Congratulations! Welcome to I Lov Guitars – the blog dedicated to all things guitar picks!
So you’ve just bought your first guitar! But whether it’s an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar, whether your goal is to play fiddly jazz melodies, thumping heavy-metal power chords, or open acoustic strumming, you’ll need a pick—and you may be bewildered by the variety of picks in the world!
You can get anything from a cheap nylon pick for a few cents in your local guitar store to specialty picks made of rare materials which can cost as much as some guitar pedals!
The sheer range of choices may make you want to despair. But it’s worth taking a bit of time to think about your picking. A pick is a small thing, but don’t let that deceive you into thinking it doesn’t matter! You use it more or less constantly, and it makes a huge difference in getting the sound you want. After all, picks aren’t expensive, so it’s worth purchasing a selection and seeing for yourself how they feel.
It might be tempting to think that your pick choice doesn’t matter when you’re just beginning. When it comes to some things—such as how round the tip is—there’s some truth in it. However, when it comes to other things—such as your pick size and thickness—then it’s more or less exactly false! It’s precisely when you’re still getting used to your instrument that you can use all the help you can get. So pay these things some thought, and you’ll reap huge returns! If you’re really struggling with a new song or solo, you might find that simply changing your pick, or how you hold it, can make all the difference.
So in this article, we’re going to look at some picking tips and tricks for beginners. First, we’ll look at which pick is right for your playing style. We’ll look at what you should look out for in terms of thickness, size, shape, and grip. Then, we’ll look at some techniques and ideas that you can use to bring your playing to the next level. We’ll see a way of looking at how to hold your pick, how tightly to grip it, how high your ‘attack’ height should be, and how to play more accurately.
Picking a Pick
When picking a guitar pick, especially at the beginning, there are basically four things that matter: thickness (gauge), size, shape, and grip. We cover all this in more detail in our how to choose the best guitar pick post but let’s go over some of the parts of it that are most relevant to novice guitarists.
The thickness of a pick is easily the most important thing to consider when buying one. Basically, the thicker a pick is, the less flexible it is. This means two things. On the one hand, you can have more control over your picking and you can play louder. On the other hand, the pick is less forgiving: if you don’t hit the string just right, the note might be ugly or out of time.
How you make the compromise between control and ease of play is a call you’ll have to make yourself, but generally speaking, if you’re a singer-songwriter looking to play full chords, you should go for a relatively thin gauge—anything below 0.75 mm—and if you’re more into rock or jazz and are looking to play melodies, solos, and power chords, you should go for a thicker gauge—say 0.7-1 mm. There’s a huge difference even across a tenth of a millimeter!
I would normally recommend heavier picks to lead guitarists once they are comfortable with thinner picks: the frustration of starting with a heavy gauge can be discouraging. However, if you want to push yourself, then go for it!
A brief word on pick material: make no mistake, material matters! However, it mainly matters in a subtle way, and if you’re only beginning, it is best to try out different materials until you find the one that works for you. All our picks are made from Delrin® acetal, which we think is a great all-rounder.
Perhaps the next most important factor in picking your first pick is size. A pick’s size doesn’t in itself affect your sound, but it can make an enormous difference to how easy it is for you to play.
Generally speaking, larger picks are easier to play with, because they can be more forgiving of variations in the attack height of your picking. If your playing has so advanced that you don’t need your pick to be so forgiving, then you might want to reduce the size of your picks because it’s unnecessary bulk. (I know what you’re thinking: ‘How can a guitar pick have bulk!? They weigh almost nothing!’ Well keep playing for a few years and you too will notice this, and you’ll no doubt feel a bit like the princess who can feel a pea through a hundred mattresses!)
The attack height of your picking is how ‘deep’ into the strings your pick rests. Do you play by just ‘kissing’ the strings with the very tip of the pick? Or do we dig into them with it? If you’re just beginning, the answer is probably ‘both,’ because controlling your attack height is very difficult! If you have a small pick, though, then you run the danger of your attack height sometimes being so high that you miss the string altogether, and sometimes so low that you end up playing with your fingernails (sometimes giving yourself nasty cuts along the way—steel strings are sharp!). A large pick allows you to worry less about this.
As a beginner, then, it makes sense to start off with a relatively large pick. This is especially true if you want to play acoustic strumming: even experienced acoustic guitarists still use large picks.
Finally, there’s the shape of the pick. Guitar picks come in almost any shape you can imagine, from perfect circles to things in the realms of the mad scientist, such as picks that have sides with different properties, or the ‘jellyfish’ pick that looks like—well, a jellyfish! (Its ‘tendrils’ brush over the strings to create very soft chords.) However, most pick shapes reduce to a few basic ingredients: (1) is the tip round or sharp? (2) can you play with more than one side?
