January 11, 2013


Introduction

There are a ton of guitar picks out there, so it's helpful to know what you should use.  Some people are relatively easy going and can play with just about any type of pick (or even without one!), but then there are those of us who require specific, preferred picks in order to maximize our playing ability.

I am one of those very pick-y people (pun very much intended), and I've been playing Dunlop's Jazz III picks now for over 10 years as my exclusive electric guitar pick.  However, I've played a wide variety of picks through the years, and when it comes to acoustic playing, I actually prefer not to use this pick -- rather I like to use soft to medium thickness picks of the normal triangular shape, either celluloid or ultex.

Before I get too far into my own preferences, though, let's look at some objective facts about picks: Material, Shape, and Thickness.

Dunlop Jazz III Ultex Guitar Pick
My favorite pick of all-time.  Dunlop Jazz III Ultex.

Material


The world's very first guitar picks were made out of tortoise shell, metal, wood, stone, ivory, and amber -- there was no plastic, and many guitarists made their own picks by hand.  Since then, plastics and composites have all but replaced these antiquated methods of production.  Let's examine a few:

1. Tortoise Shell

 

Tortoise Shell Guitar Pick
Real Tortoise Shell!
 While tortoise shell picks are pretty old school, and still very hard to find, many guitarists swear by these as having a one-of-a-kind feel and tone.  I've never actually played one myself, but I've read several reviews of those who think they have a very natural feel and produce a warm tone.  They were banned in the mid 1970's (and I do support the ban -- I'm a big pro-animal rights guy), but can still be found here and there.  Apparently they lasted for years and years due to their durability, and could easily be re-shaped by filing or sanding.



2. Celluloid

 

Fender Thin Celluloid Guitar Pick
The most common pick you'll ever see.
Celluloid produces a balanced tone with a crisp, bright attack.  I've come to like medium-gauge celluloid picks for acoustic strumming, because they provide plenty of crispness and upper-range harmonics with a smooth gliding feel as they go across the strings.

These plastic picks are extremely mainstream in today's market, despite the fact celluloid is being produced less and less given its characteristics of being highly flammable and decomposing easily.  There are only a couple of overseas manufacturers still making celluloid according to my research.  The crazy thing is that Celluloid has been mass produced since the mid 1850's!  Picks made from celluloid are often very colorful with various designs and images being imparted upon them.


3. Tortex

 

Dunlop Tortex .88mm Guitar Pick James Hetfield
James Hetfield plays this.
Tortex is the next best thing to original Tortoise Shell.  They feel similar to original tortoise shell and produce a similar tone according to enthusiasts.  Good attack, well-rounded tone, and generally a nice feel.  Many famous players have used these, including Kurt Kobain, James Hetfield, and Dimebag Darrell.  And me!  Both Hetfield and I like the .88 mm green picks, which coincidentally is the first type of pick I fell in love with when I started playing acoustic guitar in 2001.

They grip well (even with a flat surface) and tend to stay in your hand even if you're sweating, which is a bonus if you're under pressure on a big stage.  When they're new, I've noticed they have almost a powdery or gritty surface to them.  This fades with time but is responsible for the added gripping ability of these picks.  If you want the crisp attack of a plastic pick, you'll have to sacrifice some thickness on these though, because the thicker you go, the more brightness you'll lose in my experience.



4. Ultex (Ultem, a.k.a. polyetherimide)

 

Dunlop Ultex Sharp .73 mm Guitar Pick
What I use on my acoustic guitar.
According to Dunlop, their Ultex picks have the ultimate combination of flexibility and monstrous attack.  I can vouce for this personally.  They are lightweight and virtually indestructible, providing guitar players everywhere with a very wide dynamic range compared to many other picks.  While I'm generally skeptical of boasting claims when dealing with such micro-scale matters, I must confess that the Dunlop Jazz III Ultex pick is my go-to pick of choice whenever I play electric guitar.

Here's what Trident Plastics has to say about Ultem: "ULTEM® 1000 PEI/Polyetherimide is a high performance amorphous thermoplastic material. Stock shapes made from ULTEM® PEI resins possess a combination of useful characteristics, including high strength at elevated temperatures, high modulus and broad chemical resistance. ULTEM® PEI stock shapes are inherently flame resistant with low smoke emission. ULTEM® PEI stock shapes display property retention and resistance to environmental stress cracking when exposed to a wide variety of chemicals. The standard color of ULTEM® PEI is light amber. Glass filled grades appear tan or greenish in color."



5. Delrin (Acetal Resin)

 

Fender Delrin Guitar Pick
Your average pack of picks.
While I've played these picks before, they generally feel like any other plastic/composite pick to my fingers.  Some users report they aren't quite as bright as celluloid, though, and have a slightly higher grip rating.  According to Wikipedia, Delrin is "Polyoxymethylene (POM), also known as acetal,[1] polyacetal and polyformaldehyde, is an engineering thermoplastic used in precision parts requiring high stiffness, low friction and excellent dimensional stability."  Delrin also happens to be DuPont's version of Acetal Resin.

