IntroductionThere 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.
|My favorite pick of all-time. Dunlop Jazz III Ultex.|
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
|Real Tortoise Shell!|
|The most common pick you'll ever see.|
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.
|James Hetfield plays this.|
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)
|What I use on my acoustic 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)
|Your average pack of picks.|
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.
|Most Nylon picks have extra grip.|
|Different shapes and sizes are common with stone picks.|
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.
|Metal picks are so... Metal!|
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.
|Very nice looking Wood Guitar Pick|
|Two felt guitar picks.|
11. Bone, Ivory, and Ebony
|Play with your Bones!|
12. More Types of Picks
|This Carbon-Fiber pick is 2.0 mm!|
Alright, so now that we've covered Material, let's look at Shape and Thickness.
1. Standard Triangular Shape
|Standard Guitar Pick Shape|
2. Jazz III / Teardrop Shape
|Again, this is my favorite pick.|
3. Miscellaneous Shapes, Pick of Destiny!
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.
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.
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!