While many things combine to make the glorious sound of the electric guitar screaming through an amplifier, it all starts with one thing: the pick hitting the string. Yes, there are amazing fingerstyle electric players out there, but this article is not for them. It all about the pick, baby!
While the first picks used for guitar-like instruments were probably feather quills, we’re going to look at some history and materials of the modern pick used for electric guitar, pick choices facing the beginning player, as well as some thoughts about what picks I use and why I use them. This will cover basic flat picks but not thumb or fingerpicks.
The first electric guitar picks were likely whittled by the guitarist himself/herself out of materials such as wood, stone, shell, tortoiseshell (boo!), or bone. In the 20s, a company named D’Andrea marketed the first commercially available guitar picks made out of celluloid, made to mimic the warm tone of tortoiseshell. Celluloid is also the material used in old film reels, and over time it degrades. It’s also flammable, and although it was probably safe for guitar picks, many films were lost due to the degradation of celluloid.
Modern guitar picks are made out of a variety of materials, from nylon to plastics, bone, stone and stainless steel. What pick a player chooses is really a player’s personal choice. Picks in the local music store generally come in many styles and shapes, and at some point, every player spends a few bucks and gets many shapes and thicknesses in order to try them out.
Some guitarists settle on one pick for everything (like me), and some will use different picks for different styles and different types of guitars. Some change picks for certain styles, too- there are no real rules.
When choosing a pick, three things to consider are shape, thickness and material.
Picks come in a variety of shapes. My favorite is the classic ‘351’ shape, but many jazzers and shredders like smaller ones. Shapes like the Dorito-like ‘355’ have three picking surfaces on them so if one wears down, you can just flip it around. Some picks, like the Sharkfin shape, have multiple surfaces to provide different tones, and can be flipped around for different tones and special effects.
Picks can have texture, like ridges or bumps, or can have holes punched out to ‘grab’ your fingers as you hold it. Some have the grippy side dipped in rubber too, which provides a tacky surface to hold on to. Ritchie Blackmore uses a strange pentagon, while Brian May uses a circular coin with ridges.
Picks will come in a variety of thicknesses, and are usually marked on the pick itself indicating the thickness. Some will say ‘thin,’ ‘medium,’ or ‘heavy,’ and some will have the thickness in millimeters. A thin pick would be about .6 millimeters and lower, while a medium pick will be about .6 to .8 millimeters. Heavy and extra heavy is over that, of course. My pick is right around 1mm thick, since I don’t like the pick to flex much. Thinner picks are preferred by many rhythm players, because of their flexing helps the wrist in strumming fast rhythms. Any plastic which flexes a lot will eventually crack, so you may go through more picks if you use thinner ones.
This is not my video, but it does a pretty good job in showcasing the tones between thin, medium and heavy picks.
The most common material for picks is some type of plastic, but it isn’t our only choice. Picks made of metal, bone and nylon are popular too. Be aware, though, that picks made of more exotic materials (such as mammoth bone or metorite) will be much more expensive than the common plastic pick.
Nylon is great for thin picks. It usually has a little texture molded in it so you don’t drop it. Delrin is a smooth material which glides over the strings producing little or no pick noise. It was originally developed for brake pads on cars. Ultex is a newer plastic which is very stiff and bright. My favorite material is Delrex, a type of Delrin, which is a textured plastic used to replace banned tortoiseshell.
Steel, copper and wood are choices too. Metal has a really bright tone, will wear slower (and wear out the strings more), and wood is a more mellow tone. Wood picks will erode over time as the metal strings shave bits off slowly.
I’m pretty sensitive to the way some materials feel, so there are only a few pick materials I use. Fortunately, they are some of the most common and the least expensive. At the rate I lose picks, I’d hate to get addicted to the rare and expensive dinosaur bone ones!
Again, this isn’t my video, but it does showcase the sound of different pick materials.
I tend to hold the pick with my thumb and index finger with just a small amount of the pick showing. I get the most control over the note, and the pick is always where I want it. I hold it just tight enough that I don’t drop it an no more. My wrist is straight but not locked, and the face of the pick is exactly parallel to the string, and perpendicular to the face of the guitar. I hate that ‘scraping’ sound I get if I am not hitting the string perfectly – that little scratchy thing before the note. So now my picking is a lot cleaner sounding, and downstrokes sound as direct as upstrokes. For more information about Economy of the Right Hand, please read my blog about it.
What kind of picks do you use? What would your custom-designed pick look like?