This small, inconspicuous but indispensable tool used for playing stringed instruments, is found usually in the form of a drop-shaped platelet. You guessed it, we are talking about the pick or plectrum, and we’ll be discussing their various shapes, colors, thicknesses, sizes and materials.
The pick is at the beginning of our signal chain, and thus saying that the tone is made with the fingers is only partly true. After all, a pick is responsible for generating the signal and thus largely determines character in the sound. Of course, the fingers on the fret hand, also contribute to shaping the sound with a touch of vibrato and various other techniques.
Even the way we strike the string with the pick i.e. the angle and force, is critical to obtaining our personal sound. This in turn relates to the shape and material of the pick because different picks played with the same assertion will produce very different sounds.
There are countless myths surrounding the material of which picks are made from. One of which involved a pick that was carved straight from the devil’s canine and along with it alleged miraculous powers. More research on this can be found in the highly entertaining movie “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny“ starring Jack Black.
Ok, let’s stick to the facts. The most common material used in picks today is definitely plastic, with hundreds, if not thousands, of variations. In ancient times of Greece, materials such as wood, metal, stone and ivory were already used to pluck the strings of an instrument, and were then known as a Plektron. The use of a feather’s quill was also not all too uncommon in the 19th century. Although quite impressive, over time a more convenient and better choice was found to be small sized buttons. These consisted of bones, wood, horn, or similar materials such as turtle shells. The latter being particularly popular for their elasticity and strong sounding qualities and were later prohibited by law in 1973. Luigi D’Andrea had already made guitar picks with celluloid as early as 1922, and is to this day one of the most frequently used plastics.
Dunlop found great success with their nylon picks, while in search of synthetic materials to replace the turtle shell and to replicate its sound, and discovered Delrin, a material used to produce the famous Tortex picks. While standard plastic picks are produced by brands such as Dunlop, Fender, D’Andrea, and Planet Waves, other materials are of course also available. British manufacturer Timber Tones, for example, offers among other things, picks made of wood, stone, mother of pearl, horn, bone or even leather. There are also manufacturers that offer picks in metal.
A pick is generally triangular or teardrop shaped and is usually held between thumb and index finger. The drop shape was developed by D’Andrea and Fender and is commonly called nr. 351. Dunlop also offers the drop shape in a smaller version (jazz picks), whereas triangular versions are used by acoustic guitars. There are also differences in in the shape and roundness of the tip. Dunlop, for example, offers the Sharp pick, which are completely tapered and very suitable for fast strokes. Herdim picks are known for their triangular shape, which has different thicknesses in each corner and a wavy edge. The same applies to Sharkfin picks which have a thinner tip, as well as a wavy edge.
The thickness of the plectrum is measured in millimeters:
Extra Light: from 0.38 to 0.50 mm
Thin/Light: from 0.50 to 0.70 mm
Medium: 0.70 to 0.90 mm
Heavy: 0.90 to 1.2 mm
Extra Heavy: more than 1.2 mm
Which pick is right for me?
This is a difficult question – because you should try them out for yourself. First, you should consider and test which shape you can play best. The drop shape is highly variable and is held less firmly during chord strokes, as opposed to a more firm grasp when playing single-notes and solos. A rounded tip produces a slightly softer tone and a pointier pick is suitable for precise solos. Incidentally this is of course not written in stone. Stevie Ray Vaughan is said to have often struck with the rounded side of the picks.
Those who want a firm grip or have sweaty fingers can turn to picks with a special grip (Max Grip), ie a non-slip surface. You should then find out what strength and weight feels best for you. Even the smallest differences are very important. If your attack is soft, you will probably prefer a thin pick, and for thick strings and hard attacks, a stronger pick may be needed. It always depends on the resistance required.
If a pickup is too soft, there may be a loss of dynamics: despite a good attack, the low resistance of the pick will produce a low volume. Hard picks produce a lighter and more defined attack than soft versions. For this reason a Dunlop nylon (0.60 mm) is often preferred when strumming an acoustic guitar and with electric guitars a Dunlop nylon pick of 0.76 together with custom-light strings (009 – 046). Some even use 1.5 mm picks with thicker strings (011 – 052). In our opinion thin strings played with a soft pick provide a pleasant sound, and is more relaxed. But ask the same question to ten guitarists and you will receive at least eleven different answers. Therefore experiment and find YOUR sound.
Who plays what?
If you haven’t been able to find your pick of destiny, you can always model after your heroes or other guitarists with the sound you’re after and choose accordingly. The following list is researched from internet and is without guarantee since artists, as well as non-professional guitarists, often change their preferences.
|Brian May||An old British sixpence coin|
|Eric Clapton||Ernie Ball Picks Heavy (0.94 mm)|
|John Mayer||Dunlop Tortex 0.88 mm, Dunlop Tortex 1.14 mm|
|James Hetfield||Dunlop Tortex 0.88, Dunlop James Hetfield Black Fang 1.14|
|Angus Young||Fender Extra Heavy|
|David Gilmour||D’Andrea TG 351 0.96 mm|
|Jimmy Page||HercoFlex 75 (0.75 mm)|
|Mark Tremonti||Dunlop Jazz III, Dunlop Nylon 1.0 mm|
|The Edge||D’Andrea Medium Nylon|
|Zakk Wylde||Dunlop Tortex Pitchblack Jazz (1.14 mm)|
|Billie Joe Armstrong||Dunlop Tortex 0.73 mm, Dunlop Tortex 0.88 mm|
|Dave Grohl||Dunlop 0.73 mm Gator Grip|
|Billy Gibbons||Dunlop Gels Extra Heavy|
|Dave Mustaine||Dunlop Tortex 0.73|
|Carlos Santana||V-Picks (3 mm)|
|Dimebag Darell||Dunlop Tortex 0.88 mm|