In this article, I Lov Guitars will address all the elements that need to be considered before selecting a guitar pick. We will also help you choose which pick is best suited to each playing style—but remember, everyone is unique, so listen to what works for you!
Here’s a breakdown of everything this article covers. If you are short on time, you can jump to the section you’re interested in by clicking within the Table of Contents.
Brief History of the Guitar Pick
Stringed instruments, from Greek lyres to European harpsichords and lutes, to Japanese biwa, have been played with picks for almost as long as they have existed. The guitar is a bit of an anomaly: for a long time, it was mostly played fingerstyle, the ‘picks’ being the player’s own fingernails. (Classical guitar is still played this way, but electric and acoustic guitars’ steel strings are too sharp for this technique.) Originally, acoustic and blues guitarists played fingerstyle with thumb- and finger-picks, but since guitarists such as Nick Lucas pioneered the use of the flat pick in the 1920s, it has become an essential item in every guitarist’s toolkit.
In recent decades, there has been an explosion of interest in the guitar pick: there is a bewildering array of materials, shapes, sizes and thicknesses. And they can have a huge effect on your playing! It’s easy to disregard the pick as ‘just a piece of plastic,’ but once you dig into it, it will become apparent that by thinking and listening carefully, you can get closer to the sound you’ve always wanted—without breaking the bank!
So, before you buy a new guitar or spend a month’s rent on gear, read this article and take the time to understand how the simple pick can influence your music. Some of these influences include control over volume (dynamics), note phrasing, strumming effects and ease, progressions across the strings (as in sweep picking and strums), runs, and many advanced techniques.
The most significant effect your choice of pick will have on your playing concerns tone. Guitar tone can be broken down into two types: decay tone and attack tone.
A guitar’s decay tone is how a guitar resonates and sustains. This quality is impacted by the design, structure and type of wood used. A heavy Les Paul will have a different decay tone to a light Telecaster. Your choice of pick has little impact on your decay tone.
The attack tone, on the other hand, is greatly influenced by the choice of pick. Mike Duddles from Pick Collecting Quarterly has had this to say:
“The attack tone is the first quality a player notices when playing, and it is this quality that most often stands out above all other tonal qualities. In fact, players often intuitively define a guitar’s tone solely by the attack tone. And it is through attack tone that we most hear the true significance of our guitar picks. Guitar picks control our fundamental tone more than any other single factor in a guitar’s signal chain—whether acoustic or electric.”
Attack tone, then, is no mere detail! We will not do our guitar or ourselves justice if we just play with whatever pick comes to hand.
With advancements in sound detection, we can now pinpoint how a pick produces any particular sound. Let’s dig into the four features that make up a pick: thickness (gauge), material, shape, and texture.
Pick Thickness (Gauge)
If you were to disregard every other feature about a pick and focus just on its thickness or gauge, you might be 70% closer to your ideal tone. There is no universal measurement to pick thickness; however, for simplicity’s sake, we categorize thickness into four types.
Thin or Extra-Thin (between 0.4mm and 0.6mm)
The thinner the pick, the greater its physical flexibility, and the flexibility of thin and extra-thin picks makes them ideal for strumming. As such, they work best if you’re playing acoustic or rhythm guitar. Due to their propensity to ‘snap’ against the strings, greater treble and clear rhythms can be achieved. (In this they have an advantage over strumming with your fingers.)
Thin or extra-thin picks are used extensively in acoustic recordings to help define the rhythm section, as the sound produced is naturally ‘compressed.’ What this means is that the dynamic range is lower if you’re using a thinner pick: you don’t have to worry about ugly ‘volume spikes’ that could mar a recording by distracting from the melody. Instead, you get a pleasant, light, ‘feathery’ sound as it brushes the strings.
The downsides of thinner picks are that they can crack and break easily compared to thicker picks, and that they don’t give you the precise control that heavier picks do. As such, they are probably not a good choice for lead guitarists!
Medium (between 0.6mm and 0.8mm)
Medium-gauge picks are the perfect go-between if you can’t decide between heavy and thin picks. They have enough flexibility that you can strum easily and without worrying too much about ugly notes, but are rigid enough that you can have a lot of note control when playing melody and solo lines.
If you’re looking for a sound that isn’t too piercing, that has a good balance between the sharpness of a heavy and the softness of a light pick, then medium-gauge picks might be best suited for you. The downside, of course, is that this ‘jack of all trades’ can end up unable to do anything brilliantly. This gauge also might be best for novice guitarists who aren’t yet sure what their style will become.
