Can You Use A Pick On A Bass Guitar?


When you watch a band perform, the guitarists almost always use picks, but the bass guitarist might be using a finger plucking technique. This can leave beginners with questions! Can you use a pick on a bass guitar? Is it better to use a pick or is this not the “proper” way to play?

You can use a pick on your bass guitar if you want to. Both finger plucking and using picks are perfectly normal ways to play the bass guitar. You can find plenty of examples of famous bassists who use either technique, and there is no harm to using a pick. It won’t damage your strings or create an inferior sound.

Even though both are legitimate techniques, it is important to know that there is a difference between the sound of a guitar being picked with a plastic plectrum and being plucked with a finger. One of the techniques may suit your playing style, or the genre of music you are playing, a lot better than the other.

The rules are, there are no rules.

This is bending the truth a little, but the point is that any method you can use to create the tone you want (and that sounds good) should be celebrated. If you want to use a pick, you can, if you want to use your fingers, you can. Instead of seeing one as right and one as wrong, try and see them both as tools.

Plucking and picking look very different. If you are going to learn how to pluck the bass then you will have the thumb rested above the strings, and use your index, middle and sometimes other fingers to pluck the strings to play the notes. It’s hard to describe without visual and audio cues. The picture below shows a bassist in a finger plucking position.

Picking is done in the same way as you would use your pick on a guitar. The plectrum is held between your index finger and your thumb, and you can move around the strings freely.

Joep Vullings CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

There is no denying that some people find using a pick easier, especially to start or if they have played guitar before. There is less in the way of coordination required and it is sometimes faster to learn. Don’t just choose based on what you think will be easiest. Instead, think about what is going to sound best. You might have to do some extra work to get a great sound, but it might be worth it.

There are some differences in the way the two sound and feel. These are important to understand.

Pick

  • The sound will have a harsher attack, a more defined “start” to the note playing.
  • The volume may be more consistent, certainly for new players.
  • You are not going to get blisters playing this way.

Fingers

  • The sound will naturally be softer, and you may have to practice getting the attack you want.
  • You may have more options for muting and nuanced play with more dynamics. Some bassists want this, some don’t.
  • You may eventually get blisters playing this way.

While there are no set rules, if you want a big driving bass riff then you might find that a pick can give you the attack you want. The hardness of the sound may be good for rock, metal and some harder genres, but it wouldn’t work as well for soft jazz.

Conversely, playing a lot of funk, jazz, classical, and genres where the control over dynamics is more important for bassists, using your fingers might be better. Getting those blisters might just be the price you have to pay!

Of course, when it comes to the tone you will get, we are generalizing. No two players are identical, and lots of factors need to be considered, even the thickness of the bass pick you are using can make a huge impact on the sound.

The best advice is to experiment to get the tone you want. You absolutely can use a pick on a bass guitar, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best method for you. If you have a clear idea of what sort of bass tones you are looking for, work out what different picks and playing in different places can do for your sound.

Why Are Some People Weird About it? “Real Bass Players Don’t Use Picks”

There is arguably more “musical technique” involved in using fingers to pluck rather than using picks. This means that some people get very snobby about the techniques.

In music, there is often a bit of this one upmanship, and it might well be light hearted. Don’t worry too much about the stereotypes. There’s a stereotype that drummers aren’t proper musicians, but if you’ve ever tried to play a complex polyrhythmic song on the drums, you’ll know this not to be true.

The same sort of competitiveness exists when talking about brands of guitar, effects pedals and all sorts of other aspects of music setups. You’re better off just focusing on your own tone.

Anyone familiar with this blog knows I hate equipment snobbery and just want everyone to make music doing what sounds best to them!

Bass Players Who Use a Pick

There are bass players who use both a pick and the finger technique. There are also bassists who use exclusively one or the other.

It is very interesting to check out this list of bass guitarists who just use a pick. They all seem to have some commonalities. Most of the bands that they play in are very heavy and the bassists want a big, driving sound. A pick seems to be the way they create this heavy attack.

Jason Newsted from Metallica pretty much always uses a plectrum to play bass. (Image: Achim Raschka / CC BY-SA)

Many bassists use both methods, and can switch between them depending on the song or the style they are going for. According to Fender.com “John Entwistle, John Paul Jones, Sting, Roger Waters and Adam Clayton” are all bassists who switch between both the finger plucking and picking technique.

A lot of guitarists who convert to playing the bass guitar are used to playing with a pick, so stick with a pick.

Should I Learn Both Methods?

Though you don’t have to be a master of both of the methods in order to get to a high level of bass ability, it’s very important that you at least experiment a little with playing with a pick and with your fingers.

Being able to use both methods is ideal if you want to add options to your playing, but not essential, plus, as you get better at one of the techniques you will be able to execute more control over the dynamics and the sound that is being created anyway.

A lot of bassists can do it both ways, but don’t worry too much if you’ve made your decision and you plan to stick with one method. The important thing is to get better at the technique you have decided upon.

Type of Pick to Use

Thicker picks are recommended. They will give a bigger attack and heavy tones from your guitar or bass, giving more control over the dynamics. Thin picks also really struggle to get the traction or properly disturb the thick strings of a bass guitar, and the sound can end up feeble (not to mention difficult to achieve).

Once again, there is an element of personal preference when it comes to materials. Many people opt for thick, celluloid picks for bass.

I personally like the Jim Dunlop jumpo grip picks as shown below:

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous rock star....but that hasn't stopped him from writing and recording music in his home studio. Rob has over 15 years experience of recording music at home.

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