You might think that you’re a singer and a songwriter first, and only play the guitar to accompany what’s really important in your music. ‘And so,’ you might think, ‘the pick doesn’t really matter: any old thing will do.’
You could not be more wrong! In fact, if anything, having the right pick is more important if you don’t want to work on your technique! Guitarists with a refined technique will find it easier to compensate for bad tools. If you’re not interested in getting your chops to that level, then it’ll save you a huge amount of heartache if you don’t have to compensate for the inadequacy of your pick!
This said, you shouldn’t look to what picks virtuosi use: even if there was any agreement about what the best guitar pick is (and there isn’t!), the best guitar pick for acoustic strumming, or for hybrid picking, isn’t the best pick for playing jazz, or the best pick for bass guitar.
What, then, do acoustic singer-songwriters need in a guitar pick? What is the best pick for acoustic guitar playing? Btw, if you are a beginner and need some help in picking techniques, we have a great post for you. We also have a study done on Bach’s Second Violin Partita, if you are interested.
First, what do singer-songwriters do with a guitar? From the delicate fingerpicking of Iron & Wine, to the free strumming of early Dylan, to the grungy assault of Neutral Milk Hotel, to the dancing hybrid-picking of The Tallest Man on Earth… you might well think that there’s not much technique shared by all these guitarists!
This is true enough. But at the same time, there are a few basic techniques that will allow you to tackle most singer-songwriters’ playing. In this article, we won’t look at all of these techniques, but we will look at a few picking techniques. Pure fingerstyle, that is, will be left for another day.
Best Picks for Acoustic Guitar Strumming
First, let’s look at strumming, and in particular at what pick to use.
The simplest thing to do with a guitar is hit it really hard—but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s easy! John Darnielle pummels his guitar: big six-string chords played every beat for whole songs. Easy, right? You switch chords once a bar or so with your fretting hand, and your picking hand just does the same thing for four minutes!
NO. If you pick up a small, thick jazz pick and try to play a Mountain Goats song like Darnielle does, then I guarantee you that one of three things will happen before you finish your first song: the pick will fly out of your hands, you’ll cut your fingers up, or you’ll break a string! If you keep it up for a whole gig, then all three will happen! And even if you somehow avoid all these, you’re almost guaranteed to produce an uneven and ugly tone.
Why is this? And why doesn’t it happen Darnielle?
The reason why, first. (Then we’ll look at what you can do about it.) There are three things going on here: (1) string tension, (2) pick thickness (or gauge), and (3) pick size.
(1) and (2) come together. Acoustic guitars are normally strung with thick, sonorous strings, which consequently have a high tension. This is simply because thicker things are harder to bend: it’s harder to bend a girder than a thread. When you strike these heavy strings with your pick, therefore, they don’t want to budge, and so your pick has to do all the bending. But if you’ve got a thick (or high-gauge) pick, then the pick doesn’t want to move either!
It’s a bit like what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object: something has to give! Depending on a number of factors (such as how thick the pick is, how tight your grip on it is), a few things might happen.
First, the note might sound just fine. Jazz guitarists use high-gauge strings and heavy picks all the time and they get away with it: but they play highly-controlled melodies. If you’re bashing out chords, this won’t happen you!
Second, the string will give: the note will sound, but it will sound very loudly, as it whips back after the pick releases. It might well be too loud for the context, or even start vibrating so violently that it rattles and buzzes against the fret markers, making an ugly sound.
Third, the pick will give—it will get stuck as your hand keeps on moving, and fly straight out of your hand!
Fourth, the string will really give: it’ll snap! If a string is repeatedly stretched more than it can handle, then eventually it gives up the ghost, and heavy picks tend to do just this.
Be very careful, then, when it comes to pick gauge.
The other factor in looking for a good pick for strumming is pick size. If you’re bashing away at a chord while singing into a high microphone (or even just while standing up straight for the sake of getting good welly into your voice), then you’re not looking at your guitar, and so you’ll find it very tricky to play accurately. If you’re playing with a small pick, then, you might often miss the strings. And if you miss them, one of two things will happen: either you’ll not make proper contact, and play a weak and indefinite chord, or you’ll make too much contact, and play the chord with your fingers instead of your pic. Do this too often and your fingers will end up scraped and cut—not recommended!
