If I were ever arrested for being a guitar player and they searched my house for evidence, they'd probably come up with a few hundred guitar picks. Years worth of them in gig bags, junk drawers, pocket change and sofa cushions. Chances are most guitar players could say the same. Usually there is at least some variety in most "private collections," but eventually most of us find something we're comfortable with and settle down, seldom making another change unless the style demands it. Yet many players have never really studied picks and the nuances of each type. A new pick can inspire a different way of picking or help the player to get a better feel for a challenging technique, such as alternate or sweep picking. Every once in a while, exploring a handful of new picks can lead to new avenues of playing, for only a few cents... okay, dollars. Forgive me; I've been at this a long time.
When it comes to picks, there are as many different materials as can be found on the planet. They come in everything from natural stone to wood, plastics, and metal. Each material produces a different spectrum of harmonics when you strike the string. In general, the harder the material, the brighter the sound. Stone, metal, and wood produce more high frequency response from the string than plastic. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a felt pick produces a very warm sound with vary few high frequency harmonics. In the middle, different plastics and other materials each have their own sound. The best way to choose a pick material is by experimenting with lots of types until you find one that you like.
There are many strange shaped picks out there, but the standards are a good place to start. Teardrop styles are easy to grasp and offer good articulation with the point. Some specialty teardrops are thicker and rounder than the rest. These can be very useful for improving your feel for speed picking, as you can feel the string sliding back and forth over the tip of the pick without losing contact. For those who have trouble hanging on, there are giant triangles and other unique shapes. The shape of the pick can affect your picking style in some cases.
While the material and shape are critical factors when choosing a pick, nothing is more important to the player than the stiffness of the pick. Flexible picks have a softer attack and strike the strings smoothly- at the price of reduced accuracy. A harder pick will give the best articulation and makes playing fast passages a lot easier for most players. On occasion, a pick may be too stiff for a particular style or technique. A skilled player can relax their grip on the pick to compensate, but if you have a death grip, you may end up dropping picks that are overly stiff for your style. If you ever have to use a pick that is too flexible, choking up your grip so it is close to the tip will reduce the effect the flexibility has on your playing.
While material is the most significant contributor to your overall sound, the edges of the pick and how they are polished can make a big difference. Traditional celluloid picks like a Fender medium, have rounded and polished edges. The smooth edge helps the pick glide easily across the string for a fast feel. Other picks are stamped out with square edges and are not polished at all. These give you a sharper edge that can improve articulation as well as generating some extra high harmonics. Some picks have edges, which bevel inwards to a knife-edge. Much like square corners, these can be good for articulation and high harmonics. Conversely, rounded corners can mellow the harmonic response, which is why a lot of stone picks yield a warmer tone than you might expect; their rounded edges offset the hard material. The difference is a matter of personal taste. Pro tip for getting more wear out of your pick edges: try stroking the edge of the pick on a piece of commercial carpet- it smoothes out the notches caused by string wear and can extend pick life. Don't try this trick on your spouse's prize white carpet! It leaves a streak of plastic behind. Get a remnant to use instead and save yourself a world of trouble!
The finish of the pick is also important. The old time celluloid picks are polished to a shiny surface. Rarely, you will encounter celluloid picks that are tumbled rather than polished (D'Andrea used to make these). The tumbled picks have a somewhat powdery surface that makes them easier to hang onto (at least for a song or two anyway). A good number of nylon picks have either the dusty tumbled finish, or the surface is unpolished nylon for a better grip. Some nylon and injection-molded picks have ridges, holes, or raised lettering on the surface to improve gripping as well.
Picks come in a wide variety of sizes, although traditional large teardrop (style 351) picks are by far the most common. We noted earlier that a larger pick can be easier to hold onto. A small pick encourages the player to use the shallowest possible picking technique. This really helps when playing quick, fast passages and has less chance of "snagging" on the string. Medium styles offer a good compromise, hence their popularity.
Get a Handful and Experiment
It's hard to get a feel for how a particular pick will perform on the gig. Fortunately, a small handful is a cheap investment. Pick up every weird pick that catches your eye, then take them home and experiment. Maybe you will find a new favorite, or perhaps you will remind yourself why you chose the ones you're using now. But not too many music expenditures will affect your playing as much as a pick, for so little money. More bang for the buck, as the old expression goes. What are your favorite guitar picks? Let us know in the comment section below.
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