It is often a topic of conversation among newer players of the difficulties in getting used to wearing fingerpicks. For some players, it is nearly impossible to get comfortable with these new appendages. For me, it was a little different.
When I started becoming serious about playing, I was playing a National tricone. It was a matter of necessity for me to use picks, and because I was playing in an acoustic group with the instruments mic’d, I preferred a stiffer pick (.025 mm). When I switched over to playing electric steel, I no longer felt comfortable with that heavy gauge pick, and experimented with the lighter .013, .015 and .018 gauges. The .013 appealed to me, so I shaped the picks to follow the natural shape of my finger tips. This resulted in some very nice tone–very rich. The problem, I discovered much later, was that in order for me to pick the strings, I needed to get my fingers down deeper to the strings. This hindered my ability to play fast, clean lines, and my fingers would mistakenly hit the wrong strings often. I couldn’t live with this, because regardless of how hard I worked at it, I couldn’t overcome the sloppiness.
Recently, in continuing my lifelong quest of improving my picking hand, I have discovered some things that have proven significant towards this end. I have begun using slightly heavier picks (.018) and I have shaped them so that they extend approximately 1/4″ from the tips of my fingers, and this extension is decidedly straighter than the previous “curled with the finger” shape.
What this has allowed me to do is to execute rolls and other intricate picking patterns with greater ease, and to allow me to use a technique of locking my hands in a way that everything above the metacarpal bones is firmly locked in place, allowing greater control of the fingers. This is something that I have experimented with and concluded that it really does work.
There is no one way to wear picks, but it is advisable to always consider where you are in your playing path and how simple changes in things like picks can have a significant impact on your playing and sound. I will admit, I thought my tone suffered a bit when I made the change, but I have learned to compensate by using thicker gauge picks and by picking with a little more velocity.
There are some things about playing steel guitar that, unless you have the privilege of being near seasoned players and getting their insights, you are on your own to discover. For me, it always seemed as if achieving great right hand technique was an uphill battle. The inconsistency is frustrating and, while continual practice will yield positive results, I always seemed to hit a wall. In trying to create longer lines, I realized that I would need to refine my technique and, surprisingly, one of the greatest sources for inspiration appeared in a piano book. I will make no bones about saying that I think of my steel as a “lap piano” at times–this term is attributed to George Van Eps–and I want my passages to have the same clarity, lightness and dexterity as a pianist. George Kochevitsky’s book, The Art of Piano Playing, just really opened my mind to taking control of the situation. As he illustrates, for a century or more after the arrival of the piano forte, players still did not have the technique necessary to get the most from it–they were still relying on the finger technique from the days of harpsichord.
I have to say, I do enjoy playing without picks, but I can’t execute much of what I play without them. I will also add that I have ordered a set of Alaska Piks and I’m looking forward to giving those a try. Will report back on that….