Tuning Up: Poor, Unappreciated Steel
Forget pedals, guitars, and amps! Dollar for dollar, a metal flatpick may be the most liberating and impactful tone discovery you ever make.
I remember walking into the new Music Stop at University Mall in Orem, Utah, back in 1985, not too long after I started playing guitar. It quickly became a strong contender for best reason to bum a ride to the mall—roughly tied with girls, record shops, and video arcades. Music Stop wasn’t just some piano store with no-name 6-strings for kids making a last-ditch effort to avoid six torturous months of “Chopsticks” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Sure, it was a hole in the wall, but it was packed floor to ceiling with electric guitars and synthesizers like the ones all over MTV (or, for those of us without cable, NBC’s Friday Night Videos).
Three main Music Stop memories stick with me: It was the first time I saw a Kramer guitar in person—something that undoubtedly factored in this Van Halen-obsessed kid’s eventual crusade to convince mom I “needed” to sell my ’83 Strat and upgrade. Second, it was the first time I encountered the Suzuki Omnichord, an instrument fit for a space bard. And lastly, the shiny tech of the synths was a blast to dink around on.
I now realize, however, that the most important thing about my Music Stop stops was that they inadvertently got me experimenting with pick gauges: As a barely pubescent, unemployed teen, I was not only short on cash but also clueless about why I ought to spend a few bucks on different brands and thicknesses. Luckily, up next to the register there was always a dish of free light, medium, and heavy picks stamped with “Music Stop” in plain gold lettering. I grabbed a few every time I visited the shop, and before long I’d gravitated toward lights and mediums … probably because every pic I saw of Eddie Van Halen showed him playing white and red picks.
Within a couple of years I’d sold my Strat, gotten a Kramer, and was spending hours a day learning to shred. By ’88, I was copping Vernon Reid’s frenetic speed picking and funky chords, and found myself preferring green (.88 mm) and then purple (1.14 mm) Dunlop Tortex picks—all the better to articulate “Cult of Personality”-inspired runs in Mixolydian and (yikes) Locrian. Toward the end of the ’90s I switched to heavy Dunlop Nylons because the raised lettering was easier to grip with sweaty fingers. I switched yet again about five years ago when Dunlop brought out the grippier Max Grips. I figured I’d stick with those forever. Little did I know I’d soon accidentally make one of the most important tone discoveries of my life.
Four or five years ago, we got a pack of Fender’s then-new ridged, stainless steel picks here at the office. In all honesty, I expected to hate them. I was pretty heavily biased against metal picks for kinda dumb reasons: I still felt shame for those teen years when I wanted a necklace with a metal-pick pendant because I thought it would look rad. I also couldn’t help thinking about how Def Leppard’s Phil Collen uses one (I respect the guy, but his sound and approach are light years from what I’m going for), and how Eddie Van Halen theorized that holding metal picks in his mouth while he did his two-handed tapping thing—not years of chain-smoking—was responsible for his tongue cancer. I thought of them as shredder picks, and I’d grown out of that mindset 20 years before. How could I—an indie-minded, Tele- and Jazzmaster-loving reverb addict who uses hardly any distortion—be into the same picks as guys I have nothing in common with?
I soon found myself throwing all that bullshit out the window. The steel picks I expected to hate brought out a whole new dimensionality in my rig—it was like pulling cotton out of my ears. The experience was every bit as transformative as the first time I plugged into a quality handwired amp. I already used pretty heavy strings (.011s for standard, .013s for D standard, and .014s for baritone), and I found that the picks’ unyielding rigidity enabled me to get maximum clang when I dug in, but I could also conjure a faerie-like tinkling by using a light, loose-gripped attack. The only thing I didn’t like about the Fenders was the ridges, which extended the length of the pick and produced a grating sound that could be distracting. So I switched to heavy Dunlop stainless steels for years—on electric and acoustic.
Recently I wondered if all of this has just been one of those phases we go through—if I was just imagining the benefits and subconsciously trying to be different for its own sake. Maybe if I went back to a more forgiving material I’d get a more “organic” sound. I picked up the old Max Grips for about three chord strums, realized my rig felt dead, and went back to my metal mainstays. If you’ve never spent time experimenting with them, you owe it to yourself to give them a try.
The wallet-friendly cherry on top? They never wear out.