Heavy (between 0.8mm and 1.2 mm)
Heavy picks are great if you’re looking for a bright and clear sound, and so are ideal for solos, scales and arpeggios. Due to their stiffness, these picks allow for great dynamic range and picking accuracy. You don’t need to worry about the pick ‘collapsing’ when you play a note, and so you don’t need to worry about being unable to reach those loud dynamics, and you are more able to get the timing computer-precise. You will notice a dramatic difference in your tone when you switch from a medium or light gauge to a heavy one. If you’re passionate about good tone, you’ll probably find yourself going heavy!
The downside of heavy picks is that they don’t lend themselves to an even, soft strumming sound, as light picks, which can ‘wash over’ the strings, do. They want to be in the foreground!
Extra-Heavy (above 1.5mm)
Whether you’re a jazz guitarist who want to find subtle shades between piano and pianissimo, or a heavy-metal guitarist who wants to find new ways to punish your strings, heavy and extra-heavy picks are for you. These picks have virtually no flexibility, and so they give you exceptional control over your picking, in terms of both dynamics and timing.
You should not use an extra-heavy pick if you’re enjoying a day in the park playing sing-along music on the acoustic guitar. (If you play too hard, the pick might even fly straight out of your hand!) Additionally, you should be careful about using extra-heavy-gauge picks if you’re a lead guitarist who incorporates chords, especially quiet chords, into your playing: extra-heavy picks will want to make those chords loud, too.
Extra-heavy picks do what they do extremely well, but best of luck trying to get them to act like a light pick!
Heavier picks are also more demanding on the player than thinner picks. With a thin pick, you can have a low attack (that is, you can hold the pick such that a lot of it is ‘below’ or ‘behind’ the strings). This means you don’t need to worry so much about the height of the pick: if your attack is too low, the pick will just bend, and you’ll still play the note at a reasonable volume and in time. This is perfect when you’re bashing away at six-string chords in accompaniment to your voice. With heavier picks, however, you have to be careful to play with just the tip of the pick. If your attack is too low, you’ll spend so much time dragging your pick across the strings that you’ll feel like you’re trying to play with concrete weights on your fingers! Therefore, you need to be very precise with your attack height, and this precision will require you to be comfortable with your guitar.
The original pick material, believe it or not, was the feather quill. However, at some point people began to realise that the shell of the Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle was far superior, and it became the dominant picking material for centuries. Unfortunately for guitarists (but fortunately for the poor endangered sea turtle), it is now illegal to manufacture or sell picks made from tortoiseshell. However, picks are now made in a plethora of materials. Common materials are nylon, Tortex®, Ultem®, and metal; other materials include wood, glass, felt, stone, celluloid, and even leather and bone!
There is no end to what you can make a pick from. You can even use your fingers, or, like Brian May, a £1 coin!
Celluloid was one of the first synthetic materials to be used as a pick. Celluloid picks have a cult following among some guitarists, but due to their high flammability, we recommend staying away from them.
Nylon supplanted celluloid as a cheap and cheerful pick material, and is still very common now, especially in light-gauge picks used for big strummed chords, and among people looking for a ‘classic-rock’ feel. Felt is also a good choice for playing soft chords, but is very hard to come by.
A lot of pick materials tend to be firmer, though. Tortex®, Ultem®, and Delrin® acetal, in particular, are common, especially among solo guitarists, because they come close to the fabled sound of tortoiseshell.
Some of the more ‘exotic’ materials, such as metal, glass, and stone, are not ‘everyday’ materials, but are great for creating very specific sounds—and often for wearing: some picks are even made from gemstones!
However, the material we swear by is Delrin® acetal. We think this strikes the best balance between price and sound, and we make all our picks from it! Delrin® is a highly durable, tough and lightweight acetal polymer. It produces a well-rounded, warm attack. It is also notable for its very quick release, producing very little pick noise (i.e., the sound of the pick sliding across the string before it plucks). Delrin picks’ rigidity, as well as their ‘pick memory’ (the pressure of your fingers and thumb will cause them to subtly mould to fit you, giving you better grip), allow for exceptional pick control.
It’s easy to assume that the shape of a pick simply has to do with what you’re comfortable playing. However, there’s a lot more to the shape of a pick. The most important characteristics are the sharpness of the edge and the bevel. The edge sharpness affects the way the strings glide off the surface, and the bevel (or contour) of the picking edge affects string resistance.
If you’re looking for a shape that gives you a mid-range emphasis and a warm, ‘feel-good’ tone, rounded picks might work best. If you’re looking to bring out a more complex attack or a brighter tone, it might be better to try sharper-ended picks. Smaller pick shapes are generally preferred for fast picking, as they allow for easier movement between the strings. Larger picks are ideal for strumming, when it’s hard to be so precise.
We will focus on the three types of pick shapes that can do 99.9% of everything you’re looking for.
