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All Thumbs

Making the connection from thumb to string

by Jon Chappell


I was in the Taylor Guitars booth at NAMM, visiting with my friend and Taylor clinician Doyle Dykes. As a gag, I grabbed a guitar off the way and started to play one of his tunes, one that I had transcribed. I made some crack like, "It's OK, Doyle, you can look. Take notes if you like." (Doyle's a world class player.) He listened politely and said, "Oh, but you can't play it right without one of these," and handed me a strange-looking thumbpick, one that I had never seen before.


What Doyle gave me was a Fred Kelly-made thumbpick, called the Delrin Speed Pick (see Fig. 1). It was unusual because it didn't have the familiar spade-like point sticking out of the wrap-around portion. Instead, the business end if this thumbpick was straight and narrow, like a sharpened matchstick, with slots cut into the flatside that rests on the underside of the thumb. This allows for the picking end to flex as it comes into contact with the string.



Fig. 1. The Fred Kelly Speed thumbpick has a slender shaft for striking the string, and slots that allow it to flex.


I have played with thumbpicks and fingerpicks before, because they're required for certain instruments, notably, the five-string banjo, square-neck Dobro, and pedal steel. But for everyday fingerpicking, I've found that putting on a thumbpick can be awkward, unless it's for some really bass-heavy, thumpin' Travis-picked stuff.


But the Fred Kelly has changed all that. This pick is incredibly lightweight and nimble (must be those slots!), and doesn't feel like you've just put on an oven mitt to fingerpick your axe. The slenderized picking protrusion is also a lot better for picking out single-note lead lines. It's really amazing to think that all these years, the problem wasn't thumbpicks in general, but the type of thumbpick I was putting on for my style of playing.


What's the Angle?

The problem with playing any sort of accented bass or music that has pronounced low notes (Travis picking, ragtime, country blues, etc.) is that the thumb doesn't strike the strings at a clean, more-or-less perpendicular angle the way the fingers do. The thumb's angle is more glancing, as the red lines in Fig. 2 show.



Fig. 2. While the fingers strike the strings at a perpendicular angle, the thumb's attack is more of a glancing blow.


Once you put on a thumbpick, though, the angle of the thumbstrikes change to a virtual 90 degrees, more like like the fingers do (see Fig. 3). Keep in mind that, as with any hand tool, you also have the advantage of using a surface better suited than your flesh (in this case hard plastic) as well as leverage (the length of the material that effectively increase your striking strength).


Fig. 3. Adding a thumbpick changes the angle at which the thumb strikes to the strings to a more effective 90 degrees (perpendicular).


So thumbpicks are definitely worth checking out if you're going to be doing a lot of fingerpicking, and the Fred KellyDelrin Speed Pick is perfect for those who find the traditional model too clumsy (especially at first). I like the Fred Kellys because they have greater strength than my bare thumb, but are not quite as artificial-feeling as a standard thumbpick. They come in an assortment of sizes, gauges, and colors, too (see Fig. 4).




Fig. 4. Fred Kelly Delrid Speed Picks come in various sizes, gauges, and colors.


Thumbs up

It's always encouraging when someone looks at an established model and asks, "Can I improve on that?" This is one of those cases. Thumbpicks have looked the same since their inception, and yet here's a guy who came along and challenged that perception. Fred Kelly didn't just redesign the thumbpick to be different, he actually made it more flexible and less awkward-feeling in the hands of fingerpickers who like to approach the guitar with an unadorned right hand. This could be a game-changer for traditional fingerpickers everywhere.

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