Bass Guitar Basics - To Pick Or To Pluck

....And Understanding The Difference

By Chris McCarvill

How do you decide which way to learn to play? Simple question, but it can have far reaching effects. I’m sure you’ve seen videos of bass players playing with either a pick or with their fingers (which is called ‘plucking’) and wondered what the heck way you should do it. Well, let’s find out a little more about each technique before making up your mind too much, shall we?

You can pick your friends…
Yes, using a pick tends to make people think you’re playing a regular six-string guitar, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. You’re still a Bass player if you use a pick. Some folks I’ve run into over the years frown on playing bass with a pick, stating it’s “not really playing bass”. Ok, they can have their opinion, but tell that to Chris Squier of Yes, or Duff McKagan of Velvet Revolver. I definitely don’t think of either of those guys as guitar players.

Picks make your sound more edgy. More metallic. Try it. Sandwich a nice heavy pick, (or a quarter if you haven’t got a pick), between your first finger and your thumb and downpick a note on your bass. Don’t worry about technique right now. Just listen. Picks have sharper edges than fingers, so they tend to have a sharper sound.

“Plucking” tends to be more versatile for me, mainly because of the ability to be quieter and louder (dynamic) than with a pick. Some great plucking players to check out are Flea, Jaco Pastorious, Victor Wooten and Jeff Berlin.

Should you make a choice?
No, if you want to progress as a player, there’s a strong argument to understand the sounds and techniques that come from utilizing both a pick or pluck approach. In my own case, I was forced to become proficient with the pick after splitting open one of my fingers while on a tour in South America. I have the pictures, but it’ll make Gene Simmons look like a Disney character. Anyways, I had no choice but to pick up the pick ! This meant a crash course in teaching myself how to use a one and getting familiar with the techniques and different sounds a pick makes.

Here’s 3 basics I learned in about 15 minutes.

    * I found you can pick at an angle to the string, which slightly drags the pick across the string, creating a very edgy sound.

    * Then there’s flatpicking, which is a way of holding the pick so that the flat surface of it rests flat against the string resulting in a more mellow and precise sound.

    * The technique of using a pick makes it very easy to mute across the strings with the side of your picking hand. This sound isn’t easily possible with fingers. You can quickly mute your notes plucking to a similar effect, but the muting string pick sound is pretty cool.

So…what happened back on the tour?
To my surprise, the pick sounded totally great through a large amp in an bigger live stage environment. The sound guy even told me it sounded more defined with a pick than with my fingers. However, it was murder on my right arm and hand because none of the muscles were developed like my finger plucking muscles, and I had to jump in and play with a pick just as hard and for as long as my fingers. Not an easy task. The point here is to be prepared. Practice both techniques. In fact, a great exercise for developing versatility would be to try doing any of the JamPages lessons with both picking and plucking. You’ll be surprised at how different the sounds are as well as the muscles involved. So look forward to a variety of picking and plucking exercises in forthcoming lessons.

I’ve also had several gig situations where I was specifically asked me to use a pick (among some other request…). Generally this is a rock stereotype, that you need to be skinny, use a black Fender bass, must hang the thing as low as you can, sing like a bird and not play above an A on the E string. Of course, you’re expected to use a pick. If you are interested in getting a rock gig at almost any level, adhering to above formula will increase your chances very much. This is not to say that if you don’t do these things you won’t get gigs, only in my experience it sometimes feels like many rock artists expect bass players to follow this formula to the letter. The point? Want a rock gig? My advice, learn to use a pick, even if it’s not what you’re going to use the whole time. Just be able to do it.

As of today, I continue to pluck my garish, green Bass with my fingers, I use a pick when I feel like the song calls for it, while playing all over the neck and wearing it too high for most rock bands. I get rock gigs. You can too. Be yourself. Pick or Pluck? My answer is Yes! 

Give ‘em the finger…
I am primarily a plucker. I know from experience that it’s a little awkward to get comfortable plucking bass strings with your fingertips. Once I got used to it, I realized that there are many techniques involved in using your fingers like: Straight plucking, Slapping, Popping, Muting, and Smashing the strings with your fist (STSWYF), and many more that are not practical while using a pick.


Stormy Maverick said...

Chris is a great bass player and a great instructor on the Rock House series! I've learned a lot from his videos and articles such as this.

Cristine said...

Great post. ill soon write a rock blog. i really love classic rock like led zeppelin. You have very rich posts that really interests to many readers. I really appreciate your work.

I'd like to request you for link back (if possible)

Thanks! rock n' roll! :)

Thomas said...

Good article. I find that the pick leaves less gaps between notes, more a dun dun dun instead of a thwump thwump thwump. And it creates more mids/harmonics that fill the EQ space between bass and guitar in metal songs. Otherwise you get the guitar and this round fat bass, without a seamless low-mid joint between the two. Usually you carve out part of the bass EQ to make room for the kick, and the 'thinner' sound a pick gives you does that already.