Front and back of the Herco Vintage 66—a pick made from nylon, the first material to rival celluloid in popularity.
Photo courtesy of Jim Dunlop
The Name Game
Interestingly, another D’Andrea innovation—printing on picks—would spur an interest in collecting. It started with the D’Andrea brand name, later evolving to include other manufacturers and, most notably, artists. In the 1950s, D’Andrea started making custom picks for manufacturers and players. For example, Fender’s popular pick was actually a rebranded 351.
By the next decade, the pop-music revolution that had started with Elvis was in full bloom—and demand. Pick-manufacturing competition suddenly soared as fans became players and demanded the opportunity to use the equipment their heroes used, right down to the guitar pick. Some of those players became collectors too, prizing picks by classic and new artists, as well as classic examples in both celluloid and tortoiseshell. Ann Pearson, founder of the Vintage Guitar Picks and Things website, has been offering a forum for collectors for years. “It began as a way of cataloguing my personal vintage guitar-pick collection as it grew in size,” she says. “However, I started to realize the need for a place one could go for information about collecting. It’s really the first and only resource of its kind on the net. Daily, I receive various questions from collectors seeking information on guitar picks, and I always make every attempt to answer every question I receive. Even if it's an ‘I’m sorry, I really don’t know’-type of answer.”
Like many of the manufacturers we spoke to for this story, Pearson refers to Will Hoover’s book Picks! as a must-have resource for collectors and anyone interested in the plectrum’s history. As she puts it, “Will created a spark in the darkness for pick collectors.” Other notable collector-historians include Joe Macey and Brian Bouchard, both of whom—like Hoover and Pearson—are contributors to Pick Collecting Quarterly, an online resource for plectrum fanatics worldwide. Though hard to find, Bouchard’s Guitar Picks of Rock & Roll is another important book used by collectors and fans to rate and identify items in their possession.
Like collectors, manufacturers sometimes themselves go to unusual lengths to honor the picking choices of the greats. “Django Reinhardt used a button as a pick,” says D’Andrea’s plant manager Charlie Lusso, who has been watching the pick business evolve since he joined the company in 1981. “At one time, we supplied a vendor with a knockoff of the button he used!”
Rise of “the Big Three”
From the 1950s to the 1980s, pick manufacturing continued to evolve to meet the demand spurred by the wave of baby-boomer guitarists. Along the way, new stylistic developments in both popular music and guitar playing itself spurred new designs and incorporation of new materials.
It was during this time that, says author Will Hoover, D’Andrea faced its first serious competition from the Hershman Musical Instrument Company—better known as Herco. Initially, Herco offered celluloid picks manufactured in Japan. However, the company’s most lasting contribution began in the 1960s, when it offered picks made of nylon, the first material to rival celluloid in decades. The idea originated with Californian Joseph Moshay, but didn’t catch on until Herco brought it to the masses.
Herco and D’Andrea faced competition from Japan, as well, thanks to a company founded by Shoji Nakano—Pickboy—which by the mid 1970s was producing more than 700,000 picks a month.
Though celluloid was more affordable and more popular among players, real tortoiseshell still had its champions. Even before its trade was outlawed in 1973, manufacturers began looking for other synthetics that could mimic the best qualities of shell while simultaneously eliminating some of its disadvantages, such as its brittleness and inconsistency.
Chemical engineer Jim Dunlop started designing musical-instrument accessories in his native Scotland in 1965. Based on reading about player preferences and his own research, Dunlop began making picks out of nylon. Within a few years, he’d left his job at a chemical-engineering company and built a factory in California. By the ’80s, Dunlop would own nylon pioneers Herco, and join D’Andrea and Pickboy in what Hoover calls “the Big Three.”
At the time, electronics were rapidly changing the guitar’s sonic potential. Distortion boxes and higher-gain amps opened guitarists to tones with less emphasis on attack. You no longer had to pick every note to be heard.
Yet at the same time, some rock and fusion players were playing with more precise—and faster—picking techniques than ever before. “Guys like Al Di Meola and, later, Steve Vai pushed the boundaries,” says Lusso, himself an accomplished guitarist. “Then there was the sweep-picking movement of the 1980s—those fast arpeggios. They all influenced how some players choose and use their picks. At the same time, people like David Gilmour and many others showed how different picking techniques could take advantage of the technology to produce a range of sonic textures.”
In addition to nylon, other alternatives to celluloid began appearing. “In 1981, Jim Dunlop discovered Tortex material as an alternative to celluloid,” says Dunlop product manager Frank Aresti. “Pick manufacturers had long been trying to discover a material to achieve the properties of tortoiseshell—at first it was celluloid, then we discovered Tortex. Jim was a machinist by trade, so he also thought to give the picks more precise gauges—in millimeters—than what was typical at the time. [Editor’s note: Prior to that, picks simply came in light, medium, or heavy gauges.] Aresti adds, “Our colors made the picks stand out in the store. Today [Dunlop] picks are made from nylon, Ultem [the thermoplastic polyetherimide], Delrin [another thermoplastic known as polyoxymethylene], graphite, polycarbonate, stainless steel, aluminum, and felt—and we’re always looking at new materials.”
