Bobby Vega: To Pick Or Not To Pick (Part I)

Man, I love playing the bass! It’s one of my favorite things on earth to do.

Man, I love playing the bass! It’s one of my favorite things on earth to do.

When I first began playing bass, I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to play with a pick. Back then, in 1971, there were no rules. There was no internet, no YouTube, no MTV, and no VH-1—just records and live music. So I used what I had: my imagination.

I tried to play bass with my fingers, but it hurt. My right hand was not in sync with my left hand, my fingers didn’t have the right sound or feel, and trying to play with my fingers just didn’t give me the groove I was looking for. I couldn’t play Rocco Prestia’s “What Is Hip” bass line, for example. So I looked at a pick and thought, Hey, it works for guitar. And that’s when it all started to come together.

Playing with a pick was the fastest way to get the music from my head to my hands and to the instrument. I couldn’t play the music I loved with my fingers, so I did it with a pick. The pick was just an easier, more natural way for me to get the sounds I wanted to imitate. I could hear the notes I was playing, and I could keep a consistent feel and groove going. Besides, I wanted to be different from other bass players; using a pick helped me develop a sound, as well as my own style and personality.

When somebody says real bass players don’t use a pick, my first thoughts are: (1) I guess they can’t play bass with a pick, and (2) they’re cheating themselves out of a lot of music. The fact is, there have been many great bass players who used picks. Some of my influences were Rod Ellicott from Cold Blood (“I Just Want to Make Love to You”), Chris Squire from Yes (“Roundabout”), Anthony Jackson (the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money”), Paul McCartney (the Beatles’ “Get Back” and “Come Together”), jazz bassist Steve Swallow, Cream’s Jack Bruce, the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman, and studio legends Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn.

People have asked me if I got attitude back in the day for playing with a pick. Never! I got more attention than attitude, and I’ve gotten more work because I can play with a pick. One person who heard about my pick playing was Sly Stone, which led to me playing on the title track of his 1975 album High on You. Another track I played pick on was Lee Oskar’s “Feeling Happy” (on 1978’s Before the Rain), and when I toured with Tower Of Power, I played “What Is Hip” with a pick. Most recently, I used a pick on the song “All of My Life” on Joe Satriani’s latest album, Shockwave Supernova.

When I’m playing with a pick, I have more dynamic range and more tonal options, and I can get more sounds out of my instrument. A picked note gets there faster and clearer—it’s like using a scalpel or a laser pointer, sharp and fast. Plus, I can swing and spin the grooves with more control. I can play so you don’t even hear the pick. I can’t imagine ever not playing with a pick, but if I had to, I could let it go and be creative with what I have. I hope that in my lifetime, I can learn more ways to play with my fingers, too—as we speak, I’m working on getting more out of my fingers.

I’m blessed, lucky, and fortunate that I have great-sounding pick, fingerstyle, and thumb techniques. It doesn’t matter which one I use—they’re just three different ways to approach the feel of a song. It’s all about the feel, the time, and the groove I want to play in the moment.

Next month, I’ll talk about ways to get started with playing a pick. In the meantime, feel free to write me at for consultations, lessons, Skype sessions, and pick tips. May the groove be with you.