The Spectrum of Plectrum
Often, it’s the little things that go unnoticed, but in the pursuit of tone perfection, even the diminutive and easily neglected pick can make a big difference. I must confess that I’ve been overlooking my own picks. When I buy them, I tend to grab a dozen or so of the same ones I bought the last time, stick a few in my mic stand pickholder, and forget about ‘em. So, when the PG staff was batting around the idea of a story on the plectrum, I saw my chance to get reacquainted with the tiny tool.

There are many factors to consider when hunting for the right pick: size, shape, thickness, flexibility, and material hardness, the edge, the point, and not least the grip. As with every other enterprise in the larger guitar industry, pick designs continue to be developed and refined; there are always new materials and expanded options. Since it’s high time I scouted some new picks, I took this opportunity to examine a handful of the many new options I’d been overlooking. I also talked to Jimmy Dunlop himself, to get the scoop on what I should keep an eye out for. And, since we at PG like to balance things out whenever we can, we also asked a fingerpicker for his take on playing without a pick. I suspect I’m not the only one who’s been taking the spectrum of plectrum for granted, so maybe this will help you in your own quest, too.

An Interview with Jimmy Dunlop

Chris Burgess: I want to thank you for talking to us about picks today. I just realized recently that I’ve mostly been using your picks since I started playing back in the eighties.
Jimmy Dunlop: I’ve pretty much dedicated my whole life to guitar picks (laughs).

Apparently, it’s still going okay for you…
Yeah, it’s going great. It’s an interesting business. A lot of people really underestimate guitar picks. When I meet people and they say, “What do you do for a living?” When I tell them I make guitar picks, they kind of give me that blank stare, but I equate what I do with making paintbrushes for artists. I’m like the guy that made Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintbrush. You know what I mean?

I got you. That’s not a bad place to be, is it?
No. And that’s why with guys like Santana and Jerry Garcia, and all the different people that have called me to design a special pick for them, I usually never charge for it, for the molding and all that. I just want to be able to say, “I did that for him.” It’s just because I want to be a part of that guy’s art in some way.

Does anybody ever call those guys and check to see whether or not they’re still using your picks?
Oh, well, no see… well… Jerry Garcia’s not using the picks anymore… but you know what happens with others, like Santana? They call up and they get the picks shipped to them, and they’ll buy 10,000 picks. Definitely, it’s the repeat business. That’s how we know.

Is there a lot that guitar players don’t know about the pick business? Something like an insider’s view, you know, on what’s changed, what’s still the same, and where things might be going?
Well, the one thing I don’t want to be doing is all of my competitors’ homework right now. This is my life, and it’s what I do, and if I have a couple little tricks that I use… It’s kind of like a guitar players set-up… they don’t tell you exactly what they’re really doing.

Fair enough. Another question I wanted to ask… there’s probably a whole generation of guitar players out there like me who’ve heard the legends of the tone of the tortoise shell pick, but have never played them, and we get um…
I have some. Wanna try one out?

I figured somebody had to have some somewhere. You know, I see advertisements for picks made out of materials that are supposed to imitate that, and I wonder if there’s a lot of truth to it, because I don’t really know… I guess that’s the question. Is it possible to really tell the difference that immediately?
Absolutely. One hundred percent, you can tell the difference.

What is the difference?
It’s a rigidity, and brightness. Tortoise shell picks are very rigid. They have a great memory, and they have a very bright tone. It’s funny, everybody’s searching for that sound. Well, obviously not everybody… every material has different molecular properties, different densities, and they’re all going to interact with the string differently. Do you know my Ultem material?

The Ultex pick. When I first started playing around with that material about maybe eight years ago, we got some extruded Ultem in, and we punched it out, and it was very hard on our dyes. It had a little potato chip curve to it, because we had to pound the material and displace it so much that I really couldn’t get it to work right. But that sound, and the way that pick snaps, I think it emulates tortoise shell the best. I took it one step further. I worked with a friend of mine who was hip to all the different new polymers and plastics, and we bought new machinery, because it does melt at such high temperatures that standard machines like the ones we have here would be burned up in six months. The levels are so high when it flows correctly for a guitar pick. We actually had to buy machinery to be able to process that material. That’s how sold I was on the feel and the sound of Ultex.

Is there other stuff out there that’s kind of similar, or is that pretty much it?
That’s what I’m working with now. I mean, there are other guys who are using something, well I’m not exactly sure what … I think maybe an organic-based type material?

Something protein-based.
Right. I think that stuff sounds pretty good. It’s hard. I don’t know if it has the flexibility. I think with Ultem you really get the cool flexibility, and the memory. That’s what I’m going for.

I’m starting to put things together… there’s still so much to learn. Maybe a lot of players are like me… we’ve sort of been taking the pick for granted, you know?
I have the opportunity to work with the greatest guitar players of our time. Like I said, I equate what I do to making paintbrushes for artists, and there’s brushes for different strokes, and brushes for different landscapes, and you’ve got a fine brush, and you’ve got a wide brush… picks are the same way. You know, if you want a different tone, it starts with the pick. If you use a metallic pick, you’re going to interact with the strings differently; it’s going to be very bright, like a harsh sound. If you go for a celluloid pick, it’s going to be a soft tone. It’s a very soft pick, and it’s going to give you a more mellow tone.