The guitar pick might seem like the lowliest piece of gear in a six-stringer’s ensemble, but the truth is it’s a mighty device that needs to be reckoned with. Any player who’s never explored the sizes, materials, sound-producing qualities and other subtleties of the plectrum should consider becoming pickier about picks.
The history of the pick dates back at least to the Egyptian empire. Drawings of instruments being played with quills and other early picks appear on walls of the pyramids. Turtle shell, bone, ivory and stone were all used for pick construction early in the plectrum’s development. Today the materials employed for pick making are much more varied – and far less dangerous for reptiles, elephants and whales. And they all have an impact on sound and playability.
Here are 10 tips to keep in mind when picking the right pick:
The typical guitar pick is slightly more than an inch-and-a-quarter long and an inch-and-a-quarter wide, but they run as small as the size of a fingertip and as large as more than two inches across. Les Paul used the latter, in a triangle shape, for the last decades of his career. The big picks were easier for his arthritic fingers to grasp. Jazz players often prefer smaller picks, which promote string contact with the fingers. That creates a warmer more muted tone. Most rock, country and blues players go for the standard-sized pick, which is large enough to grip solidly, avoid accidental finger contact with the strings and can be turned or palmed easily to grind the strings or to allow a quick switch to finger-picking.
Today picks are typically made of plastic: nylon, polyethylene, celluloid and other varieties. Derek Bailey, the late great British improviser, made his own picks out of dental material used for making crowns and caps. Shell picks are rare but still available, and picks are also made in bronze and steel. In general, the harder the pick material the brighter and more biting the tone produced. A problem with metal picks, with the exception of fingerpicks, is that they tend to chew up the surface of pick guards, guitar tops and fretboards.
Skinny or Wide
Generally speaking, thin picks are great for strumming acoustic guitars while thicker picks, usually identified as medium gauge and heavy or extra heavy, are appropriate for electric instruments. Using a thin pick to play with a super distorted sound helps turn tone to mud, for example, but thin picks can accent the ringing individual notes of chords on acoustic guitars.
Thinner picks tend to rip and tear more often, and wear out faster. A bout of power strumming can wear the tip off a thin pick mid-song, which subsequently interferes with picking accuracy, tone and attack. So be sure to get a gauge that’s going to be right for your playing style.
The kind of music you play is also a factor. Heavy sound? Heavy pick. Black metal guitarists are more likely to have super thick picks of 1.5 millimeters or greater between their thumbs and forefingers. Those are perfect, also, for digging into the kind of heavy gauge strings that respond best to low tuning. Jazz players who play flat wound strings often prefer heavy picks, too.
Often music stores have a display that offers picks according to size. Here’s a list of standard measurements for different gauges: thin picks typically are .44 millimeters or thinner; mediums range from .45 to .69 millimeters; heavy picks go from .85 to 1.20 or bigger; and extra heavies tag in at 1.5 millimeters or greater.
Here’s something most working players don’t consider when selecting picks – they offer a cheap way of self-promotion. Plenty of pick makers will put your own or your band’s logo, name, contact info, website, etc. on their products and most often for less than you’d pay for picks at the local guitar shop. Fans seek them as collectibles and they’re a cool visual calling card.
Manufacturers have tried all kinds of frills in pick design, from shark-tooth-like cutaways to tips of different materials to holes for supposedly easier grip. Don’t be distracted by these oddballs. Ultimately they offer no advantage over the conventional V-shape.
It may seem obvious, but harder, less flexible picks are typically difficult to grasp and keep in place. Hard nylon has a tendency to slip more often than softer plastics, and thicker picks are more difficult to control than medium models. The trade off is finding the pick that stays between your fingers best and gets to the core of the tone you’re looking to crank out of your amp. Some picks have a special high-friction coating to aid grip. Others offer a flexible middle that allows improved grip plus a means to vary attack by applying different degrees of finger pressure.
How you use a pick also affects your choice of plectrum. Down strokes employed by the likes of Metallica are best done with thick picks. Circular picking requires a more flexible pick. Ditto with alternate picking and sweep arpeggios.