Metal shows no mercy!
If you want to take it on, you had better show it some respect, and that means getting the details right. You know this: that’s why you’re here. You know that the chunky down-tuned djent of Meshuggah and finger-blistering solos of Buckethead can’t be approached unprepared, with just whatever kit you have lying about. If you’re a singer-songwriter, here’s our guide on picking techniques.
A lot of things need to be right if you want to have a hope of doing justice to metal music. Your string gauge has to match your tuning, you need to have a good neck and bridge, and you should probably invest in a good distortion pedal or two.
But perhaps the most important thing—and certainly one of the most important things—is happily the cheapest: your guitar pick. In this blog post, we’re going to really drill down on this element of your toolkit, so that you can choose the guitar pick that suits you best—whether you want to blast out C-tuned Godsmack riffs, surf with Satch, or find a pick that lets you switch between clean and distorted tones as rapidly and convincingly as Opeth.
So, without further ado, let’s get stuck in!
Material and Gauge
Metal is nothing if not precise. Whether it’s James Hetfield’s machine-gun 16th-note attack in ‘One,’ Dream Theater’s constantly-shifting time signatures, or Steve Vai’s wild undecuplets (that’s 11 notes in the space of 8)—in metal, you need to be on the ball rhythmically.
An appropriate pick is the most important factor in precise and rapid playing!
Why? It’s basically because of the inaccuracy that occurs (1) when a pick is flexible or (2) when there isn’t a clean and consistent release point. What do I mean here? Let’s look at these two factors in turn.
The most important point is flexibility. To see why this matters, let’s slow down what happens when a pick strikes a string.
t1. The pick comes into contact with the string.
t2. As you press down, the string ‘bends back’ under the weight of the pick, and the pick ‘bends back’ under the weight of the string. The string also bends down, towards the pick tip.
t3. The string ‘falls off’ the pick.
t4. The string snaps back to its original position, and then with the momentum it has gained, keeps on going, before returning to its original position again, and then because of momentum… In short, it vibrates! In an electric guitar, this vibration is picked up by the magnets on the guitar’s pick-ups, is sent through your pedals and amp, and makes a roar!
The important steps here are t2 and t3. If your pick has a light gauge, then (1) it is more flexible, and so will ‘bend back’ more. (2) How much it bends back will vary by tiny differences in how the pick strikes the string: if you hold the pick flat to the strings, it will bend by a lot more than if you hold it an angle. (3) There’s a big gap between t1 and t3: when you strike the string isn’t when the string sounds. And finally, (4) by the time the string releases, the pick may already have passed quite far beyond the string’s ‘resting place,’ which puts a limit on how quickly you can re-strike it.
So what? Well, first, because there’s a wait, you have to get into the mental habit of striking the string before you want it to sound. This is tricky at the best of times, but as when the string sounds keeps changing, it becomes almost impossible to play perfectly accurately. Second, the greater the distance the pick has to travel back and forth over the string, the less quickly you can play.
These things aren’t necessarily big deals if the music you’re playing is itself rhythmically free and relaxed: but in music that’s as precise and fast as metal, you’ll really feel the limitations.
The solution: use a pick with a heavy gauge! Quite simply, the heavier the gauge, the faster and more accurately you can pick.
So should you just go for the most rigid pick you can find? You can get bass picks of up to 2 mm, and you can even get picks made out of metal, which are almost totally rigid. Sounds perfect, right?
There’s no right answer here. If that extreme works for you, then go for it. But be careful: a pick can be too rigid, and it can be too rigid for your playing style. One factor is timbral: although rigid picks generally offer you wide tonal control, there are some sounds that can only be created by lighter-gauge picks. Another factor is grip: thicker picks are harder to shape between your fingers, making them harder to keep a firm hold upon. A good manufacturer’s grip (such as we offer!) should negate this problem, though, as does using a pick made out of Delrin® acetal, which is notable for its ‘shapeability.’
But there’s also the problem that if you use a super-heavy-gauge pick then you had better be sure you can consistently strike the string with the very tip of the pick: otherwise, the string might just ‘stick’ to the pick, resulting in either no note, an ugly wolf note out of time when the string eventually releases, or the pick flying right out of your hand! Finding the balance between is a matter of trial and error: try out a bunch of picks! As a general rule of thumb, though, most metal guitarists tend to use picks between 1 mm and 1.5 mm.
