Introduction to Guitar Picks
My experience with guitar picks (or ‘plectrum’) as a beginner was quite interesting.
First I didn’t read much about picks at all, I was focused on the learning which at the beginning is quite hard (and later it gets harder !).
Second, well, I have a couple of Fender Heavy Gauge picks that came with the Fender Squire guitar I had, so why bother, right ?
Well actually the pick makes a lot of difference in a player’s tone and ability to play certain kinds of music. There are exceptions everywhere, of course, but a few pick related factors, combined with the musical style of interest, tend to curb the selection.
When selecting a guitar pick consider the following factors: material, thickness, shape and texture.
Most materials I’ve researched for my own style of playing – which is mostly rock and metal – seem to derived from plastic. Celluloid, Nylon, Acrylic and Acetal seem to cover the vast majority of options I’ve tried:
- Celluloid from Fender just at the beginning, as they came with my first guitar,
- Other Acrylic or Celluloid ones from Gibson and Ibanez; the former were purchased when I got my SG, the latter during a trip to Japan,
- Basically all sorts of different sizes and thicknesses from the Dunlop Tortex line, which is mainly made of Delrin. According to the Dunlop website, this was develop as a follow on from the initial Nylon ones, which in turn replaced original tortoiseshell picks when this was banned back in the 70s,
- Duralin from D’Addario, which is said to be their version of acetal and is a direct competitor of the Tortex line.
Basically the acrylic ones sounded a bit too bright for my taste in playing and style, you could hear the attack quite clearly and after a while.
From the three models I’ve used that are branded by Guitar manufacturers, the Ibanez Heavy and Extra Heavy sounded better and I still use them quite a lot.
Keep in mind that I play Gibson and Ibanez with 9 – 42 string gauges and quite a low action now. I started out with thicker strings and higher action, but over the years developed a lighter touch to be able to lower the action without massive fret buzz that the distortion wouldn’t hide.
For my current setup, the Delrin or Duralin work better for me. The celluloid ones would have a brighter attack and make my deficiencies as a player a bit more noticeable. I trust that it pays to be self-aware and try out options with these things.
Three revelations about guitar picks in my first few years playing guitar:
- To angle the pick at least around 15 degrees when picking – from every youtube guitar teacher out there
- To practice down pick as fast as you can, and try and down pick songs where you would be tempted to alternate pick – from Kirk Hammett, an underrated metal master in my opinion
- Thickness. If you want to play fast and have better control of your articulation and tones especially when playing scales, leads and solos, thick is the way to go
- I started out with thin picks in the 0.50-0.60mm range. My hands as a beginner were not strong and steady enough. This quickly became a problem that held back my speed and my ability to play scales clearly.
It sounds counter intuitive for some – well thin should require less force right? – but if you think of the physics of it, it makes sense: thicker picks deform less when they hit the strings and return faster to their original shape, which allows you to pick faster.
Also if your technique is not perfect and strings bounce around unevenly, thicker picks will just walk over those minute variations instead of boomeranging back against your thumb.
The three tips above completely changed my style of playing and my experience with the instrument.
The general jargon for thickness is:
- Thin is typically below 0.60mm
- Medium/Heavy is between 0.60mm and 0.80mm
- Heavy between 0.80mm and 1.20mm
- Extra Heavy above 1.20mm
I found success with the range between 1.00 and 1.50mm. I am not a shredder (yet) but shredders commonly use Dunlop Jazz III or D’Addario / Planet Waves Black Ice 1.50 mm picks. If it works for them it should work for me !
Most manufacturers will have their own nomenclature which might not fully align with the above.
It’s not hard to find thicknesses ranging from 0.40mm to 2.00mm. Thicker than 2.00mm ? Haven’t tried, but might as well be playing with a log I think 🙂
I must confess that this is the factor that didn’t deserve much attention from me until very recently. The most common shape is the teardrop, with smaller a variant called jazz.
More round versions of the teardrop are sometimes called just standard, as it is the first shape that comes to mind when people think about a guitar pick.
Large triangular ones are better for beginners (easier to hold) and exotic options such as shark fin shaped ones also exist.
I believe the shape is a factor that goes hand in hand with the texture and the grip, so keep reading.
Texture combined with shape play an important role in the overall grip. Holding the pick correctly is a topic which might deserve an article or even a book of its own; generally between the thumb and index finger is the most common approach.
This means that as you gain speed, start going up and down scales and phrases fast, or start playing fast rhythms, you will feel the need to grip hard. Gripping hard increases tension and this generally slows things down. A good grip gives you a nice comfortable contact with the pick and you can play relatively fast without dropping the pick.
This is something that also comes with the Dunlop or Planet Waves picks mentioned above. While the majority are not textured, their materials are not entirely flat so they don’t feel slippery. For extra grip you might want to check textured options with raised lettering or dotting, or even the sand grip.
But what about the brands ?
There is a reason why Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, PRS and others make money selling guitars and not picks. Most of these brands have their picks and even strings but it’s not their focus.
If you google the topic you will easily find references to D’Addario, Dunlop, Earnie Ball and even smaller boutique brands that are worth checking out.
Picks are cheap – as a kid I always wondered how players in concerts could afford throwing a stack of picks at the audience between songs. They are however essential as it is where the connection between you and your instrument begins. They can be the weak link if you’re not careful. It pays to go online, buy a stack of different ones and try them out. Put aside your list of favorites so you can always have them by your side, but keep trying new ones.
If you want to check out a plethora of plectrums available at Amazon, click below and have fun. Feel free to modify the search for the thickness you’re after.
If you have any ideas on this and want to discuss guitar picks further please drop me a line.
If you have some extra time, check out my review of the latest compact amp modellers here:
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