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2. Get with the Thickness
Whatever the material, a thinner pick— somewhere between .40 and .60 mm for more standard materials like Delrin or nylon—will have a lighter sound that often works better for acoustic strumming and other applications where you want a more trebly tone. The classic strummed acoustic guitar zing sound—so useful on rock, pop, and country recordings for filling in the midrange and helping to define rhythms— is almost always the result of using a thin or extra thin pick. Indeed, the noise of the thin pick flapping against the strings is often an essential part of that sound.
Conversely, thin picks make little sense for rock rhythm guitar or lead, however, as they deliver very little bass or midrange tone, and simply lack the heft necessary to bring out a well-rounded tone on singlenote leads. For that, you’ll at least need to step up to a medium-gauge pick—which is generally in the range of .60 to .80 mm. Mediums remain the most popular pick thickness, and with good reason: While they’re not ideal for zingy strumming, they’re the perfect combination of stiffness and flexibility for rock rhythm work and full-bodied acoustic accompaniment (especially in solo situations), and they’ve got enough heft to produce powerful tones on leads and hook figures as well. Tonally, they tend to help produce a good blend of high-end bite and lower mid-range thump, without being too shrill or boomy.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little boom. For a heavier sound, you’ll naturally want to gravitate to a heavier pick—basically anything past .80 mm. At the lower end of this range, you’ll still have enough flexibility for crunchy rhythms, but you’ll also have the firmness you need for full-bodied chord arpeggios and fat lead lines. In fact, it’s noteworthy just how much one’s tone changes in switching from a medium to a thick pick. Solos suddenly sound more dynamically even—almost compressed— with fewer transients and spikes. And you may even find that your leads seem to clean up a bit, as there’s likely to be less pick noise and less slop in your playing.
At the thicker end of this range, over 1.5 mm, you’ll find the ideal weights for bebop and other big-body jazz guitar playing— sounds that become increasingly mellow and warm, and lines that sound even cleaner and more burnished. But the biggies aren’t just for jazz cats: Metal dudes who favor a bottom-heavy, scooped-mid sound will also want to experiment with picks in the 1.5 mm to 3 mm range.
3. Shape of Things
The shape of your pick is another place to consider experimenting. While you may be attached to a certain shape, as your playing develops, you may find that a different shape becomes more desirable. Generally, electric players who want more precision, control, and articulation of single-note lines (including shred kings like Dream Theater’s John Petrucci, who uses teardrop-shaped 2.0 mm Dunlop Ultex Jazz III picks) will gravitate toward smaller, heavier picks with pointier tips, which is why virtually all jazz-oriented picks are shaped this way.
As Jimmy Dunlop puts it, “If you make the conversion to a Jazz III pick, you’re not coming back. If you suddenly were to go back to a standard-size pick after that, it would be like putting on a pair of clown shoes and trying to run the 40-yard dash. You simply develop a more articulate style with a pick like that.”
Those teardrop and small, triangular shapes, says Ernie Ball’s Derek Brooks, “were really made popular by the jazz guys, and I’ve also noticed that a lot of the progressive, highly technical shred players also prefer those. Arguably, there’s less drag on a smaller pick like that.” Apart from the standard, teardrop and jazz shapes, other essential shapes include the equilateral triangle and the fin shape, which offers more than one style of contact surface, including a multi-point edge, as well as a more standard rounded point.
But it’s not just the shape you should consider, either—it’s which part of said shape you use. Some players use the rounded rear portion of the standard pick shape to get a sound that’s a little more full and, well, rounded.
