Clawhammer Banjo Picks - Pick vs. Nail

by Lawrence Witt

One of the first things that three-finger style players are told when they start learning banjo is: Always. Wear. Your. Picks. There is a widespread consensus in the three-finger community that fingerpicks are essential to properly develop speed and tonal quality.

Amongst frailers, however, the benefits of using a clawhammer banjo pick are not widely discussed. Traditionalists will claim that they make an unnecessary addition and a good old-fashioned nail should do just fine. That being said, there are a few undeniable advantages which certain players may find worthwhile.

Essentially, it all boils down to versatility, convenience, and tone.

Pick vs. Nail: The Sound Test

A clawhammer banjo pick fits over your striking finger in much the same way as traditional fingerpicks. The key difference is that they sit in the opposite direction, covering your nail as opposed to your fingertips. Wraparound bands mold the pick to your finger to ensure it remains comfortably in place.

Compared to the natural feel of your own nail this may take some getting used to. What you can expect in return is a stronger tone with longer sustain. The rigidity of the pick means it will strike cleanly through your strings without bending under pressure, thereby transferring more of your striking power with each hit.

Different materials of picks will also affect the quality of your tone. A brass pick can add warmth, bringing the sound closer to that of bluegrass style, whereas a plastic pick preserves the original tone of your strings while enhancing volume.

This effect on volume is particularly useful when playing an open-back banjo with other musicians. Lacking a resonator, open-backs are often drowned out by louder guitars and could benefit immensely from a clawhammer banjo pick.

No need to stay on top of nail-care

Keeping your clawhammer nail at just the right length and shape can be a constant battle. While many players have no problem maintaining a finely manicured nail, for others this is neither convenient nor desirable.

If you work in foodservice, healthcare or heavy industries - to name just a few - company policy means the decision may not even be in your hands. You can bet that the hard laborers who first popularized the banjo could not afford to keep their nail long either. There's no need for your playing to suffer as a result, however.

A clawhammer banjo pick allows you to get that solid tone from your instrument while avoiding any potential heath and safety infractions at your place of work.

Additionally, the look just isn't for everyone; sporting one long nail can look a little strange. For those who are concerned about appearances, it might be preferable to opt instead for the detachable option.


Greater versatility with multiple instruments

The frailing technique used in clawhammer banjo is quite unusual when viewed in the context of the wider musical world. While a long nail is beneficial here to achieve that consistent, down-picking motion, it can just as easily get in the way when attempting to play other styles and instruments.

If banjo is the only instrument you play - and all you'll ever want to play - then this isn't much of a concern. But if you've ever considered picking up:

  • Bass guitar
  • Fingerstyle guitar
  • Harp
  • Double-bass
  • Fiddle
  • Any other plucked instrument...

A long nail can introduce unwanted scraping sounds when it catches on the strings. Instruments which use keys such as the piano, saxophone, and accordion are also easier to play with all your nails cut short.

Getting to grips with a clawhammer banjo pick makes you a more versatile musician, able to shorten or lengthen your nail depending on the instrument at hand. Learning to play clawhammer both with and without a pick will also put more sounds at your disposal when creating arrangements.

So, is a pick the right choice for you?

If any of these points resonate with your playing experience then it could be well worth experimenting with some clawhammer banjo picks. Finding the right pick for your needs is often a trail and error process, and unfortunately there is no ‘one pick fits all' solution.

Here's just our two-cents:

Deering stands by the ProPik; a brass clawhammer banjo pick with split wrap design that allows for more accurate positioning than typical, single wrap models. The added warmth and clarity of the ProPik makes it an exceptional choice for those seeking that brighter, countrified sound.


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