Fingerpicks and their brief history

Setar picks

Setar picks

Ever thought about the history of fingerpicks? How and when they appeared on the scene of plucked musical instruments? Because by far the most well known instruments that are associated with fingerpicks come from the late 1800s or early 1900s. Think of American old time/bluegrass instruments like the banjo, the dobro and the (acoustic) guitar. And of course – related to the dobro – all the other kind of guitars that are played horizontally. Hawaiian guitar, lap steel, pedal steel. The company called National patented its metal fingerpicks in 1930. But are finger picks really that new?

Picks with ancient origins

Mizrab - fingerpick for sitar

Sitar mizrab

Of course not. You knew it’s coming, hey? The very point of picks is volume. Okay, so it’s volume and a clean, consistent attack. But really, they exist for being able to play as loud as possible. Which is a must when it comes to unamplified acoustic instruments. And no matter what flamenco or classical players tell you, fingernails can’t get that loud. Also, with a single piece of pick (flatpick), you lose the ability to produce simultaneous sounds with your digits. Can ya dig it? (Sorry.)

So a need arose for fingerpicks – who knows when, historically. Certainly, the ancient originated setar, that’s evolved from the Iranian tambur of Khorasan (~200 – 300AD) – which is considered to be the father of all lutes – is played with a wire pick.

Koto picks

Koto picks

As they call it: mezrab. The older style picks have a metal ring, the recent ones have some kind of plastic band forming a ring, from which the wire loop protrudes. A similar mezrab is used for the Indian sitar (16th – 17th centuries), which itself comes from the above mentioned setar.

Iran, Japan, China

Let’s go to Japan. Ever heard of the koto? It’s that weird zither, played horizontally. Koto players have their own finger picks as well, called tsume. These are square or rounded, finely polished, flat pieces of bone, attached to a kind of ribbon ring (new ones are velcro ended for adjustment). They play with three of these, thumb, index and middle.

Guzheng picks

Guzheng picks

Off to China. Kotos originate from the Chinese guzheng (~200 – 400BC; the “gu” part means ancient). Their players use similar picks to the koto’s tsume, only theirs are usually made of animal horns, and they use four of these, on each hands (so the ring fingers also get a pick).

The Portuguese

And finally, Portuguese guitarra players also use fingerpicks – they call them unhas.

Portuguese guitarra finger picks

Portuguese guitarra picks

These tend to vary, but usually made of (thin sheets of) plastic. Originally, they used tortoise shell, attached to the fingers with thin bands. The edge of these picks are hooked under the fingernails, just like modern Alaska picks.

If you know other instruments that are played with fingerpicks, write it in the comments section!

4 Replies to “Fingerpicks and their brief history”

  1. This is all great to read about, BUT there is one more: The “spiral” finger pick made from a long, thin, flat piece of metal. I’ve only seen it with autoharps, as of about 1890. Know anything about these?

    1. I only know that they were made from some kind of sheet metal, they were quite long, and that autoharp players used them in the late 1800s. And I know all this from you.

  2. Thank you very much for highlighting the history of fingerpicks, they are wonderful and yet despised by many players who cannot come to grips with them (if you will forgive the expression .yet nobody would ask a violinist not to use a bow, or amandolin player to abandon the plectrum but many classical guitarists spend more money and time on false finger nails, which also can make an additive noise. I even uyse them on nylon string guitars, ukeleles etc and mandolins and balalaikas and they are great devices. Thanks again.

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