Simon from the U.K. writes:
The contact noises between the metal fingerpicks and strings seemed to stand out in my recording – along with the notes, there’s a pronounced “clickety-clickety-click” going on which doesn’t seem noticeable when I listen to commercial recordings – even when really scrutinizing them with a pair of headphones. Is this because they mix them out in the studio, or should I be actually looking to correct something in my own playing? If this is a normal occurrence and nothing to worry about then I guess it must be a preference thing – what’s your own view?
The sounds you refer to are called, imaginatively enough, “pick noise”, something most people don’t like to hear. In many cases, players are not aware of it while they do it (busy doing the playing, and not listening very carefully), but in recordings it can be quite audible/annoying. As with any sound, a person may or may not like it or even notice it. But it’s generally thought of as a bad thing, and an obstacle to clear and clean playing. The records you’ve listened to probably don’t have much of it, or any, to start with due to good playing technique, but if the raw recordings have it, it can be mostly eliminated with careful equalization in the mixing process.
There are various theories of how to eliminate it in playing. They involve hand position, pick stroke, how the pick is worn, etc.
My own theory is that when the pick moves quickly enough through the string, pick noise tends to go away. I associate this quickness with having the right hand “warmed up”. Slower pick motion perhaps allows the vibrating string essentially to clatter against the pick momentarily just before the string is picked.
In reality, I have advised players that when they notice pick noise, they should focus on it and without any specific change of technique, concentrate on “making it go away”. If you dislike it enough, it will actually tend to go away as you do this. I think in fact the consciousness of it, and disliking of it, prompts the hand to make small changes which at some point result in less pick noise. If a person is focused on not wanting it to occur, those changes tend to become locked in.
I know this sounds pretty inexact and even mystical, but it does work for me. Some years ago, Bela Fleck and I did a workshop together at a festival. Someone asked about how to deal with pick noise. I asked Bela to answer first. He began by saying, “Well, first of all, you have to hate it,” and then in his own way described what I just said above. I felt vindicated in my odd-sounding idea, because Bela is a very diligent student of all things banjo.
I also seem to scrape the head with the thumbpick on occasion, which I assume is something to be avoided.
Yes again, and the cure is similar. Focus on it while playing something pretty easy. Tell yourself it’s a terrible thing to hear that sound — even once. Act as though it’s somehow *very important* to not do it even once. You can train yourself this way to never hit the head, by focusing directly on it. A new habit will form as to how the thumb travels on its way to the string, never touching the head. If you care enough, you will be able to solidify this habit, starting slowly and working up to faster, and with more distractions. The test of success is if when you are playing faster and more difficult material, and listen for a while specifically to see whether you’re hitting the head. If you are, go back to the easy and slower stuff and make sure you never hit the head, even once.
Another test is to wash the banjo head with soap and a little water, to remove any dirt or marks where the thumbpick would hit. After a few hours of playing, check to see if the marks have returned.
This will take time, but it’s worth it to develop good playing habits. It’s all about making nothing but good sounds!