As a non-bassist, you might be wondering if bassists use picks. Similarly, you might’ve heard rumors that playing with a pick is somehow inferior to fingerstyle playing.
So, do bassists use picks? Bassists who perform fast-paced, aggressive-sounding music are more-likely to use picks. This is because picks produce a more treble-heavy and ‘snappy’ sound than fingerstyle playing does. Similarly, many bassists find fast passages much easier to play with a pick rather than with their fingers.
Keep reading for a full FAQ on bassists using picks:
Why Do Some Bassists Use Picks?
There are four primary reasons why a bassist would choose to play with a pick over their fingers:
- It allows for palm muting: This is one of the biggest advantages of playing with a pick. Palm muting is a technique that involves placing the side of the picking hand against the strings in order to create a ‘muted’ effect. Whilst commonly used by guitarists, it’s also used by bassists to accent certain notes.
- It’s easier to play fast passages: It’s much easier to play fast passages of music with a pick due to a technique called alternate picking (using an alternating combination of upstrokes and downstrokes). The alternate picking technique also allows bassists to execute the tremolo effect (rapid repetitions of the same note) with ease.
- It produces a more defined sound: Whilst fingerstyle playing produces a warm, rounded sound, playing with a pick produces a more defined, treble-heavy sound. Therefore, bassists in the rock, punk and metal genres tend to play with a pick in order to cut through the mix and add a sense of aggression to their sound.
- It’s easier to play chords: In certain styles of music (particularly hard rock and metal), chords are played on the bass guitar. Using a pick allows the player to strum the chords, like they would on a guitar.
- It’s less painful: Beginner bassists often find fingerstyle playing painful due to the fact that their fingers haven’t yet develop calluses. Therefore, they may prefer to play with a pick.
Why Do Some Bassists Play With Their Fingers?
There are three primary reasons why a bassist would choose to play with their fingers over a pick:
- They believe playing with a pick is ‘bad’: Certain bass players feel prejudice towards those who play bass with a pick, which we’ll touch on a little later in this article.
- Greater dynamic variety: Playing with the fingers offers greater control over the dynamics, meaning quiet notes will sound truly quiet and loud notes will sound truly loud.
- Easier to incorporate technique variety: When playing with the fingers, it’s much easier to switch between plucking and slapping (striking the strings with the thumb in order to produce a percussive effect).
Is Playing Bass With A Pick Bad?
Whilst certain musicians look down their nose at those who play bass with a pick, playing with a pick is not bad. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to play the bass guitar, there are simply a number of different approaches.
Here are 2 common reasons why certain musicians believe playing with a pick is ‘bad’:
- They see it as a shortcut: There’s no doubt that playing with a pick is easier than fingerstyle playing. For this reason, certain musicians criticize pick use for being a shortcut, believing it displays a lack of dedication to the instrument.
- They don’t like the sound: As mentioned in the previous section, a pick produces a more defined, treble-heavy sound. Whilst this works fantastically-well in certain genres, certain musicians believe it draws away from the ‘traditional’ sound of the bass guitar. Similarly, they may not like the genres of music that commonly see bassists playing with a pick (rock, metal, punk etc.)
I want to re-enforce that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to play the bass guitar. If you feel that playing with a pick is more comfortable and produces a more appropriate sound, don’t ever let yourself feel judged.
Are Bass Picks And Guitar Picks The Same?
Whilst regular guitar picks can be used to play the bass guitar, bass picks and guitar picks have three noticeable differences:
- Thickness: Bass picks are usually slightly thicker than guitar picks (most bass picks have a thickness of 1.0mm-3.0mm, whilst most guitar picks have a thickness of 0.40mm-1.0mm). Thicker picks provide slightly more attack and prevent the thickness of the strings from knocking the pick out of the player’s hand.
- Width: Certain bass picks are slightly wider and more triangular shaped than the average guitar pick. This is to improve accuracy and prevent the pick from snapping.
- Material: Many bass picks are made out of lexan, a highly-durable form of plastic. Conversely, most guitar picks are made out of either celluloid or delrin, which are both slightly less-durable forms of plastic.
Here’s a couple of popular bass pick examples:
Dunlop Big Stubby
These are lexan picks with a thickness of 3.0mm. They also feature a built-in gripping surface, making them less-likely to be knocked out of the player’s hand due to the thickness of the strings.
Click here for more information from Amazon.
These picks are slightly wider and more triangular shaped than the average guitar pick, improving both accuracy and grip. They have a thickness of 1.14mm.
Click here for more information from Amazon.
Famous Bass Players Who Use A Pick
- Paul McCartney (The Beatles): During the Beatles’ career, McCartney used a combination of fingerstyle playing and pick use. He’d use a pick on songs that were faster and/or more intricate. This should dispel any concerns about picks being ‘bad’ for bass players to use.
- Lemmy Kilmister (Motörhead): Kilmister was renowned for his unique approach to bass playing, opting for a distorted, treble-heavy and aggressive-sounding tone. To produce his signature sound, he used a combination of alternate picking, chords and drones. His pick use served as a significant influence on both the post-punk and heavy metal genres.
- Dee Dee Ramone (Ramones): Being one of the most influential punk bands of all time, the Ramones were known for their bright, aggressive, unison sound. Dee Dee contributed to this by using a pick and only playing downstrokes. This essentially matched the playing of guitarist Johnny Ramone, creating a tight, aggressive and treble-heavy sound.
- Mike Dirnt (Green Day): Dirnt is well-known for his melodic, fast-paced and treble-heavy approach to bass playing. He largely achieves this through a combination of alternate picking and downstrokes, making picking technique a central aspect of his playing. Furthermore, the use of a pick enables his basslines to cut through the incredibly distorted guitar tones Green Day is known for.
- Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses): Having played in a series of punk rock bands before Guns N’ Roses, McKagan had always played with a pick. He’s well-known for his rumbling, treble-heavy bass breakdowns on tracks such as ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, which largely rely on the use of a pick.