It can be argued that the banjo is one of the funnest and easiest stringed instruments to play. Frequently associated with bluegrass, country, or folk music, the banjo has resurfaced in popularity with its use in modern rock and pop tracks. With the banjo’s resurgence of popularity, more and more artists are discovering fascinating ways to advance their arrangements using this old-timey instrument with a guitar pick.
Can you use a guitar pick on a banjo? A guitar pick is a suitable tool for banjo picking if that’s your preferred technique. While fingerpicking or clawhammer picking is the preferred style of playing classical banjo, a banjoist can easily switch between the two picking styles without much thought. It’s all a matter of preference.
Modern banjos are designed with a 5-string set-up, making it somewhat easier than its 6-string siblings like the guitar. The simplicity allows both new and older players to easily strum difficult chords that would typically require a bit more effort, while effortlessly teaching themselves to transition between either picking style. With these factors in mind, let’s explore the pro and cons of both picking styles.
Which Picking Style is Right for You?
As mentioned previously, the 5-string set-up of the banjo establishes it as one of the easiest stringed instruments to learn for beginners. Take, for example, playing the G chord.
This chord is one of the first that many guitarists will learn to play. It requires three fingers stretched over two different frets. While not a difficult chord to play, many beginners may struggle with stretching their fingers into the positions required.
On a banjo, that discomfort is not required at all if you have your banjo in standard G tuning. Just strum all the open strings and you’ll have a perfectly sounding G chord, no finger pain necessary.
Of course, this is only one chord and there are more difficult banjo chords to master but overall, the 6-string guitar will be a little more difficult to master.
This easier barrier for entry can also apply to the picking style required to play. We should emphasize this by saying that one style is not easier or harder than the other; they’re just different styles of playing a stringed instrument. Ultimately, it comes down to your preferred method.
Let’s look further into two techniques below and you can decide which is the best method for you to use.
- Flatpicking (Using a Guitar Pick)
Either technique will allow you to play the same tunes. The only discrepancies you may experience is the speed in which you play certain riffs or the overall tone of the sound. As there is no right or wrong picking technique, your preference will be influenced by whichever you find easier. Either is pretty versatile to pick-up and master with enough practice.
To play devil’s advocate though, we’ll break down each technique: showcasing the advantages and disadvantages. By the end of this article, you can decide on which technique to learn first or if you want to branch off to learn a different picking technique.
While casually referred to as a guitar pick, the formal name for this tool is a plectrum, with the technique itself known as Flatpicking. Guitar picks are versatile with the material, size, and shape of their design. The way to hold a pick is to pinch it between the index finger and thumb, striking the strings as your strum.
When playing with a guitar pick, you’re able to achieve a consistent tone as you play. Regardless of how you pluck the string, the material of the pick will ensure that the tone is uniformed throughout. Strumming with a guitar pick also leads to the tone being considered “bright” or “sharper”, where the tone emphasizes an abundance of treble.
Flatpicking has the extra benefit of allowing you to play faster with a pick than simply using your fingers. Many songs consisting of fast riffs and solos are generally played using a pick. Not only beneficial for speed, but Flatpicking is also more suitable for techniques such as;
- Alternate Strumming: Strumming one or more strings, alternating between upward and downward motion
- Downward Strumming: Strumming one or more strings in a downward motion
- Sweep Picking: Originated for playing arpeggios, the strumming pattern involved picking in the direction your hand is moving. Moving up the string leads with an upward strum and vice versa.
While a guitar pick makes learning these techniques easier, there are some challenges introduced when Flatpicking.
For starters, you lose the dynamic expression associated with fingerpicking. Guitar picks are naturally harder to control; thus, making it difficult for the user to create different colors or moods in their arrangements. A guitar pick also makes it difficult to perform string skipping where you skip a string or more during a riff or a solo, achieving what we refer to as an intervallic jump.
This is a small nitpick than a major disadvantage but guitar picks are absurdly easy to lose and restricts you from playing a nylon-string instrument. Many who play stringed instruments typically keep their picks wedged between the strings. As most refuse to bother with a case, one accidental bump to the guitar will send your pick into hiding.
Any acoustic guitar player knows the pain of dropping a pick into the soundhole. Once this happens, you have to turn your guitar upside down and shake the pick loose and try to retrieve it. This can be an annoyance and sometimes difficult to get back out as the pick gets hung up in the guitar bracing inside the body.
Of course, you won’t have this issue with a banjo since there is no soundhole for the pick to fall into. You’ll likely discover other ways to drop or misplace your pick though. It’s shocking to see how many picks you’ll lose and rediscover at your home.
For the issue of nylon-stringed instruments, they’re typically manufactured without a pickguard. Without it, it’s easy to damage the body of your instrument while playing with a pick.
Pretty self-explanatory, fingerpicking involves using your fingers to pluck the strings of your instrument. You would either use your fingertips or fingernails as the point of contact for the strings. To explain it differently, each finger acts as an individual guitar pick, increasing the complexity of sounds you can produce.
In the case of a banjo, this type of picking usually involves using banjo picks. These will fit over the ends of your thumb and other fingers. They become an extension of your finger and allow you to fingerpick while increasing the brightness and volume of the sound being produced.
As we just mentioned, Fingerpicking enables the player to add complexity to their pieces by utilizing all their fingers. Playing two, non-adjacent notes becomes significantly easier when plucking with your fingers. An example of this is as your fingers pluck out the higher strings, the thumb can layer on bass patterns on the lower strings.
Variety can also be added by which part of your finger plucks the strings. A down strum will sound different if you strike with either your fingernails or the flesh of your fingertip. Any arrangement played via fingerpicking brings a wide range of dynamic expression that wouldn’t be seen when using a guitar pick. You will love the sound diversity created through this process.
Most players who use fingerpicking without the use of banjo picks mention that their one biggest gripe with the technique is that the sound comes out a lot softer and “warmer” than Flatpicking. When describing the tone as “warm”, we refer to the tone emphasizing bass over anything else. Fingerpicking just doesn’t give you the same speed or aggression as a guitar pick.
You can solve this problem by using a good set of banjo finger picks.
It’s also possible to compensate by pulling the string far back, allowing it to snap back, thus creating a more aggressive tone. But as stated previously, producing an aggressive tone will only continue to sacrifice speed for the performer.
The beauty of an instrument is that there are no established “rules” for playing. Every player is able to express their quirks through their unique playing style: one of these involving your choice of picking technique.
With the added versatility of using a guitar pick on a banjo, a banjoist is not short of options and tools needed to tailor the instrument to their liking. In the debate of pick vs. finger strumming, use whatever makes you comfortable.
As long as you can bring joy to yourself and others through your craft, no one will nitpick your playing style. The banjo is a humble instrument that will surely be a hit at your next social gathering. If your goal is simply that of a hobbyist or to start your own band, the niche appeal of a banjo will always be praised.
If you are a pick strummer though, just be sure to carry extra picks. We would hate to see you stumble through your next performance.