4. Tap into Textures
Though it's probably one of the most overlooked aspects of picks from a tonal perspective, believe it or not, the texture of your plectrum’s surface can also be a big deal. Many pick designs—including Dunlop’s traditional Nylon picks (as well as their Max-Grip cousins) and D’Andrea’s Brain picks—feature raised lettering and/ or other patterns intended to help you maintain a better hold under sweaty conditions. But a lot of players like these raised surfaces even more for the impact they have on tone. Famous players who reportedly flip these picks around so that the textured grip surface comes in contact with the strings include country star Keith Urban and U2’s the Edge (who uses nylon Herdim picks with raiseddot grippage). Try it out—grab a pick with raised dots or lettering, and dig how it imparts a more biting texture to your sound.
How to Pull off a Rockin' Pick Slide
A dramatic pick slide is either the coolest pick trick, or the dorkiest, depending on how well you pull it off. If you sound like Eddie Van Halen on the intro to 1979’s “D.O.A.,” you’ve got it mastered. If your cat shrieks—keep practicing. A Dunlop Tortex Heavy has the perfect mix of grainy, powdery texture and weight for pick slides, while most cellulose and nylon picks don’t. Here’s the key: The pick should be held flat against the low E string, so that the gripping surface—not the edge—is what contacts the string. (That’s why they don’t call it a “pick scrape.” No one said a glory move like this would be easy.) Start with the pick back by the bridge, and drag it rapidly along the length of the string, all the way to the nut. You’ll want to have a decent amount of gain for this—and it doesn’t hurt to have a phaser and some delay to help create that jet-swoosh sound while making the whole slide that much bigger and broader. —JR
5. A Question of Style
Ultimately, the pick you choose will have everything to do with what style of music you play and the unique attributes you bring to that style. Still, it’s equally fascinating that it also works the other way around: The pick you use can have a determining effect on how your style develops. “I like to play solos, so I prefer a heavy pick for digging in,” says Ernie Ball’s Brooks, “and that’s the only pick I use. So I’m aware that that’s had a big impact on my rhythm style, which might be quite different if I’d used a medium pick all these years.”
Although players of all types are encouraged to be adventurous with every consideration we’re discussing here, there are still some pretty reliable rules of thumb to follow if you’re new to guitar and are overwhelmed by the possibilities. For acoustic players, here’s what we recommend: Acoustic chord strummers will generally want to use a thin pick, probably one made of cellulose, Delrin, or faux tortoiseshell. Acoustic flatpickers engaging in more intricate playing and single-note lines will probably prefer something a bit more rigid, perhaps a medium or a heavy. And they, too, will want to seek out some of the excellent tortoiseshell replacements, such as Red Bear’s Original and Tortis, Dunlop’s Ultex, Clayton’s Ultem, or JB’s Shell Sonics (jbpicks.com). That said, a good old-fashioned Fender Medium or D’Andrea Classic Celluloid will also work. And if thumbpicks are your calling, most manufacturers have something that’ll suit your needs.
Electric rock players, on the other hand, can, uh, take their pick, though they will almost certainly favor medium to very heavy gauges of standard-shaped or large triangular picks, with either a rounded or a sharp tip. Classic- and indie-rock players might consider nylon or cellulose, while metal and grunge aficionados might steer toward Delrin or even acrylic models, such as V-Picks’ Stiletto, Switchblade, Venom, or Snake models (v-picks.com). As we mentioned previously, regardless of genre, if accuracy and precision are your game, consider trying a smaller, harder pick with a sharp tip. Jazz players also typically favor the smaller, harder picks, such as Dunlop’s Jazz III or Big Stubby, Planet Waves Black Ice Extra Heavy (planetwaves.com), PickBoy Pos-A-Grip Jazz (pickboyguitarpicks.com), and many others.
To Each Their Own
There’s no accounting for taste, of course, and the only way to really find your true voice on the instrument is to keep practicing and keep experimenting. Ultimately, only your own ears can tell you when you’ve found the pick that best assists you in realizing the sound inside your head. And chances are, your idea of what constitutes the ideal pick will evolve over time, or at least broaden to include different considerations for different applications. So try as many as you can and keep your ears—and your mind—open. With that approach, you’re sure to always pick a winner.