Saturday, March 7, 2009

Take your pick

Picks are a funny thing. One day you find what you think is the perfect pick, and then a few months later it just doesn't seem to be so great after all, and you suddenly find a different perfect pick. This simply means that the way we play is changing and evolving over time. This is a good thing, even though it means we may have to repeat our hunt for the right pick over and over. Funny how we seem to grow out of this ongoing search for perfection when it comes to searching for a mate...but not for a pick...

As I mentioned previously, when I started out playing the mountain dulcimer years ago I didn't really have any teachers and I wound up getting instruction books that taught flat-picking chord style playing, mostly in DAD mixolydian tuning. I first bought large thin flexible triangular picks made by Fender and Jean Schilling. I was strumming across all my strings and picking out melodies on the various strings as well. I kept breaking corners off these picks in my strumming enthusiasm, so I ordered a whole slew of them! Then I joined a dulcimer club where most of the tunes were played in that style as well. I quickly picked up on the fact that a lot of these people preferred much harder and smaller triangular Herdim picks with pointy corners. This seemed to be the way to go, and they were unbreakable, so I began to use them instead of my large thin triangles.
I found the small hard guitar-like Herdim pick to be practical for what we were doing- flatpicking melodies and chords on the various strings, often picking one string at a time and alternating quickly between strings. I remember it occurred to me at the time that we were all using flat picking patterns much like folk guitar players do, and indeed we were using similar picks as well. Bluegrass mandolin players also use such picks for picking out melodies over the various alternating strings. It just works well for this kind of playing. I played for about two years this way, and I became pretty good if I do say so myself.

That's when I discovered the banjo and my life changed.

My dulcimer hung on the wall unloved while I fell under the spell of the banjo's ancient untamed drones. I was tired of all the elaborate picking and chording I had been doing on the dulcimer. It had become ever more difficult to play without reading a complex tab 'code map' on a stand in front of me. It all suddenly seemed to me to be a fruitless march towards ever more tediously elaborate ornamentation. I wanted out.

I wanted to sweep the table clean of all the prettiness and instead connect with some mysterious raw inner resonance inside me. I imagined what it would be like to retreat to some mountaintop and blow on a grass reed, contemplating its single pure note for a few months. I abandoned my beautiful maple dulcimer and happily immersed myself in drones on my banjo for about seven years. I learned to play banjo with fiddlers who cross-tuned and played the drones I craved, I learned to sing old unaccompanied ballads and it was all wonderful and intoxicating. I became drunk on drones and archaic intervals.

As you may already know, eventually it occurred to me (duh) that I could play the dulcimer in a different way than I used an older drone-based way that did not require flat picking melodies and fingering full chord changes across all the strings.
It was very hard for me to make this switch, but I was determined. I felt like a baby just learning to walk. I couldn't get the strumming rhythm right. I couldn't get the noter to work right or sound right. I was awful, and my misery lasted through weeks of trying. I truly hated sounding so awful and clumsy, but I kept at it. The key to my success was that I kept it simple. I played baby tunes like Go Tell Aunt Rhody and Hot Cross Buns. I didn't try to rush ahead of myself.
There came a day when I realized I was starting to enjoy sliding the noter up and down, my notes were beginning to ring clearer, and my rhythm had begun to improve. I asked my fiddler husband to play a simple fiddle tune (one that I could play well on banjo) and to play it v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y so I could try to play along with him. It was really hard for him to play THAT slowly, but he did and was extremely patient with my musical fumblings. We played more, and I got better little by little. As the weeks went by, I became faster. Still not able to keep up with most old-time sessions, mind you, but faster than I was before. I discovered recordings of Galax style dulcimer playing, and this inspired me greatly! I too wanted to sound like 'a swarm of bees' incredibly exciting! They played so fast that their drones never stopped ringing! I too could fill the universe with my eternal/infernal drones!

The funny thing was that as I became faster, I found that my familiar little hard triangle guitar-ish pick was proving to be problematic for fast noter/drone strumming. It created a lot of resistance and held my speed back. Whenever it hit the strings it wanted to go flying across the room and resulted in my having to keep a tight grip on it. This would obviously cause hand cramping problems. But the problem with the hard little pick is that I didn't like the sound it was producing. It sounded too harsh, too loud, and too guitar-like... not delicately graceful like Jean Ritchie and her goose feather quill, and not bee-ish like the Galax players with their long flexible quill 'dominatrix eggwhippers'. Clearly I had to ditch the little guitar pick and go longer and more flexible.

Being a fan of things old-fashioned and traditional, I attempted to use a turkey feather. I had a bunch of them to experiment on. I tried preparing them in various ways I had read about, and I tried using each end in the prescribed way. What I found was that for me, they were not up to any sustained usage, and they tended to shred rapidly. This was frustrating. I had read about the resourcefulness of early dulcimer players, and about how they often experimented with various "plectrum" (pick) materials...bundled electrical wires, collar stays, leather, felt, wood, bone...they tried whatever they found at hand around them. I tried some of these materials as well (hmmm...not easy to find collar stays these days) and I came to the conclusion that maybe plastic would be most like feather quill material, yet perhaps more flexible and more durable than quills. I had read where others had used cut up credit cards as picks, for example. Not a very picturesque solution, but certainly practical! And thrifty, in more ways than one.

I began to experiment with cutting my own picks from plastic items. Credit cards were first. I found them way too hard. My old stash of thin flexible triangle picks was dug up and tried, but again they kept breaking. I tried heavy felt and leather, but the sound was too muffled for my liking. I tried bundling various wires together, but it sounded to fuzzy. I finally got hold of a collar stay, but it was too flexible and limp, as were some plastic tops from supermarket deli containers.

I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks.
I tried cutting up plastic milk jugs, that was getting closer, as were yogurt containers.
In the end, I found that using a small range of different plastic materials was just fine. I could use a slightly heavier one in a big jam situation and be heard a bit better, and I could use a thinner one when in a singing jam so that my strumming wouldn't drown out anyone's voice (including my own). Effects could also be varied according to how long/narrow/wide/pointy/rounded I cut them. Hey, this was fun!
Again I had to try to fight my tendency to become too fixated on the idea of finding the elusive Holy Grail perfect pick. The important thing for me was that I realized that longer more flexible picks were what I needed to get the sound I wanted for myself. You will seek the sound that pleases you.
Don't be afraid to have fun and experiment with making your own picks from interesting materials. You just might like the resulting sound better than the sound you have been getting from the pick you've been used to for a long time. Or not. But it's fun to cut up credit cards anyway.


  1. Thanks for this! I am very good at the behavior you describe. I like to have that "perfect" whatever. I have been planning on the quest for the right feather, the right guitar pick.

    You know how it goes. Many times I can only see clearly when I see myself reflected in someone else. I suppose I really can just cut up a margarine lid, or old empty gift card and try them out. It may be what I'm looking for, even though my dreamy brain thinks I HAVE to have that special feather!

    I see I'm going to have to relax... a LOT! But it'll be better in the long run to avoid obsessive behavior that won't be improving my playing one whit.

    John T.

  2. Kenneth Eagle SpiritNovember 25, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    Funny, I find this post at the time I'm going through various materials trying to find a perfect pick. I guess we all go through the same basic "movements" in our learning process. I'm about to try a different type of quill. Not bird, porcupine. You never know until you try. ;-)

  3. I think this is what I love so much about the dulcimer. It's such an unpretentious instrument. I just bought one and am not sure about the thin guitar style pick it came with, and was thinking I needed to find out what the "right" kind of pick is to use, because I don't want to mess anything up, and here I find I can just try whatever is around and see what works! Best possible answer!