About a week ago the unthinkable happened: I broke my banjo nail. As usual, I wasn't even playing when it happened - I just let it get too long and it broke when my hand slipped opening the fridge. Often when this happens, I'll just put the banjo aside for a bit until it grows back - after all, I've got a guitar, mandolin, octave mando, baritone uke, fiddle, etc. kicking around the house...little chance I'll get too bored! However, I've got a gig next weekend and, though my nail seems to be on pace to grow back by then, I thought I'd better have a plan B just in case. It's high time I figured out a decent pick option!
What makes a good banjo nail?
I thought I'd start here because its not a subject I see covered enough. Here's a picture of my nail as it currently exists (after about a week of regrowth):
Figure 1 - A poor quality picture of the current nail on my index finger (taken with my flip phone).
If you squint you can tell that the white part of my nail doesn't actually extend past the end of my finger. This is the biggest problem at the moment - the shape is actually pretty good. I don't know if its because I've coaxed it this way over the years, but my nail kind of naturally grows into the right shape (note - this could be a chicken/egg thing...maybe I think that's the right shape because it grows that way and I'm used to it). However, if my nail doesn't extend past the end of my finger, I really can't get a crisp note. Below is a diagram of what my ideal nail looks like:
Figure 2 - My ideal banjo nail shape. This time a flip-phone picture of a drawing...just didn't feel like dealing with my scanner today. A little blurry but I think it gets the point across.
A little explanation of the above shape. I've marked 2 areas on the nail (10 o'clock and 2 o'clock) that I use when I play. I use the 10 o'clock region to hit the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings. The sharp corner of the 10 o'clock region is especially necessary - after my nail hits a string, it slides off that corner and rings freely. In the past, I've lost that corner to pretty terrible results (that's actually what happened after Clifftop this year). I use the 2 o'clock region for the 1st string mostly because its feels kind of awkward to try to hit it with the 10 o'clock region. The string hits the nail just about where the arrow indicates and slides off the top (12 o'clock position).
Other players have differing opinions on what makes a good nail as well as how to use it. For instance, I know that Adam Hurt uses the 2 o'clock region for every string - his tone is phenomenal, so you'd better believe I've tried this too...however, it feels kind of awkward to me and I really can't play that way without concentrating - if I get into a groove I pretty quickly shift back to my old ways. I know that Walt Koken keeps his nail pretty short (possibly even like my current nail, shown in figure 1). His unique tone is pretty staccato and I'm guessing this is part of the reason. I've read that Mike Iverson uses 2 fingers - his index for strings 3 and 4, and his middle for strings 1 and 2 (no idea what side of his nail he uses in either case) - this would actually be a pretty comfortable arrangement and I'd consider trying it too if it didn't seem like such a pain to grow and maintain a second nail.
Finally - many people play without any nail whatsoever. Watching these folks, I notice that they really put a lot of force into their downstrokes and manage to make a good sound with the fleshy part of the finger. If you can manage that, more power to you but I cant seem to make it work too well! In the end, I just had to make a pick.
Creating a fingerpick to mimic my nail.
So there are a lot of opinions out there on how to make a fingerpick for clawhammer playing. Many people (including Grandpa Jones) flip standard fingerpicks backwards, perhaps cutting them down a bit. John Balch has a creative approach to making picks out of a ping-pong ball. There are a few purpose-made clawhammer picks out there but I've read positive reviews of Fred Kelly fingerpicks (which are actually made for guitar playing) and they're pretty cheap. I bought myself a few of them at Elderly last week - here are some pictures of one on my finger:
Figure 3 - side, top, and bottom views of a Fred Kelly Fingerpick.
Playing with these picks unaltered didn't feel quite right to me - likely because they don't quite match the shape of my "ideal nail" (FIgure 2) though they seem to work well for other players by all accounts. My solution was to cut one down, mostly using fingernail clippers, to match my ideal nail shape. Here's what I settled on:
Figure 4 - side, top, and bottom views of a Fred Kelly Fingerpick that I've cut to match my ideal nail.
The biggest improvement was definitely the "corner" at the 2 o'clock position which works a lot like my normal nail. I spent a couple hours playing on a friend's back porch yesterday with the pick. Honestly, while I still miss my nail, the pick sounded fine and after a while I was even kind of used to it. I found that a light touch gave me pretty good tone and plenty of volume. I did have to take it off for a bit and rub my finger between tunes - its possible that I should go up a size (from M to L) as my finger was getting a bit numb over time, but I erred on the side of tightness in order to avoid it falling off. Certainly tolerable for a couple of hours.
Its a relief to know that I should be all set to play my gig next weekend even if my nail doesn't grow back in time! I'll probably stash a pick in my case from here on out - even when my nail grows back, I may use the pick in big jams, where I tend to chip my nail by subconsciously hitting harder than I should for a bit of extra volume. If you've got opinions on picks, feel free to leave them in the comments - see you next week!