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Whether you’re already a guitar player who picked up a ukulele as a second instrument or someone who wants to learn the uke first, you’ve probably wondered how the instrument is played and if it’s the same as a guitar.
Are guitar picks and ukulele picks the same?
Traditionally, the ukulele is played with the fingers, and a thumb is used to strum it, but picks have been used for nearly a century. You can use a standard guitar pick, but rather than shell or plastic, ukulele picks are normally made from felt, leather, or rubber.
Let’s look at why you might want to use a pick on a ukulele, why you might not want to, and whether you can interchange guitar and ukulele picks.
Do You Use A Pick On A Ukulele?
If you’re new to the ukulele, you might look at it, see its similarity to a guitar and grab a pick from your case (or all the other places that picks turn up). That would be fine, but you’d quickly see — or, rather, hear, a difference between your ukulele sound and the traditional one.
That’s because while the ukulele is, indeed, related to the guitar, it evolved separately and wasn’t played with a pick or plectrum at all at first. The ukulele is a descendant of several Portuguese instruments that were first brought to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1870s by residents of the island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean.
Referred to in early newspaper accounts as a cross between a banjo and a guitar, the machête (pronounced mah-CHET) is a small four-string Portuguese instrument. It was brought by several residents of Madeira when they came to Hawaii in 1879, and they were soon offering a variant of the machête for sale that was called the ukulele.
When it was first introduced, a pick wasn’t used. Instead, players would use the nail of first finger to strum across the strings, while individual fingers were used to pluck single note melody lines.
Other players would use their thumbnail, while others might used the flesh of their index finger or thumb, depending on preference, and still others use a combination approach, holding their hand almost as if they were holding a pick and using the flesh of the hand to strum.
In time, players developed several kinds of basic strum patterns that are still associated with traditional Hawaiian music. If you’re interested in playing traditional ukulele songs, then you should check out this video, which runs through the strum patterns you need to know.
When the ukulele started to spread around the world, things began to change. To help keep the ukulele’s signature soft tone, picks made from softer materials became common. Leather and felt were the most common.
Today, ukulele picks are often made from leather, felt, or softer types of rubber, with each offering a distinct sound with its own pros and cons.
Can You Use A Guitar Pick On A Ukulele?
Using a standard guitar pick on a ukulele is certainly possible, but it isn’t really the best idea for a few reasons. First, using any pick at all will limit your technique when playing the ukulele.
That’s because a pick-and-roll type style where you both strum and pluck is fairly common on modern ukulele compositions. And even when just strumming, the traditional rhythm role of a ukulele comes in part from the muted sound that comes from skin hitting the strings as opposed to the sharper tone produced by a celluloid guitar pick.
The use of gut and nylon strings, as on older guitars and classical guitars, also gives ukuleles a much softer, rounder tone, compared to a steel string guitar. The use of a standard plastic guitar pick has the potential to make it sound like you’re playing a small, cheap guitar, even if you’re using a very nice ukulele.
Because ukuleles have such small bodies, use nylon strings and don’t have truss rods, they are often much more delicate than guitars. Their tops, for example, aren’t as thick as a guitar’s top, because the smaller size wouldn’t vibrate enough if it were too thick.
The difference in thickness can be quite small in absolute terms, but that still makes it more vulnerable to serious wear if played with a pick that is too stiff. To see what I mean, you just need to look at any old guitar with a lot of play wear — Willie Nelson’s Trigger, with a hole worn in its top, comes to mind — to realize that you can do real damage with a guitar pick.
All of those are reasons that much softer materials became common for ukulele picks. Using a leather, felt, or rubber pick has a tone that is much softer and rounder than a plastic pick, so it fits the overall sound of a ukulele better, and more closely resembles the sound of human skin.
This video gives examples of multiple different kinds of picks used on a ukulele and what kind of sound that creates.
There are times when a part might just sound better when a ukulele is played with a guitar pick, though, even if it isn’t what’s traditionally done. If you’re an accomplished flatpicker, for example, it might give you the ability to get a unique sound out of a ukulele.
Can You Use A Ukulele Pick On A Guitar?
When you reach for a guitar pick, you probably don’t think about trying to make your rhythm parts a bit softer. But until pretty recently, every guitarist in the world would have told you putting a rubber bridge on a guitar would make it sound awful.
As this video shows — and innumerable indie music hits over the last several years have also demonstrated — the sound of a guitar with something acting to mute the strings slightly can have a very haunting effect.
While using a rubber, leather, or felt pick on a guitar wouldn’t have nearly as dramatic an effect on the tone of the instrument as changing a floating wooden or metal bridge out for a rubber one does, it would tend to make the entire effect of strumming less percussive.
Instead of the click of the pick on the strings, you would hear the sound of the felt and rubber as they both made the strings vibrate and slightly muted them. The effect would be even more pronounced if you tried a soft pick to play a lead or melody line.
It might not be a tone that fits with every song, but it does certainly have its place.
There are people out there who would tell you that no one should ever play ukulele with a pick. And it is certainly true that most traditional Hawaiian players use only their fingers to play the instrument, whether strumming or playing melody.
But, as with most things, there aren’t any absolutes. Picks have been used on ukuleles for more than a century now, for a variety of reasons, including making the instrument easier for some people to play.
The use of softer material for ukulele picks makes them sound less percussive and more like the traditional finger strumming sound, but as long as you’re careful about not doing damage, it’s perfectly OK to use a regular guitar pick, as well.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.