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It’s kind of ironic, but it may be that the smallest and most affordable piece of gear we guitarists own—ounce for ounce, and dollar for dollar—has the biggest impact on both our tone and our technique. We use the pick (or “plectrum”) to strike the strings, and that sets our entire audio signal in motion—whether it’s through airborne acoustic sound waves or a signal path full of stompboxes feeding blaring amps. The material, thickness, texture, and shape of that pick have an outsized impact not only on the sound we create, but also on our phrasing and articulation.
Indeed, a pick can strongly influence our musical decision-making: Do we play linear, single-note lines in a more legato fashion because we want to minimize the crisp attack our heavy pick imparts, or do we crank out melodic double-stops because that same pick attack pushes them over the top in such an addictive way? Do we add upstroke ghost notes to that rhythm part because our thin pick gives them an ethereal subtlety, or just keep a battery of eighth-notes going because the understated feel helps build tension? Regardless of the genre of music you play, and the musical applications you’re attempting to serve, your choice of pick will provide a tonal foundation for your sound and your technique.
Fortunately, it’s a good time to explore picks, because there’s a smorgasbord of varieties available today. In addition to the big pick kahunas that’ve been around for decades—companies like Fender, Dunlop, D’Andrea, and Ernie Ball—a slew of smaller manufacturers are making top-notch picks in a variety of styles and materials. These new companies include Red Bear Trading Company, Steve Clayton, V-Picks, Wegen, JB, BlueChip, Golden Gate, PickBoy, Wedgie, and more. If, like most players, you’ve been using the same pick for years, perhaps now’s the time to experiment with shapes and materials you’d never considered before. You may be amazed at what a sharper tip, a heavier gauge, or a more unusual material might bring out of you. And it’s a helluva lot cheaper than shelling out for another guitar, amp, or even a pedal.
1. The Material World
Generalizations about the tonal characteristics of pick materials are hard to make, because everyone uses them a bit differently. But if you’ve ever been caught without a pick and had to resort to fishing a quarter out of your pocket, you know just how harsh and unforgiving the wrong material can be. (Although, even a quarter may be a fitting plectrum in some circumstances!)
By and large, most electric guitarists today use some form of plastic or nylon pick, but the types of plastic have changed considerably over the years. Luigi D’Andrea first began making guitar picks from cellulose acetate plastic back in 1922, and it has remained one of the standard materials for guitar picks ever since, as with Ernie Ball’s standard line of Cellulose Acetate Nitrate picks (ernieball.com). Some pick purists swear by “tortoiseshell,” which is actually made from the shell of the Atlantic Hawksbill Turtle—an endangered species that is, incidentally, not a tortoise at all. When real turtle shell was banned from trade back in 1973, pick makers turned to plastics to emulate its combination of flexibility and durability. In the process, they discovered DuPont Delrin, the material used in Dunlop’s long-lived and very popular Tortex line (jimdunlop.com), D’Andrea’s Delrex line (dandreausa.com), and Ernie Ball’s new Everlast picks.
The Tortex pick’s distinctive powdery texture—which applies friction to the strings and helps make for a surer grip— comes from a proprietary polishing process that’s part of Dunlop’s own version of the basic “punch-and-tumble” pick-making technique. (The other frequently used process is injection molding.) “For the longest time, our nylon picks were No. 1 for us in the US,” says Jimmy Dunlop, “and they’re still huge in the UK. But, starting in the early ’90s with the grunge guys, Tortex really started to take over: All those guys used Tortex—Kurt Cobain, Jerry Cantrell, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden … .”
While Delrin aims to emulate the properties of turtle shell, newer plastics like Ultem (polyetherimide) are also being used, including in Dunlop’s Ultex line and Steve Clayton’s Ultem picks (steveclayton.com). Many tortoiseshell enthusiasts—especially bluegrass and Gypsy-jazz players—are also singing the praises of Red Bear Trading Company (redbeartrading.com), whose Red Bear Original and Tortis picks are made of a polymerized animal protein that Red Bear’s Michael Skowron likes to call “cultured turtle shell.” Companies like Wegen (wegenpicks.com), Golden Gate, and BlueChip (bluechippick. net) are also making tortoiseshell-style picks from various materials.
Nylon picks—including the legendary Herco Flex used by Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, and Gene Simmons (and which are now made and distributed by Dunlop)—have been a mainstay for many players for decades. They have an arguably brighter sound and more flexibility than comparably thick plastic picks, and they very often have textured grips that make them less likely to slip out of your hand at that sweaty blues jam. They may appeal more to players shooting for a vintage sound, as they seem less suited to the kind of very compressed tone and tight rhythm phrasing that modern rockers gravitate towards.
Stone, wood, leather, and other more exotic materials certainly have their place, too—both as aesthetically beautiful items and as alternate tone generators. In general, the harder and denser the material, the more crisp and cutting the resulting sound. As with guitar bodies and necks, wood picks can impart a variety of tones ranging from brighter and more articulate (e.g., from harder woods) to earthier, warmer sounds from softer woods. The Stone Picks Co. (stonepicks.com) makes picks from gemstones and jade, while Stoneworks (stoneworkspicks.com) creates one-of-a-kind picks from materials like turquoise, variscite, and something they call “dinosaur bone.” Surfpick (surfpick.com) makes plectra out of lignum vitae wood, while Pick Your Axe (pickyouraxe.com) offers a variety of woods, including zebrawood, walnut and bubinga. If you’re hell-bent for leather, you’ll want to check out Corter Leather (corterleather.bigcartel.com), which makes picks out of good ol’ hide—you can even have them tanned to order. If you find you still like the sound of that nickel or quarter after all, you might look into Fender’s Steel pick (fender.com)— just don’t drop it in a slot machine.