According to DuPont, "Delrin® acetal homopolymer bridges the gap between metals and ordinary plastics with a unique combination of creep resistance, strength, stiffness, hardness, dimensional stability, toughness, fatigue resistance, solvent and fuel resistance, abrasion resistance, low wear and low friction."  They recommend Delrin as a sufficient replacement (and perhaps improvement) for metal.  I suppose there's no arguing with the durability then, but I still just can't come to like these picks as much as Ultem, Tortex, or Celluloid.



6. Nylon

 

Nylon Guitar Pick
Most Nylon picks have extra grip.
Some players are big fans of Nylon picks, including Gene Simmons and Jimmy Page.  They tend to come in textured grip formats and produce very bright sounds.  Nylon picks also tend to be very, very flexible for those of you who like thinner picks or generally some spring in your playing.  Personally I'm not a huge fan of this much flexibility, but hey -- Jimmy Page can do no wrong.




 

   7. Stone

 

Stone Guitar Picks
Different shapes and sizes are common with stone picks.
There is a small but strong community
of players who gravitate towards stone picks for their unique resonant qualities.  They are easy to grip and easily produce mid to upper range harmonics due to their density.  Unlike plastic or composite pick materials, they don't absorb as many harmonics during the initial string attack, allowing for a potentially richer sound to be achieved.  Types of stone frequently used include Agate, Turquoise, Jade, and Variscite.  They can get pretty pricey, though, so watch out!  Check out http://www.stonepicks.com/ and http://www.picksandstones.com/ for these guys.



8. Metal

 

Metal Guitar Picks Stainless Steel Brass Copper Bronze
Metal picks are so... Metal!
I must admit that my experience with metal guitar picks doesn't go far beyond using the occasional US quarter when I'm absent a pick, but I did have the pleasure of using an intentionally-made metal pick one time and thought it was pretty good stuff. It had an extremely crisp attack as you would expect along with very prominent upper-range harmonics. www.DrGuitarPicks.com specializes in the production of metal picks if you're interested in checking them out.

They carry Stainless Steel, Bronze, Brass, and Copper picks.  Stainless Steel are the most durable, Bronze are thicker and more jazzy, Copper is the softest, and Brass are still fairly soft with a good grip and warm tone.



9. Wood

 

Wood Guitar Pick Rosewood, African Blackwood, Cocobolo, Zebrawood, Mahogany, Maple, Walnut, Cherry
Very nice looking Wood Guitar Pick
These are characteristic for having a very warm tone and natural feel, as one might expect.  Some people report a very satisfying experience making their own wooden picks from various types of wood, such as Rosewood, African Blackwood, Cocobolo, Zebrawood, Mahogany, Maple, Walnut, Cherry, and more.  However, there are many types of wooden guitar picks widely available for low prices if you ever get the urge to try one out.






10. Felt

 

Felt Guitar Pick
Two felt guitar picks.
Felt picks are quite uncommon for most guitarists, especially since they have a weak attack.  However, in certain applications they do have a unique feel and can bring focus to lower-range sounds.  These are more common among bass players and ukulele   Most commonly made from wool and cotton materials.




11. Bone, Ivory, and Ebony

 

Bone Guitar Pick Ivory Ebony
Play with your Bones!
These are yet more options for guitar pick enthusiasts.  These picks will provide good volume and a non-metallic harmonic chirp that emphasizes attack.  Plus, you can wonder about where those bones came from...








12. More Types of Picks

 

Carbon Fiber Guitar Pick
This Carbon-Fiber pick is 2.0 mm!
Carbon Fiber, Kevlar, Leather, Fiberglass, and even regular old Glass have been used in the production of specialty guitar picks of late.  Dunlop makes a very thick, jazzy Jazz III out of Carbon Fiber that I haven't tried yet but look forward to getting my hands on at some point.  I'm thinking it might be pretty cool with a bass guitar!


Alright, so now that we've covered Material, let's look at Shape and Thickness.






Shape

 

 

1. Standard Triangular Shape

 

Triangular Guitar Pick
Standard Guitar Pick Shape
The most common shape for a guitar pick is the tapered, triangular shaped-pick that we all know.  However, there are smaller and larger versions of these triangular picks, triangles of different angles, and of course different 'sharpness' on the tip and sides.  While it may seem like enthusiasts are getting lost in the minutiae of playing when considering size and shape, the fact is, if it doesn't feel right -- you've got a problem.  Hence, make sure to play around with a number of different shapes before settling on one or two top favorites.  There's nothing quite like having things in the right place, if you know what I mean.




2. Jazz III / Teardrop Shape

 

Jazz Guitar Pick Jazz III 3
Again, this is my favorite pick.
These are typically smaller and sharper/pointier than your average pick, which allows for greater accuracy and control once you get used to it.  The only disadvantage is strumming gets a little hairier with these picks, but honestly once you're used to the shape it doesn't matter much.  I prefer these for leads and will literally never go back to another shape of pick on the electric guitar.







