Whether you’re a little-bit country like Bonnie Raitt, or rock ‘n’ roll like Lzzy Hale, a pick should fit your signature style. There are numerous pick manufacturers offering many options and styles to explore.
As you may know, the teardrop-shaped pick has transformed significantly along its journey through music history. It’s morphed into various shapes and sizes, and took on a variety of textures, too. You could say it’s the unsung hero of musical gear; a small thing that can make a big difference in your playing and sound.
Serve Your Playing
For a guitarist or bassist, the aggressive plucking and strumming of strings can be rough on the fingers, especially when an artist is new to her instrument. Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads recalls having blisters and “bloody fingers” early in her career. Surprisingly, it was punk legend Sid Vicious who suggested she use “a plectrum.” Weymouth later used a combination of fingers, plectrum, alternating fingers, thumb–whatever got her there. Like Tina, feel free to experiment with what serves your playing best. In reading this article, it’s helpful to note that creating music is an individualistic process, so don’t be afraid to embrace what type of pick fits your personal style and phrasing best.
Selecting the right pick involves a bit of trial and error. The thickness, shape and texture of the pick can all affect your strumming, grip and tone. Picks come in a variety of forms and substances from tried-and-true plastics to exotic gemstones.
Take the time to find a pick that’s comfortable to hold and appropriate for your type of music and sound. Consider exploring the following tips when evaluating picks.
First, check out the different sizes available on the market.
Picks range in thickness from extra-light and medium to extra-heavy. A pick gauge is measured in millimeters, such as gauges 0.44 to 1.5mm (and beyond that to 3mm).
Thin picks are popular for acoustic players going for a bright, clear tone (or a somewhat trebly quality). A thin pick offers a good amount of flexibility when navigating the strings and strumming. However, thin picks can wear down easily or even break.
Nonetheless, if a slim pick provides you with the best results, such as a percussive, or a lighter sound, keep a pile of back-up picks nearby during a practice-session. You may also want to try using a pick made out of nylon, which is known for its durability.
Next up are medium. This sized pick will offer you a nice solid glide. L.A.-based acoustic player Tom McLehose prefers medium picks. “Light are too flexible,” he says. “I’m a pretty energetic player and have a tendency to strum pretty hard, so the bounce in the light picks just doesn’t cut it for me.”
The Classic Fender Medium has long been a standard in the industry. It’s made of celluloid and suits players looking for a traditional feeling pick that still offers versatility. The “351” as it is known, is timeless.
When it comes to rock and metal music, a heavy pick is befitting for aggressive players. Thick-gauged picks are also used frequently by jazz guitarists and bass players going for a solid attack.
A lot of electric guitarists lean towards heavier picks (typically gauges beyond .80mm). A heavy pick helps to bolster your control during rhythmic strumming as well as playing leads, and Pete-Townsend-style power chords.
Change it up
If your repertoire varies, expand your pick arsenal according to song and sound. There are manufacturing companies that sell variety packs with different gauges, such as Ernie Ball’s mixed thickness nylon picks.
Or change gauge “on the fly” with Grip Tip picks by Dava Guitar Picks. They come in delrin, nylon and poly-gel and designed with a unique over-molding process. Perfect your sound in a pinch with Dava’s innovative multi-gauge flexibility.
There are many popular plastics used to create picks, including celluloid, acetal (Delrin), acrylic, lexan and nylon. At one time, tortoise shell was popular for making guitar picks until it became illegal to use; but, replacement materials are on the market such as delrex.
Nylon is the go-to material for guitarists who like a pick that softy glides across the strings. It’s also nice in the grip department and if you’re going for a vintage tone.
Members of the band Evanescence use nylon picks by Dunlop, such as the Tortex Pitch Black 488 for playability.
Celluloid is a man-made material used by a wide range of manufacturers. It was the popular material used for early pick production. When picks are made with this substance, they are known for offering players a natural feel and a warm tone.
Over the years the varieties of plastics have broadened. For instance, Planet Waves by D’Addario relies on Duralin, Delflex and Cortex for picks made for durability, flexibility and note definition.
