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Clawhammer Picks and You: A Review

Clawhammer picks are a useful tool for increasing volume or to overcome fingernail challenges, such as broken, too short or weak nails. There are all sorts of commercial and homemade solutions available for banjo players, but it can be difficult to decide which options to choose. Thankfully, I've already done some of the work for you.
Just to be clear, I prefer my natural fingernail for frailing. However, there was a time when I experimented with regularly using a pick, and there are instances now where I find that a pick is necessary. Today, I'll take you through the five options I've tried. These are all available online at prices ranging from about $1 to $13.

Reversed/Reshaped Dunlop Pick ($0.75)
This was the most common suggestion before other companies started addressing the gap in the clawhammer pick market. Take a bluegrass pick, flatten it out and wear it backwards. The problem is that it's hard to get the fit right. While Dunlop picks are cheap and readily available, there are far better options available for today's frailer.

Reversed/Reshaped Ernie Ball Pickey Pickeys ($0.90)
This is another pick that is reshaped and worn backwards. However, with the unique shape of the Ernie Ball Pickey picks, you can actually get a good fit. These were recently suggested by renowned clawhammer player Adam Hurt on the Banjo Hangout. You push the pick back on your finger so just the narrow tip hangs over your fingernail, and you get a nice crisp sound. If you prefer a brighter tone, this is your best choice. You also don't get much metallic scraping as with other options.

Propik Clawhammer Pick ($2.50)
Propik offers a number of interesting designs for finger picks, and their dedicated Clawhammer pick is a simple solution that works well. The split finger wrap allows for the best fit among all of the options here. Narrower than all but the Ernie Ball pick, the Propik blade provides a clean sound and minimal scraping. However, I did find the tip sticks out a bit far, resulting in sometimes catching the strings on the upstroke.

Fred Kelly Freedom Pick ($4.95)
Available in delrin or polycarbonate plastics, the Fred Kelly Freedom Pick comes closest to the sound of natural nail as any of the options I've listed here. However, the stiff plastic material (I got the Delrin model) makes it tough to get the right fit. For me, the pick becomes very uncomfortable after about 30 minutes of playing, as my finger swells and the pick starts to pinch. I've tried prying it apart to get a looser fit, but it always seems to return to its original form.

Joel Hooks Banjo Thimble ($13)
By far the nicest quality clawhammer pick available, the Joel Hooks thimble is sturdy and well-made. It's also now available in both brass and aluminum. I have the brass version. The design is based on Tom Briggs' thimbles from the 1840s made for stroke style playing. The finger wrap is minimal and a bit limiting. I added a bit of fabric tape to get a better fit. The blade is wide and nicely shaped. It creates great volume, but I found it sometimes gets too much metallic scraping, depending on the angle of attack.

Playing with a pick can take some getting used to. My biggest problem with most picks is that scraping sound. I also seem to have a tendency to catch the tip of the pick on the strings as my hand comes back up from the down stroke. These problems are mostly remedied through practice.

While I don't use a pick regularly, I sometimes clip my nail too short and need a little help until they grow back. Whether you're looking for an everyday pick or a solution for various finger nail maladies, I hope you found this post helpful.

Let's continue the discussion in the comments. Do you use a pick? Why do you like or dislike using finger picks? What solutions did I miss?


  1. I just use artificial nails (only the index finger), this is perfect and cheap, lasts about a week and they are inconspicuously if transparent.

    1. For decades I have known classical and flamenco guitarists who get manicures or acrylic nails. I just say whatever he did one impression knowing Mike Seeger for the last 5 or 6 years of his life and seeing him every say six months, I was always impressed with how manicured his nails were and how sharp and precise. It always struck me even if I expected it.

  2. When I retired 8 years ago, I suddenly started playing a lot and also presenting at OTM camps and music festivals about banjo history and ultimately filling in as banjoist with the Ebony Hillbillies when their banjoist could not travel for health, using a big Tubaphone banjo with medium gauge strings and my nails were destroyed. I tried freedom picks, and I tried the Joel Hooks authentic pick. What worked for me was acrylic nails from the nail salon. This was the suggestion of Mark Johnson the Clawgrass guy. Once I admitted I did this I found all sorts of banjo players I know both local folks I had played with for years, and national players do this. I have to go to the nail salon every two weeks. This works for me. This is highly personal depending on how you play, and what else you do in life.

  3. I add 1 tsp of coconut oil to my breakfast smoothie. I've been doing this for three years and haven't had a broken nail.


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