The plectrum revolution began in the 1920s with the celluloid D’Andrea 351, which is still manufactured in the
company’s Pennsylvania factory. Photo courtesy of D’Andrea

From the Kitchen Table to World Stages
In the 1920s, the Manhattan neighborhoods just north of the financial district were full of factories. The downtown lofts that now serve as homes for well-heeled New Yorkers were sweatshops churning out everything from textiles to machine goods.

“In those days, these small manufacturers would often drag any excess inventory out to the sidewalk in front and display these items for sale,” D’Andrea writes. “One day, walking down a street with many lofts, [Luigi] stopped in front of a company that made ladies’ powder puffs and makeup compacts. With the change in his pocket, he bought the items they had displayed for sale, namely: a few sheets of tortoiseshell-patterned celluloid, several small mallet dies, and the frames of makeup and compact cases and their decoration.”

Back at his apartment, Luigi decided to use the tools and materials to create his own makeup compacts. As he started hammering out heart shapes from the celluloid—a popular decoration for makeup cases at the time—his 8-year-old son Tony noticed the resemblance to the tortoiseshell mandolin picks used by his cousin, Primo. Sensing an opportunity, Luigi brought a box of these heart-shaped picks to a local music store. With Tony, who spoke better English, acting as interpreter, D’Andrea sold the box for $10—over $135 in today’s money, and a tidy sum at the time.

Celluloid—which is still one of the most popular materials for picks—wasn’t exactly new even in 1922. But as Tony Jr. puts it, “it was still the only commercially available plastic in the world … And because of its strength and flexibility and density, [it] made a great guitar pick—and still does.” Made from a combination of nitrocellulose and camphor, celluloid was patented in 1870 by John Wesley Hyatt, who built on the work of Alexander Parkes, a Briton who invented and patented the first thermoplastic, Parkesine, in 1862.

Early 20th-century music catalogs featured mandolin plectrums made from celluloid and shell, often with cork and other design features aimed at improving the player’s grip. One interesting patent had several picks fit together, Swiss Army knife-style, and some picks combined early plastics with rubber, leather, and other materials.

“We have an archive of old designs from the 1950s, and we often find that a lot of ‘new’ ideas were tried a long time ago.” —Charlie Lusso, plant manager at D’Andrea USA

The standardization of the pick—combined with amplification—had an immediate impact on the guitar’s sound and role. “Because striking the guitar strings with a pick produced a much louder sound than could be made with the bare fingers, guitarists in jazz and dance bands had to play with a pick to be heard above the other instruments on the bandstand, like the woodwinds, brass, and drums,” explains Jon Chappell, co-author of the Guitar for Dummies (Wiley) series. “In the 1920s and ’30s, musical styles dictated that guitars replace banjos, so performers like Eddie Lang and Freddie Green became known as guitarists and no longer had to bring a banjo along on their gigs. Green was the guitarist with the Count Basie Band for 50 years and was famous for his signature four-to-the-bar rhythm technique. Essentially, Green would hammer out quarter-note chords, delivered as downstrokes, which served as the foundation of the band’s rhythm, or accompaniment, sound. The pick was also essential for the techniques developed by influential jazzmen like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, who took picking into the single-note realm and demonstrated the guitar’s potential as a solo instrument alongside horns and strings. Then there was Les Paul, Barney Kessel, and George Van Eps, as well as country pickers like Jimmy Bryant, who adapted the bowing technique of his days playing violin to master double picking. On the acoustic side, a whole school of high-speed bluegrass playing was developed around the flatpick—it’s even called ‘flatpicking.’”

But picking wasn’t just about speed. “[Highly influential American folk group] the Carter Family used the pick to combine melody and chords in a way that became a template for country and folk,” Chappell says. “And of course, the pick would later give rock players the power and attack that defined the sound of the electric guitar for decades.”

Birth of the 351
Demand grew quickly, and Luigi’s kitchen-table business moved to several factory spaces, including homes in a small building on 29th Street, a larger facility on Long Island, and finally to its current Connecticut-based headquarters and Pennsylvania factory location. And though the company would expand into the businesses of importing instruments and producing accessories, picks have remained its mainstay.

But until D’Andrea’s original epiphany, most picks sold by major companies were made in small shops under contract. Luigi both standardized and industrialized pick making, and by 1928 was mass-producing picks on an unprecedented scale, using semi-automatic punching machines and tumblers to smooth the edges. With input from players, he developed more than 50 celluloid-pick shapes, and dozens more that were available in real tortoiseshell. “I remember being in my grandfather’s office and watching players visit on a Saturday morning to bounce guitar picks on the glass tabletop and discuss the different tonal qualities of celluloid versus real tortoiseshell, and the merits of one shape over another, as the picks bounced,” Tony Jr. says.

Early 20th-century singer-guitarist Nick Lucas, shown in this 1930s image, is considered the performer who first popularized the notion of playing guitar with a pick—specifically the D’Andrea model 351 that most modern designs descended from. Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns

Luigi gave the shapes numbers—which are still in use today. Famous examples include the small, pointy teardrop he called the 358, the larger, rounder teardrop he termed the 354, and the ubiquitous rounded triangle of the 351, which Tony Jr. calls “the standard of the industry [that] still represents the pick of choice for 98 percent of guitar players throughout the world.”

The 351 was originally associated with Nick Lucas, an early 20th-century singer and guitarist regarded by many to be the first to popularize playing the instrument with a plectrum. But long after Lucas faded from the pop charts, the unique traits of the 351 had come to define the average person’s conception of the guitar pick. The latter was aided by the fact that D’Andrea never patented his designs—but most of the competing brands were actually picks designed and manufactured by D’Andrea. That would start to change in the ensuing decades.

Concurrent with development of the pick, the guitar itself was undergoing a rapid evolution in terms of technique, tone, and popularity. As new generations of jazz, country, and pop players expanded its potential as both a lead and a rhythm instrument, the flatpick went from an accompanist’s basic strumming utensil to a precision tool that opened up new realms of speed and accuracy.