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Tone Tips: Different Picks for Different Licks

Tone Tips: Different Picks for Different Licks
For a quick and easy way to switch up your tone and attack, it’s always a good idea to keep a selection of picks on hand.

Switching picks is the fastest and easiest way to switch up your tone and attack.

Greetings, tone hounds! It can be all too easy to get lured into purchasing a new pedal, new pickups, or a new amp, while potentially overlooking the quickest (and cheapest) piece of gear we can experiment with. You guessed it: the pick! A different pick can significantly affect both tone and feel, which is why I keep an assortment on hand when working in the studio. This month, I’d like to talk about some of my favorite picks and what I like to use them for.

My main squeeze. If I had to pick just one (no pun intended), it would be the teardrop-shaped Dunlop Ultex .73 Standard. It’s been my pick of choice for over 10 years now. The Ultex material is incredibly durable, and I find I can often play an entire gig on just one pick (if I don’t drop it). The tone and attack provide good note clarity, and I find this pick works well for everything: acoustic, electric, lead, or rhythm. I don’t mind switching picks for specific things while in the studio, but live I don’t want to be bothered with that, so the Ultex is my go-to “all-’rounder.”

Specific picks for specific tasks. For electric guitar, especially for burning solos, it’s fun to experiment with smaller, thicker, and/or pointier alternatives. The Dunlop Jazz III has long been the pick of choice for Eric Johnson, who actually has his own signature version now. This type of pick can feel tiny at first, but the sharp-yet-smooth tip glides across strings with little resistance, which facilitates fast runs. At the same time, the Jazz III makes for a strong, clear attack that feels and sounds markedly different than a traditional teardrop shaped pick. In a nutshell, this style of pick can give you improved clarity, articulation, and speed for single-note runs. Because of their size, thickness, and shape, however, I do find them more difficult to use for funky rhythms or aggressive-rock rhythm-guitar parts. The Jazz III is also available in a signature John Petrucci version that’s made from Ultex. Other notable users include Tosin Abasi, Kirk Hammett, and Joe Bonamassa. Seeing a pattern? The players using these picks are known for their blistering single-note lead techniques.

Paul Gilbert’s signature pick from Ibanez is somewhere between a Jazz III and a traditional teardrop pick shape, and is another favorite of mine when I’m tracking solos in the studio. Once again, thanks to the sharp point, there is a clarity that is markedly different when using these picks. Because they are slightly bigger than a Jazz III, they also work well for rhythm guitar. They can be tough to find in the U.S., so I buy up a ton of them whenever I travel to Japan.

The nylon material seems to have an almost compressed sound, attack, and feel, and I tend to hear less distracting pick noise when recording.

Traditional celluloid-style picks in a variety of thicknesses are great to have in the studio. I find they wear quite quickly, and I don’t like the feel when they get rough edges, but they do have a unique feel and tone that just works for some things—especially when cutting rhythm-guitar parts.

Dunlop’s Tortex picks are another favorite of many because of their tone and durability, as well as their smooth yet easy-to-grip texture. Electric guitarists who use them include Billie Joe Armstrong, Slash, and Jerry Cantrell. Once again, there’s a pattern here. Players using Tortex picks tend to play a mixture of rhythm-guitar parts with some lead work thrown in as well.

Nylon picks, on the other hand, have a distinctly different feel and sound, which is generally quite warm. They are very durable, too. The black 1 mm Dunlop Nylon pick was my all-around choice for many years before I moved to the Ultex.

Acoustic guitar. Nylon picks are also a terrific choice for acoustics, and I really love the sound of thin to medium nylon picks for strummed or arpeggiated parts. The nylon material seems to have an almost compressed sound, attack, and feel, and I tend to hear less distracting pick noise when recording. When cutting strummed parts using a thin nylon pick, you can use ample amounts of studio compression to get an incredibly smooth and even effect. Herco nylon picks were very popular in the ’60s and ’70s, and continue to be a great choice for acoustic guitar.

Other brands. I’ve mainly focused on the Dunlop picks I use, but there are certainly many other brands out there. Steve Clayton picks, for example, are manufactured in Oregon and have long been a favorite of guitarists everywhere. A sort of boutique pick industry has sprung up over the last couple of decades, and manufacturers such as V-Picks, Gravity, and Red Bear produce picks of all shapes, sizes, materials, and prices. Notably, Red Bear produces a Guthrie Govan handmade signature pick with unique holes to enhance grip, and a serrated-edge top for bow-like effects. They also sell for a whopping $35 each!

Bottom line: Switching picks is the fastest and easiest way to switch up your tone and attack. And even the aforementioned Guthrie Govan pick is more affordable than (most) new effects pedals. Until next month, I wish you great tone, and happy picking!