The Many Personalities of the Pick
Although a major identifying point for many players’ preferred picks remains its color—from faux tortoise to solid hues, pearlescent models, and the abstract-impressionist color mix Lusso lovingly refers to as “puke”—it’s the shape, thickness, bevel, and texture that makes a player stick with a particular pick. “We have great players who swear by different models, but it’s interesting to see how the same pick can work in different styles,” Lusso says. “Joe Pass used a 358, but chicken-pickin’ Tele players also use it because its sharp point gives that bright, articulate sound. The bigger 354 teardrop became a favorite for Lee Ritenour and those L.A. jazz guys, but it’s also used by David Gilmour. Pat Metheny uses a thin pick but just uses the rounded edge of it with a close grip.”
All things being equal, a thick pick will produce a faster attack and fatter sound. But, as Lusso notes, many players carry alternatives for specific situations. For instance, many guitarists prefer a light pick to get the shimmery acoustic sound heard on so many pop hits. In fact, between composition, shape, size, and thickness, there is an overwhelming number of ways to shape your tone and technique through use of different picks. And while it’s been decades since the most popular shapes came to be, there’s still plenty of innovation in the industry.
“We make well over a thousand different models,” Dunlop’s Aresti says. “It’s safe to say a great deal of development goes into every pick, but some picks require more than others. Take our Primetone series for example: This is a complicated pick with a great deal of features and benefits that took a lot of time and attention to develop. The grip is the first thing players notice when they pick up the pick, and we were keenly aware of what we wanted the player’s experience to be, so a great deal of time was spent on design for that. The material and the beveled edge are the next things players notice, so we sweat over those details, as well—particularly the bevel, since that is the primary point of contact with the string. A simpler pick, by comparison, would be our new Tortex Flex picks, which we announced at NAMM 2017. We start with the material and spend more time on the finishing process to achieve a certain feel when the pick comes in contact with the strings.”
Today, the majority of mass-produced picks are made using one of two processes: molding—the technique developed for nylon but also used on some plastic-compound models—and punching with tool dies that, Lusso says, resemble cookie cutters. “Once the picks come out of the punch press, they undergo a process called tumbling, which creates both the finished feel and the smooth edges players expect,” says Lusso. “It’s typically a two-step process, with each step taking about a day and a half. So a pick actually takes about a workweek to make. Today, we use such environmentally friendly materials as corn cobs in the tumbling process. The goal is to get that nice beveled edge and finished feel.”
As for new designs, “we’re always getting ideas, both internally and from players,” Lusso says. “Since 2012, we’ve been owned by Delmar Products, Inc., which is the exclusive distributor for celluloid, so we can utilize these resources to develop new and unique designs, too. But we also 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. A design needs to work on a massive level for us to produce it. Making a new pick model is a big investment, and in terms of tooling, it costs us the same to make 200 as it does to make 250,000. Punch dies cost between $5,000 and $10,000, while the molds we use for nylon and Delrin cost tens of thousands of dollars. Our original tooling [for nylon picks] cost over $80,000 back in the 1980s.”
Yet pick making isn’t only about mass production. It continues on a more grassroots level as well, thanks to a new generation of handcrafters who make specialized picks of both traditional and nontraditional materials. “We use a bench grinder that has a grinding wheel on one side and a buffing wheel on the other as the main tool,” says Chris Fahey, founder of boutique outfit Gravity Picks. “The pick is slowly shaped and then buffed to a mirror finish—slow and steady, no magic involved.”
Fahey’s apprenticeship began when he started working with Vinni Smith of V-Picks in 2007. “That is where I initially learned the craft of pick making. Three and a half years of shaping little pieces of plastic will make anyone into a master picksmith. It is tedious, monotonous work. Fortunately, I enjoy that type of work. The inspiration for Gravity Picks came from looking at the other dozen or so handmade pick companies and seeing how I could do something that they weren’t doing.”
Fahey and Smith are part of a growing community of boutique makers. Other notable companies include Wegen, Brossard, Hot-Picks USA, Childs Custom Guitars (which handcrafts picks from wood, mother-of-pearl, and other materials), StoneWorks, BlueChip Picks, and more. Does Fahey see a connection between today’s small shops and the 20th-century pioneers? “I feel that I have a small amount of ingenuity and a lot of tenacity to build upon what others started,” he says. “But the folks that created [the industry] from nothing are in a league of their own.”