3. Miscellaneous Shapes, Pick of Destiny!

 

Pick of Destiny, Guitar
Mwahahahaha!
There are probably a million guitar pick shapes and designs out there that I've never seen, and might not ever see even if I continue hunting for them for the rest of my life.  However, one particular shape that has become prominent is the Pick of Destiny, thanks to the wonderful movie that provides its name.  This pick allows you to play lightning fast and with amazing musicality with the likes of Jack Black and Dave Grohl in one of my all-time favorite movies.




  

Thickness


Clayton Guitar Picks Different Sizes Shapes

1. Extra Light (under 0.40 mm)

 

These are good for just about nothing in my strong opinion.  Some acoustic guitarists who do nothing but strum all day might benefit from the compressed tone of very light-gauge guitar picks, since the pick tends to flex and equalize the force of your strum (or pick) each time you go across one or more strings, resulting in a fairly "even" sound when playing chords.  However, they are also very floppy and produce an audible click that is undesirable for most.


2. Light (0.40 mm - 0.63 mm)

 

Light picks are at least reasonable to use on occasion for strummed parts on an acoustic guitar.  Sometimes I even feel like they are good for tremolo picking on the electric guitar, but I'll never stray away from my heavier-gauge Jazz III's for that matter.  I never really got into the Light gauge picks, but many pro guitarists love them for their non-restrictive feel and fluttery, audible attack.


3. Medium (0.63 mm - 0.85 mm)

 

Medium gauge picks are a very good place to start for any beginner that is lost in the world of picks.  Start here, and then if you feel like you want something a little lighter or heavier, you're right in the middle and can easily go in either direction.  Medium picks tend to be my pick of choice for acoustic guitar picking and strumming, since they balance the good attack of lighter-gauge picks with the warmth, control, and durability of heavier-gauge picks.  This is what I like to call the "singer-songwriter pick".


4. Heavy (0.85 mm - 1.22 mm)

 

Heavy picks provide extra warmth, control, and volume to your sound.  They can also improve your dynamic range due to the higher picking force to string vibration ratio (the flex of lighter-gauge picks dissipates some of the force of your picking, resulting in less volume).  However, many people find that heavy gauge picks feel blocky in their hands and might even drop them on occasion.  They also tend to be a little more dull sounding and less lively feeling than say a medium-gauge pick.  That said, many swear by them, and I've always been a strong proponent of heavy-gauge picks due to the extra control you obtain by using them, just the tip, just for a second...


5. Extra Heavy (1.22 mm and above)

 

Extra Heavy picks go well up and over 2.0 mm.  These are your jazzy guitar picks and bass picks designed to give ultimate transfer of picking force to volume, as well as great precision and control over each note.  Beware, though, you'll feel like you're holding a 2x4 trying to play your axe with these.  While I've always loved heavy picks, I'm not huge into the extra heavy stuff.  I want my pick to be just as heavy as it needs to be to get the control I want, but no heavier.


Other Features of Picks

 

Grooves, ridges, raised edges or lettering, powder, holes, and rubber add-ons can be found on guitar picks for those guitarists concerned about grip.


Conclusion

All in all, there are no "right" answers when it comes to selecting a guitar pick.  In fact, it pays dividends to buy an assortment of them (they're cheap!) and see what you like before deciding upon a particular style or brand.  Not to mention, you never know when you might be short on picks and forced to play with something you're not used to, so it's good to at least have some prior experience with all the common types of picks.

1.26 mm Clayton Guitar Pick


I definitely recommend Dunlop's Jazz III Ultex picks, though, for anyone trying to shred a few licks on their electric guitar.  Their normal shaped Ultex picks in the medium-gauge range are great on the acoustic, too.

If you want to read more about picks, definitely check out Premier Guitar's "How to Pick Your Pick" and www.guitarfact.com.  Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.  Thank you!

5 comments:

  1. (h) good job in writing this blog of different kinds of pick and its use. Very helpful to the bigeners.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for info. Was looking at getting a stone pick. Don't like picks at all really...play bass and rhythm, but use medium to light gauge when I do...mostly finger pick, use a index finger nail....pluck and slap bass. I detest using a pick on bass but I realize that some things just sound cleaner/clearer when you do. Still debating the stone pick. Scared I would drop it and break it....I always drop thick picks. Don't know how durable they would be to a drop. Get a rubber necklace holder for it. Always losing picks so....I just stopped buying them.

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  3. These particular guitarists nearly always pass by learning the essentials of playing the guitar and in the long run, they end up having burnout musicalstudy as they discover it progressively increasingly difficult to achieve the final results they yearn for.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey man, Thanx 4 doing all that research! Seriously!
    I've been in this game 4 over 50 years ... you presented some picks that I have never been aware of b4.
    Now I want to try some of the more 'exotic' (well, 2 me) ones. The wooden ones might b good 4 my styles (soft melodic jazz).

    ReplyDelete