Finally, there’s the matter of down-tuning. If you’re down-tuning your guitar, you should probably use heavier strings; but even so, you’ll probably find that the strings aren’t as slack as they are when they’re tuned to EADGbe. Heavier picks (1.5 mm or even thicker!) are great for ‘making up’ for that slackness.
So much for the importance of your pick’s rigidity. What about cleanliness and consistency of release? The release of a pick is how your pick ‘comes off’ the string.
It is hugely important that the pick releases cleanly, as it allows the sound to be clean and consistent. Some cheap picks that aren’t machined properly can have tiny bits of loose plastic around the edge. This manufacturing fault isn’t a big deal for some things, but it can really upset your playing in metal. Even in some good-quality picks, the material used can mean that the picking edge is imperfectly slick, and this will slow how quickly the pick can pass over the string, and so how fast you can play: shredding is out! We make our picks from Delrin® acetal because it’s one of the best materials in the world for pick release! On the other hand, approach materials such as nylon and felt with caution.
As a metal guitarist, you’ll probably be spending most of your time either playing precise single-note lines (be they solos or fiddly prog riffs), or belting out deep power chords. From a picking perspective, each style has slightly different requirements. Let’s look at these now.
If you’re playing precise lines, you ideally want the pick tip to be as close to your fingers as possible. We all have an innate sense of where our fingers are, and if we can use that to our advantage by minimising the distance between them and the string we strikes, then so much the better. It’s well worth looking at small ‘jazz’ picks if this is how you play: they are so small that the only way to firmly hold the pick is close to the tip. (You can also find ‘stylus’ picks that are designed in such a way that if you don’t play with the very tip of the pick you can’t play at all: they are practice picks, and might work for you. (I never found I needed to, but everyone learns in their own way.))
If you’re an aggressive player who loves big power chords, though, you might find yourself wanting to play more freely, or to attack the strings from a distance! If you try and play this sort of music with a jazz pick, then you might find yourself playing with the back of your fingers as much as with your pick! If you’re of the school of thought that “you ain’t played the blues till your fingers bleed,” then maybe you won’t mind—but gentler souls (such as myself) might prefer to use a larger pick.
How to make the compromise between these two requirements is very much something every player will have to decide themselves. A standard-sized pick is probably a good place to start if you’re not sure.
Finally, there’s the question of shape. The main point here, really, is the shape of the pick tip: do you want a round or pointed tip? Both shapes allow you to play fast, but pointed tips do have a bit of an edge, speedwise, over round tips.
Beyond this, it’s a matter of personal taste, and a lot of metal maestros, such as Paul Gilbert, do go for round-tip picks. Just one other point: if you’re down-tuning a lot, then you might want to opt for a pointier tip: the bright tone they give will keep your low notes distinct.
Turning Off the Distortion
There’s nothing quite like that moment in ‘Master of Puppets’ when those wonderful slow arpeggios come out of the thrash of the first three and a half minutes. It’s like escaping a maelstrom into a desolate cathedral that doesn’t quite give you security but gives you at least some respite to catch your breath. I don’t think anyone can do a clean tone like metal musicians!
But what does this mean for your picking? Well, fortunately, not much. That particular metal way of playing clean—the precise arpeggios and delicate steel melodies—can easily be played by the small, heavy picks that you use for your power chords. Indeed, jazz musicians tend to use very similar picks to metal musicians! [For more detail on playing in this clean, precise style, see our article on jazz picks.]
The final consideration is durability. All picks wear out, but heavy metal really kills picks, and you’ll really notice a worn-down and serrated pick-edge when you’re trying to play accurately and quickly as you will have to do in metal. The only solutions here are to make sure to use tough, high-quality materials—such as we make ours from!—and to keep an eye on your picks, ditching them as soon as you notice erosion.
This covers the basics of metal pick choice. In short, the best guitar pick for shredding and heavy-metal chugging is heavy-gauge, made of a high-durability material with a good pick release, of whichever size and shape suit your playing (with the caveat that if you’re into precision picking and shredding, you should pay especially close consideration to smaller guitar picks).
However, remember that all of this is just a rule of thumb! Some metal guitarists use super-light gauge picks, others use quick-eroding cellulite—as with the rest of your playing, you’ve got to find your own voice.
If you’re just a beginner, we do have a guide for you too, check out our post on beginner picking techniques.