At the other end of the spectrum are picks made of wood, metal, stone, copper and even glass. Some of these alternative substances are a little rare in what’s commonly used, but there are bold players who do explore them.
Stone, ceramic and exotic:
Gemstone picks made of (agate) stone are known for their beauty and the unique sound they provide. You can find stone picks at StoneWorks and PickBoy.
PickBoy’s ceramic Pro Pick is made with a combination of ceramic and nylon that rocks a raised, grip pattern. A growing area for the company is their exotic series, including picks made from tropical hardwood, bone and horn in a variety of shapes and gauges.
Metal-tones & more:
Ice Pix incorporates an assortment of materials in manufacturing their picks. The copper Flex pick provides a sharp attack and its ridge-cut design makes it easy to hold. For those who wish to experiment more with sturdy textures, they offer a metal sampler, which includes copper, brass, stainless-steel, and steel flex picks.
If you’re playing calls for a stronger edge, or you want more muscle, there are metal picks like Dava’s Rock and Master Control models. The “master” features a nickel silver tip with a plastic grip.
Fashionable and Eye-popping
Hit your best notes in style with fashion-statement picks. HotPicks has a line of contemporary picks that go from funky to fabulous. Gothic, peace, and girls rock designs mix style with functionality.
Want to attract attention? Ernie Ball’s eye-catching Pearloid and Super Glow (glow-in-the-dark picks) are fashionable and fun. For players who want to stand-out, their mixed-color packs include statement shades like psycho red and slinky pink. Next, a true expression of art meets music: Henry Heller designer picks. Made with quality materials, they possess original edgy artwork.
The classic teardrop and rounded triangle shapes are the standard for some, while others like jazz guitarists prefer picks with pointier tips. Alternative-shaped picks can offer certain benefits, from sound to attack. If you’re looking for something more signature, some manufacturers offer specialty picks like smaller jazz models and even round picks.
If you’re a speed-picking kinda girl, Planet Wave’s Black Ice pick has an over-shaped design that will give an edge to your playing.
V-Picks offers a wide variety of picks that will work well if you play a small guitar or if you’re a jazz player. Their pointed models offer a bright, but full-bodied tone. Designed with a special blend of acrylic, the grip is excellent, so you can play fast but precise.
A cool twist in guitar playing comes by way of the SnakePick. The coil design easily wraps around your finger and keeps the pick from slipping. It’s available in four gauges as well as different coil sizes, too. We love the sleek style, but creator Paul Slingsby had a functional purpose for designing this pick: “The SnakePick was created to help students place more focus on their fingering and to humanize guitar picking. It allows the plectrum hand to relax and avoid cramping up,” said Slingsby.
Remember, the possibilities are endless…
Lastly, from a playing perspective, continue to experiment and broaden your techniques and pick selection. With so many picks on the market, you’re sure to expand your options, look and sound. It’s all about finding what you love and what works best for your sound. Now, get pickin!
Collectible and Artistic
Picks also serve as coveted items for collectors. Picks with band logos/images and unique qualities can be nice for a vintage-inspired studio or for displaying.
Likewise, Jimi Hendrix-adorned picks (by Dunlop) are retro cool. Album-cover artist John Van Hamersveld lends his legendary concert posters and album covers to these iconic picks. The Jimi Pick Tin and Frontline picks will awaken your inner voodoo child.
Nita Strauss, former Iron Maidens member currently with Alice Cooper and her own band We Start Wars, has her own line of picks displaying her signature and photos.
The Internet is a goldmine for pick-lovers. Sites supporting guitarists and collectors are popular from eBay and niche pages to musical enterprises.
Early Days: A Bright Idea
History calls it a “plectrum” (derived from the Greek plektron, pleg: meaning to strike), but the modern pick was born on the streets of Manhattan in the 1920s. A creative salesman purchased sheets of tortoise shell-colored (cellulose nitrate) plastic and began making heart-shaped decorations. Luigi D’Andrea repurposed the hearts as picks and sold them to music stores for mandolin and guitar players. (Source: D’Andrea USA)
Today, modern manufacturing relies on a host of man-made and natural materials for mass producing picks.