A Homemade Fingerpick for Clawhammer Banjo
(Putting the 'Claw' in Clawhammer)

Why??

Many clawhammer banjo players spend an inordinate amount of time trying to preserve that one essential fingernail (usually either middle or first finger) that they need to play in the clawhammer style. Some players, I gather, are lucky enough to have naturally strong nails and this is not a problem. But the rest of us have to come up with some strategy that enables us to continue playing when that nail breaks, splits, or just isn't sturdy enough to make a good sound when it strikes the string.

Without going into all the possible strategies, I'll say that I've watched banjoist Ken Perlman apply scotch tape to his nail before performing. Other people have artificial nails glued on. I spent a number of years bolstering my persistently weak nail by repairing it with superglue (sometimes mixed with baking soda to fill in gaps) when I split out a section. And for a couple years I would periodically make my nail a 'laminate' by supergluing a small piece of paper underneath the nail! This last method actually worked pretty well for avoiding splits, and for making the nail less flexible so it produced a better sound. But it was something of a bother, and I was a little concerned about health effects of putting superglue (cyanoacrylate) under my nail, since some might be absorbed through the skin!

I also occasionally tried using fingerpicks. Clawhammer is all 'downpicking', and so fingerpicks that normally sit on the underside of the finger don't work--you catch the tip of the fingerpick on the string. Some people manage to turn the fingerpick so it is on the nail side of the finger (sometimes with some reshaping of the pick to make it fit). I tried this with various metal and plastic fingerpicks, but never felt comfortable with them. First of all, I found that there was usually some movement between my nail and the pick, making it hard to maintain any kind of precision in hitting a string. Second, I found it hard to keep the pick from moving on my finger. And third, if I bent the pick more tightly around my finger to try to stabilize it, it was soon fairly uncomfortable. (I know many people do seem to be happy with using various commercial fingerpicks for clawhammer, but I didn't find any that worked for me.)

Introducing the 'Cat-Claw' Pick

The following describes a home-made fingerpick that I have been using for the last few years. I think I found some suggestion on the web that I modified to come up with this, and frankly at this point I don't remember which ideas I inherited and which I added. I offer the following description hoping that it might be useful to some players, and realizing that others might add their own improvements.

Here's an example of the fingerpick I've been using. It's cheap and pretty easy to make. I find it very stable--it's as close as I've been able to come to making a fingerpick seem like an extension of the nail. And properly made and adjusted, I find it very comfortable. Regular metal fingerpicks often get to feeling like they are always pinching my fingers. This pick I can leave on and forget it is there.

The 'Cat-Claw' ready for action Cat-claw finger pick for clawhammer, ready for action.

The key to this pick is that it has a little tab that slips underneath the top of your nail. I can understand that some people might be squeamish about the 'things stuck under the nail' idea, but it has never bothered me. The tab on the pick doesn't need to go very far. Between the tab that goes under the nail, and a bit of downward force exerted by the placement of the rubber band that is connected to the pick, it is very stable. It's possible to sometimes knock it out of position, but for the most part the pick becomes an extension of your finger. Here's a side view showing the bent over tip of the pick. Note that you need to leave the angle of the bend open enough so that it slips easily over your nail without sticking.

Cat-claw clawhammer fingerpick seen from side.

To make the pick, you need:

  1. a very small piece of brass or steel sheet metal or shim stock (brass around 1/32", steel could be a little thinner)
  2. one of those wide rubber bands used to bundle broccoli in your grocery store
  3. some superglue (cyanoacrylate)
  4. a tool for cutting the metal stock--tin snips for instance
  5. some pliers for bending the metal easily
  6. a fine file or some abrasive paper or emery board for smoothing the edges of the cut metal

You may want to experiment with various dimensions of picks to see what works for you--what fits your finger, your playing, and what gives the best sound. Here's a sample of some picks I tried:

Some variants of the Cat-claw clawhammer fingerpick.

The wide one was least successful-- it seems to give a less bright sound, and is more apt to cause metallic pick noises. Of the other two, one is steel, the other brass. The steel one is thinner stock than the brass one. Both sound about the same to my ear. (I had thought that brass might give a softer sound.)

The following sample dimensions are from the brass pick, which is the one shown in the first picture above (installed on the clawhammer finger). I started with a piece of brass about 1/32" thick (or maybe a little less), that I cut to about 1" long and 3/16" wide. I bent one end over, about 3/16" from the end. (You may want to make the tab that fits under the nail shorter if it feels uncomfortable. There's really no reason that it needs to extend very far under your nail.) When you bend it, you want to leave a little space for your nail to slip in--that is, don't bend it a full 180 degrees. (Another way to leave an open space for the nail is to find some shim material that is about the thickness of your nail, place it against the pick metal, make your bend around the shim, then remove the shim. This should leave a kind of 'J' shaped hook that will fit over your nail.) You can try fitting it on your nail to see how it works. It shouldn't pinch your nail in such a way that it feels stuck.

Now cut a length of wide rubber band to make a comfortable, but snug ring around your finger, adding an extra 3/16" or so of overlap, so that you can glue it together. You may want to have several rubber bands so that you can experiment to get a proper fit. Once you have the proper length, remember it! You will want to make more of these. Put a little superglue on the overlap part of the rubber band and glue the rubber band into a ring. BE CAREFUL WITH THE SUPERGLUE. It will stick immediately to your skin. Most of all, keep your fingers away from your eyes if you get any glue on them!

Now, with a little more superglue, glue the metal part to the INSIDE of the rubber band, at a point on the ring approximately opposite the overlapped joint. In the example here, about 1/4" of the metal part is glued onto the rubber band, but this is not a crucial measurement.

There you have the basic pick. To improve the sound, though, you will want to smooth the sides and end of the metal part (on the corners that may strike the string--that is, away from the nail). This will decrease metallic pick noises substantially. Make the edges a little rounded. If you don't do this, you may be disappointed in the sound.

Try it out. You may want to do some adjusting of the position of the rubber band. If you pull the rubber band a little further on to your finger it will add tension against your nail and increase stability, but at some point will be less comfortable. If the rubber ring isn't tight enough, you can easily remove the ring and make a new one.

You can also try making a pick that sticks out a little further from your nail, for those times when you've really broken your nail off badly. Try pinching the corner of the bend in the metal a little further down, so that your nail doesn't slip into the bend quite as far. (This is a good time to use a bit of shim in the part where your nail will be, to keep the nail space open while you are pinching the very end closed.) This will let more of the metal pick stick out beyond your finger and give you a longer effective 'nail' length.

You will find that the rubber band has a limited life. It will get less flexible and start cracking over time. However, it only takes a few minutes to peel the old rubber off of the metal, make a new rubber ring, and glue the metal part onto the new rubber band to refurbish the pick.

I'm sure these picks won't work for everyone, but for me they are the best I've found so far. I've stopped worrying about splitting the clawhammer nail. If I happen to have a reasonable nail, I can play with that. If not, I slip on the pick and things don't feel that much different, but they sound much better!

Happy picking!

Joel

 

On a slightly related topic, here's a page I just added on building a custom-design long-neck dulcimer (sometimes called a dulcitar).