Photo by Andy Ellis

Many of us have had the experience of picking up someone else’s guitar and feeling instantly at home. But have you ever tried playing your own guitar with someone else’s pick? Unless it has a gauge, shape, and texture similar to your own, an alien pick can make playing even a familiar axe feel like someone changed the locks on your house.

And today, we’ve got more choices than ever—from handmade boutique picks made of unusual organic materials to mass-produced models with closely guarded polymer recipes. Combined, manufacturers produce hundreds of millions of picks every year in a vast array of the aforementioned characteristics.

Feather quills were the most common material for picking guitars and related instruments until the 19th century, when tortoiseshell became the material of choice.

Yet strictly speaking, picks aren’t necessary. After all, classical guitarists rarely use them, and many players switch between flatpicks and fingerpicking, often in real time, to meet various musical situations. Other players use their fingernails as picks. Some even use coins. Yet aside from the instrument itself, the pick is the universal symbol of guitar playing. How did that happen?

The Spectrum of Plectrums
The story starts at the dawn of recorded history. The word plectrum—which refers to a variety of picks used in everything from guitars to mandolins to harpsichords—comes from Latin by way of the Ancient Greek word plēktron, which, according to Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon,means “anything to strike with, an instrument for striking the lyre, a spear point.” Ancient Greek artifacts show lyre players holding their plectra, and they’re also mentioned in writings about music from the period. In his book Ancient Greek Music, M. L. West describes how the plectrum was attached to the lyre with a string and had a “handle and a short, pointed blade of ivory, bone, or wood.”

Plectrums have been used to play stringed instruments for more than 2,000 years, as proven by images such as this close-up of a circa-480 BCE Greek drinking vessel depicting a lyre player.
Photo by Peintre de Brygos

Other cultures played stringed instruments with plectrums of different sizes and materials. The Indian sarod, for example, is traditionally played with plectrums made from coconut shells and that look a bit like modern teardrop picks. Others, like the Middle Eastern oud, are played with implements that bear little resemblance to contemporary guitar picks.

According to Will Hoover, author of Picks! The Colorful Saga of Vintage Celluloid Guitar Plectrums, feather quills were the most common material for picking guitars and related instruments until the 19th century, when tortoiseshell became the material of choice. At the time, picks were all handmade, and there were no commercial brands as we know them today.

According to multiple sources cited in this story, Will Hoover’s 1995 book, Picks! The Colorful Saga of Vintage Celluloid Guitar Plectrums, is the definitive source of information on the evolution of the guitar pick over the last century.

The Shell Game
Tortoiseshell—which, once upon a time, was also used for pickguards—had a lot going for it in terms of both sound and feel: Stiff yet flexible, it holds its position and produces a smooth striking surface for the strings. Unfortunately, the “tortoises” contributing the shell—primarily hawksbill sea turtles—were giving up their bodies for more than guitar picks. Overharvesting for everything from combs to furniture adornments and eyeglass frames endangered the turtles’ very existence, and in 1973 it was officially listed as among the world’s most endangered species. Since then, it has been illegal to manufacture picks—or anything else—from tortoiseshell. In fact, to be legal, even old tortoiseshell picks (which are highly prized by collectors) require documentation affirming their antique status.

Further, as Steve Stone put it in a 2008 issue of Vintage Guitar, the forbidden material has plenty of drawbacks, chief among them being that it’s brittle, is easy to chip, and requires a lot of upkeep to maintain smooth edge bevels that don’t get hung up on the strings. “A quarter-sized tortoise pick can end up being dime-sized in a matter of six months of steady polishing and use,” says Stone.

Fortunately, an alternative was found a half-century before tortoiseshell was banned. The modern guitar pick traces its roots to the D’Andrea company, which introduced picks made from celluloid—an early thermoplastic—in early 1922. At the time, the guitar was not yet the musical and cultural icon we know today—both banjo and mandolin were more popular. It’s impossible to know if the guitar would have jumped to the top of the pops without Luigi D’Andrea—the man many regard as the Henry Ford of pick manufacturing—but there’s no disputing that his picks ended up in the hands of countless guitar innovators.

The elder D’Andrea was an unlikely candidate to start the revolution in guitar picking. Born in Foggia, Italy, in 1886, he came to the U.S. in 1902. By the dawn of World War I, he had married and settled with his wife, Flora, in New York City’s Little Italy. According to a company history written by his grandson Tony D’Andrea, Jr., “he eked out a living for his family selling vacuum cleaners to his Italian neighbors in the neighborhood. But Luigi apparently was a pretty driven guy and ready to take full advantage of an opportunity that may come along. And one day it did.”