The standard pick shape is the heart shaped pick we all know. It has a warm attack and can come in different sizes. If you’re looking for a pick shape that can do it all, the standard shape might be a good choice. It’s easy to grip and offers decent control. It makes a great beginner pick. The standard pick shape is also known as Style 351.
Jazz Pick Shapes
Jazz picks tend to be smaller than the classic pick, and to have a thicker gauge and a sharper edge. Guitarists looking for superior control, fast response, and a clean, bright tone should definitely experiment with these picks – even if they’re not jazz guitarists! In general, highly technically-skilled guitarists prefer jazz picks.
The shape on the left is the popular ‘teardrop’ or Style 358 (25mm x 18mm). The shape on the right is Style 551 (26mm x 24mm).
Style 358 offers a good compromise between the warmth of a round pick and the brightness of a sharp pick. Style 551 is one of the most popular picks amongst advanced guitarists.
Large Triangular Pick Shapes
Large triangular picks are great for novice guitarists. This is first because all three corners of the pick can be used to strum, and second because their large surface area makes them easy to grip. They are not just for beginners, though: especially if they are thin (which they tend to be), they have a great flexibility that allows for easy strumming—great for sing-alongs! Additionally, their large size means that you don’t have to have as precise an attack height as you do with smaller picks. Again, this means that you are able to strum away, concentrating on your singing, without worrying about volume spikes.
From left to right, these picks are known as Style 346 and Style 355 (equilateral triangle).
These five pick shapes will get you through almost every picking obstacle you will face. However, there’s no curbing human creativity, and you can find specialty shapes for just about every purpose you could have, from perfect circles, to practice picks that force you to adopt healthy techniques but don’t sound great, to the quirky and popular ‘Sharkfin’ pick. This pick has a corrugated ‘Sharkfin’ edge that gives you a more powerful attack (you’re basically playing each note multiple times in rapid succession), or to get a really brutal pick-scrape along the strings, while the rounded end can be used to play soft, rich chords.
Texture matters to two parts of your pick: at the picking point, and at the grip.
At the picking point, you normally want a slick, smooth texture. Delrin® acetal, from which we make our picks, is exceptional in this regard, and our high-quality machining methods make sure that the most is made of Delrin’s natural properties.
At the grip, the texture has less to do with your tone and more to do with the comfort and ease of holding it while playing. It helps to have a pick that’s easy to grip, lest you face the nightmare of dropping the pick just as your solo is set to soar! A textured surface is particularly useful if your fingers sweat, be it from stage lights, or from playing for a long time or very aggressively. It is also useful if you like to hold your pick lightly.
Some picks have an engraved or embossed surface to naturally increase the friction between the fingertips and pick surface. Some companies even add a high-friction coating to the pick surface to increase its grip. I Lov Guitars’ picks have a grind surface for this. The texturing should never extend so close to the tip that they will affect the tone, but it’s a fine balancing act, and you might have to think about how precise you can be with your attack height if using a pick with a textured surface.
A lot of pick choice comes down to personal taste, and no-one can tell you what to like or dislike. It’s well worth experimenting with a wide range of picks until you find the magic tone you’ve always been looking for: it will pay dividends when you love the sounds you make! But don’t just try out a bunch of picks aimlessly: take the time to think deeply about the tone you’re hoping to achieve.
You should also consider who your favourite guitarists are, and why you like their tone – what picks do they use? It’s great to have a wide variety of picks in your arsenal, as it will open your eyes to sounds you never thought your guitar could produce. Maybe if you’re stuck for inspiration, or find yourself in a creative rut, just changing your pick could free up your imagination.
Remember, your style and pick preference will change as time goes on, so try to always be mindful of your pick choice. Is it still ‘you’?
You now know not to go out and buy a new guitar or expensive pedal straight away. Before spending hundreds of dollars, just try a few new pick styles. Bookmark this article so that you can always come back and refer to it when you’re looking for new pick ideas.
Duddles, M. (2009, May 3). Guitar Picks: The Most Fundamental Conduit of Tone. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from http://pickcollecting.presspublisher.us/issue/spring_2011/article/guitar-picks-the-most-fundamental-conduit-of-tone
Milner, B. (2013, March 13). What guitar pick material, shape, and gauge should I use? Retrieved January 21, 2017, from http://sevenkingsofficial.blogspot.ca/2013/03/what-guitar-pick-material-shape-and.html
Perlmutter, A. (2016, March 07). The Quest for Tone: How to Find the Ultimate Guitar Pick. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from http://acousticguitar.com/the-quest-for-tone-how-to-find-the-ultimate-guitar-pick/
Rotondi, J. (2012, May 11). How to Pick your Pick. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from http://www.premierguitar.com/articles/How_to_Pick_your_Pick