The roundness or sharpness of a tip affects how ‘round’ or ‘sharp’ your tone will be. Both are equally easy to play with, and can be used for any play-style. This really just is personal preference. It’s a good idea to try out picks with a variety of tip-roundness in order to work out what speaks to you.
More important, especially for the beginner, is whether you can play with more than one side. Although picks are normally ‘teardrop’-shaped, with a single tip protruding from where you grip it, triangular picks are the shapes of equilateral triangles. This means that if in the heat of the moment, you lose your grip on the pick (perhaps by sweating) and it rotates under your fingers, you’ve got an equally good picking edge.
Whether this ‘safety feature’ is something you need will depend on your playing: if you play aggressively or if you sweat a lot, for instance, it might be worth looking at a triangular pick. Otherwise, just think about whether the tip creates the sound you want.
Finally, it is worth getting a pick with a good grip. Different picks create grip in different ways. Sometimes the material is naturally grippy; other times the pick is shaped in a way that makes it grippier; and so on.
It’s important to get a pick with some sort of grip on it, but you should also make sure that the grip doesn’t extend so far to the tip that it comes into contact with the strings. There are so many options here that it’s hard to give general advice: you’ll just have to try out picks yourself, and see whether their grip suits you.
How to Hold Your Guitar Pick
When you’re starting off, the most important thing to learn about your pick is how to hold the thing. If you’re planning on playing for several hours, it’s very important that you have good technique here: otherwise, you’ll strain your arm and hand muscles, you won’t be able to find your ideal sound, and you’ll generally just become frustrated.
Think of your pick as an extension of your thumb and your index finger. In an ideal world, you would be able to play the strings with your fingers themselves: you already understand how your fingers work, after all, and they could give you a more intimate connection to your instrument. Unfortunately, your finger-pads aren’t a very good picking material, so unless you want to play a nylon-string guitar with your fingernails (steel strings will rip your nails up), or you like the sound of finger-picking, then you need a pick.
Your pick is a substitute for your thumb when you’re ‘down-picking’ (that is, moving the pick in the direction of the floor), and a substitute for your index finger when you’re ‘up-picking’ (that is, moving the pick toward your face). So you should hold the pick between your thumb and index finger in such a way that your thumb pushes the pick on down-picks, with your index finger keeping the pick secure; and on up-picks, it’s your index finger that’s pushing, and your thumb keeping the pick in place.
Note that it’s not your wrist or your elbow that’s doing the picking! It’s just your thumb and index finger. Using your whole forearm to pick a note is a bit like using a machete to chop garlic—not only does it waste energy because it’s unnecessarily hefty, but you can’t chop as accurately as you can with a precision knife, wasting more energy! Your fingers are far more dextrous and precise than your arm is: use them! Use your elbow and wrist to keep you grounded, instead. If you keep them relatively locked to one place on your guitar (for instance, your wrist on the bridge), you’ll find it much easier to find the right string.
Beyond this, it doesn’t really matter how you hold your pick. So long as you’re comfortable and relaxed, and your strong thumb and index finger are what’s doing the picking, then you’re well on your way!
How Tight to Grip Your Pick
If you’re having a long session, you might be holding your pick for several hours. It’s important not to tire yourself out! Don’t grip your pick too tightly: you’ll give yourself muscle cramp. The worst that can happen is that it’ll fly out of your hand, and if the pick has a good grip, then you shouldn’t need to worry about losing it. In short: relax!
I said above that when you’re still getting to grips with your guitar, it can be very hard to get your attack height—that is, the height of your pick tip relative to your strings—precise. It is well worth your while working on this. If you know exactly which part of the pick is going to strike the string, then you know more accurately when it’ll hit the string, and how hard it will strike it. This allows you to play better.
Generally, your pick height should be as high as possible: that is, you should play as close to the tip of the pick as possible. You should also try to play with your fingers as close to the pick tip as possible—without them accidentally touching the strings! Getting this right is hard, but practice makes perfect!
Accuracy and Advanced Picking Techniques
Holding your pick correctly is excellent ‘hygiene’: it will make everything you do easier, for as long as you play guitar. However, there’s no shortcut to being a great guitarist! Most novice guitarists complain that picking accurately across strings (for example, moving from the E string to the A string) is a challenge. And they’re right! The only way to get better at this, however, is practice—lots of practice!
I won’t go into these advanced techniques in this post. However, here’s a basic exercise you might want to try. Play it slowly and carefully, with a pleasant and even tone, until you feel comfortable with it. But don’t forget to vary it! Play without the repeated notes, alternate up- and down-picks, combine it with left-hand techniques—be creative! Even the best guitarists have to practice with exercises like this.
By the Way…
It’s a good thing that guitar picks are so cheap because there’s nothing they love more than to disappear on you! (Personally, I think mice steal them and use them for surfing in the pipes.) When I buy picks, I normally pick up a dozen or so: mostly a bunch of my favorite pick, as well as the odd peculiar one that I’m curious about.