries where people were trafficked as slaves. They were drum-like instruments with strings stretched over them. They were played with a bow or simply plucked with fingers.
The banjo has undergone many changes since then, becoming what we see it today.
Back in the 1920s, there were banjo orchestras and banjo groups. In these times, they often did not play with picks, as that technique was not yet widely known. It remained that way until the 1940s.
Famous Banjo Players Who Started Out Without Picks
As music evolved, so has the way that banjoists practice playing. While playing without a pick is as old as the banjo, there are a few notable figures who have stood out from the pack as genuinely great pick-free banjo players.
Earl Scruggs first learned to play banjo when he was a young child. He learned to play without picks.
In his early twenties, Earl Scruggs was in a band called “The Bluegrass Boys.” He invented the use of picks in banjo playing and made three-finger playing popular, which, to this day, is called “Scruggs Style.”
“Scruggs Style” is the most common style played in banjo bluegrass music, also known as a three-finger style. It is played with picks on the thumb, index, and middle finger. It is very fast-paced and fast-moving music, with each pluck and hammer on the strings moving in an upward motion.
One of his most important innovations was the use of picks, as he found that he could play his style of music faster, and the sound was much more defined. Playing with picks was not yet very popular until he introduced his style of music, thus making picks a usual tool in picking and strumming in the bluegrass genre of banjo music.
Ralph Stanley got his first banjo when he was a teenager. His mother bought it for him for $5 from his aunt. She then taught him and his brothers in the style of Clawhammer and old-time banjo music.
The style he created was referred to as “Stanley Style,” which was fast-paced, led by the index finger instead of the thumb, like in Scruggs style. He picked close to the bridge of the banjo for a crisp sound and a snap to the strings as they are struck. His sound is old-time mountain music, very close to the traditional folk playing of the banjo.
He originally wanted to study to become a Veterinarian but instead changed his mind to join his brother as they both started a band called “The Clinch Mountain Boys” in 1964.
Later they formed another band and was signed by Columbia Records and were called, “The Stanley Brothers.”
They played together for many years until his brother passed away in 1966. After that, Ralph decided to go solo after getting encouragement from fans. He continued to play solo until he died in 2016. (Source)
Steve Martin is more known as an actor and comedian. His interest in the banjo began when he was a teenager. He taught himself to play without picks in the style of Clawhammer, practicing for years before getting comfortable with the instrument.
In his comedy career, he played the banjo in some of his stand-ups. He wrote his own music to include parts of his playing in his stand-ups, and it became a staple in his comedy stand-up career.
Steve usually plays both clawhammer and three-finger style. He enjoys both but prefers to write and compose his music using Clawhammer style as you can feel the strings better without the use of a pick. He also prefers the softer sound of clawhammer style and claims that it sounds better when playing the style solo. In fact, he usually plays without picks.
He has written and composed his own banjo music and released many albums, including the album “The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo” in 2009. That album won The Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2010.
He is also so dedicated in his career of playing the banjo that he took on less acting roles to focus on it more.
Ola Belle Reed
Ola Belle Reed is best known for her commonly known song “High on a Mountain,” which she wrote and for which she played banjo.
She was born in 1916 in North Carolina, near the Appalachian Mountains, which she learned to play the traditional songs and folk-music of that region. She learned to play the banjo in the style of “Clawhammer by her uncle. She played without picks throughout her life.
Her family was very musical. Her grandfather played the fiddle, and her father played many instruments, including the banjo. Her mother and grandmother taught her old folk songs to sing.
Ola married country singer Bud Reed, and together they formed the group “The New River Boys” and opened a ranch, which was a country music park. Sadly, it was destroyed in the late 1950s.
She was given the award of the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, for her music.
While she is not a big name, she certainly has a fantastic way and style of playing the banjo without picks. In fact, I highly recommend her music if you are interested in playing the banjo professionally without picks. (Source)
What Kind of Picks Should I Use?
Before you learn to play your banjo without a pick, it is recommended to become comfortable playing your instrument with one first. Traditional banjo pics are usually made of plastic or metal and fit on your thumb and fingers.
The Thumb pick can be metal but is usually better if it is plastic. With a metal pick on the thumb, the 5th string in the banjo would drown out the other strings being played. The set I play with came with a metal thumb pick but I use a plastic one instead. I find that the metal pick is too loud.
So, let’s take a look at the best picks to help you learn to play and get you on your way before you start going pick-free.
Metal makes the banjo sound louder and crisp. A more powerful sound overall. There are different types of metals used, and they impact the way the banjo will sound.
Brass makes a smooth sound. Nickel and stainless steel make the sound loud and clear. Cobalt is more expensive and is less likely to make a squeak when running across strings. Depending on what kind of sound you would like to achieve, it’s your choice of what type of metal picks you would like to use.
I use this set of picks. They are affordable and sound great.
Plastic is quieter than metal and is less durable. Also, they are harder to adjust for size as you may have to boil them to go smaller if needed.
There are different types of brands, sizes, and gauges. You need to make sure that you fit them and that they are comfortable. If you are purchasing in a store, then ask to try some on. Get a feel for them and see if they are comfortable. If you are ordering online, maybe get various types to try. It usually takes a few tries to find the ones that feel most comfortable fitting and comfortable to play with.
If you insist on using the plastic version, this set of picks would work well.
Picks or no picks, there are many different ways and styles to play the banjo. All of them sound beautiful, and you just have to choose an approach and style that works best for you. As long as you enjoy playing, you can experiment with all of these different and alternative ways to play your banjo.
Many great banjo players started out not using picks and eventually worked their way up into learning and playing with them to be faster and play louder, making their music more fluid and defined. Choose a style that you like and then go all-in on it so that you can master it.