So what to do? The answer should be obvious by now: instead of a small, thick guitar pick, use a large, thin pick!
The ‘large triangle’ is a good size for acoustic guitar strumming, and well worth checking out. The largeness means two things. First, you have more margin for error in your picking: bash away at those chords without worrying about missing. Second, the pick will be more flexible if more of it is exposed. This is good for the same reason thinness is good—speaking of which…
A thin pick is more flexible, and so will ‘give’ when it strikes the string more easily, without risking any messy battles. You can play big chords more accurately and safely. There’s no best pick thickness for acoustic guitar strumming, but a good rule of thumb is to look for picks with a gauge of 0.75 mm or less.
A thin pick’s flexibility also acts as a natural ‘compressor’: it’s so flexible that it doesn’t much matter how hard it strikes the string, it’ll bend out of the way anyway. (To see an extreme instance of this, try playing play with a wide dynamic range with a piece of paper for a pick!) Compression can be a mixed blessing: by the same token as it’s easier to play at a consistent volume, it’s harder to play very loudly or softly. But if the focus of your music is in the lyrics and vocal melody, then this might not be a difficult compromise to make!
This covers the basics of choosing a pick for acoustic guitar strumming. It’s only the basics, though, and you should try out different picks to find what works for you. For instance, if you play a lot of little melodies or single bass notes mixed in with your strumming, or if you play a lot of two- or three-string chords, you might want to use a heavier pick than if you just belt out six-string chords. (Think Gillian Welch.) Or you might not! There’s no right answer! It all depends on your individual playing style.
Fingerstyle: Best Picks for Hybrid Picking
Very many singer-songwriters don’t just strum, though. Guitarists from John Frusciante, to Lianne LaHavas, to virtuosi such as Jon Gomm, use all sorts of extended techniques under their singing. There are more ways to play a guitar than I can imagine. Here, then, we’ll just consider some of the basics of one of these extended techniques, ‘hybrid picking,’ which is the name for the technique of using both a pick and your fingers to play.
Hybrid picking is when you have either a thumb pick attached to your thumb, which you use to play bass strings while your fingers play the treble strings, or when you hold a flat pick between your thumb and index finger which you use to play the bass, while your other fingers play the treble strings.
The advantage of hybrid picking is that it both allows you to have the strong, clear tone of a pick in the bass, and to easily play the string-skipping arpeggiated chords that would always be an intense workout if you tried to pick them.
Is a Thumb Pick or Flat Pick Better for Hybrid Picking?
If this is the sound you’re after, then you face a fundamental choice: Is a thumb pick or a flat pick better for hybrid picking? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but here are the most important advantages of each to consider.
The thumb pick’s claim basically rests on the fact that it’s purpose-built for hybrid picking. It does one thing, and does it well. A good pick will wrap securely around your thumb, and with a bit of practice you’ll forget it’s there, and you can get on with the business of singing and songwriting. The other advantage is that, because your index finger isn’t holding the pick in place, you’ve got an additional strong finger free for play treble lines.
As with flat picks, the size, shape, and gauge of the pick matters, though, so try out a few thumb picks if you’re thinking about this style. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts here, but read our article about choosing a guitar pick if you want to learn about these factors!
The flat pick’s claim to superiority rests on its versatility. The thumb pick does one thing well, but by the same token, it quickly leaves its comfort zone. If you want to switch from fingerstyle to strumming or to rock or jazz soloing, you’ll find that even the basics, such as alternate picking, are difficult (although some picks are better for this than others), as is a lot of the tonal subtlety you can easily achieve when your index finger is supporting your thumb for additional control. With a flat pick, however, you normally don’t even need to switch position: you just start flatpicking!
As ever, there’s no right answer here. If you’re dedicated enough, and find a pick that works for you, you can even do a lot of things that aren’t ‘supposed’ to be done by that sort of pick. And you don’t even need to choose between the picks: they’re only cheap, and they don’t take up much space, so you don’t need to ever stop experimenting with your picking technique!
There’s more to the techniques used by acoustic singer-songwriters than could ever be covered in a single article, but hopefully this article about the best picks for acoustic strumming and hybrid picking will give you some orientation in what could be otherwise be intimidatingly confusing! Remember, though: the only way to find what works for you is to play, play, and play!
If you still need help selecting a pick, check out our post on choosing the best guitar pick.