We have all done it. Obsessing endlessly over what guitars, pedals and amps make up our signal chain. Debating constantly over the tonal differences between a TS808 vs a TS9. Tungsol vs JJ tubes. The list is goes on.
There’s no doubt that all of these things are important, but one crucial piece of gear is consistently over looked. In fact it’s the only piece of gear that is regularly tossed carelessly straight into writhing, sweaty crowds.
That’s right fellow Mobsters, I’m speaking of the lowly plectrum.
Choosing the correct pick for your goals is crucial. Materials, construction, shape, size, texture, level of wear. All of these things will affect, not only playing comfort, but your dynamics and overall sound.
The pick is the conduit that transfers the sound from the player to the strings! Let’s give the little guy some credit!
So without further ado, let’s kick off this series by focusing on the most obvious.
This is an extremely popular option made famous by many players of yesteryear. Its thinner form gives it a noticeably bright sound. Many players love the extreme flexibility, and affordability. Its popularity has made nylon picks very easy to find. They are generally textured in some way, either coated or cross hatched due to nylon’s naturally slick properties.
One of the oldest varieties of mass produced picks. Fender still uses this as their standard pick material. Generally thin, and flexible ( even the “heavy” versions are thin in comparison to other picks) with a fairly treble forward tone. These picks tend to get a rough edge to them with normal use. This is favored by some players for its slight harmonic effect and grip on the string.
Essentially a plexiglass pick. Very stiff and durable. The stiffness gives great control with fast runs and staccato picking. Very bright, aggressive sound. Only down side is they are a bit difficult to hold with sweaty fingers and they are on the expensive side for the plastic based picks.
Very durable. Bright and distinct metallic sound. ( Think Brian May. He famously uses a coin.) the sound and control is superb, but they will wear strings out very rapidly. Also, you might think twice about using metal on a guitar with no pick guard, as they have a tendency to scratch finishes easily.
The most variable in tone and feel due to the variety of different woods used. Similar to how guitars are vastly different from each other. As a general rule, wood picks give you a warm sound with a full, rich bottom end and slightly muted highs. A “organic” sound. They are generally thicker than most plastic picks.
The most inflexible of materials mentioned here. Stone picks have the brightness of a metal pick but with a larger bottom end. Their stiffness means 100% energy transfer to the strings, and great control on fast passages. The same guitar scratching potential of metal picks applies here as well.
Tortoise Shell and Imitations
Tortoise shell is the holy grail for many players for its full frequency range, just right amount of flex and the simple fact that it is generally illegal. Some players have been known to locate various antiques that were made with tortoise shell from it’s legal days, and carving their own picks.
In recent years, players have been using picks that attempt to mimic the feel and sound of turtle backs. Two such companies are Red Bear and Wegen picks. The Wegen picks in particular have become a hit with bluegrass players who are notorious for their tortoise shell love.
Dunlop also makes shell alternatives.
The Ultex is the slightly higher end version. It is superb pick in its own right, it’s not as accurate in its reproduction of the tortoise shell sound as others. Do not be fooled though, it is very durable, offers excellent control and stiffness, and has a beautiful, full sound with crisp highs. It’s also cheaper and much easier to find than Wegens or Red Bears.
The Tortex are certainly some of the most popular picks available. Preferred by many simply because the matte surface is easy to hold on to. Flexible, durable and affordable. These picks present a fairly warm, rounded sound. Not quite a Tortoise shell, but still a quality choice.
Now, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives an idea of what’s available. A little research and thinking now can give HUGE benefits to your tone and playing later. Even an expensive pick is generally cheaper than a couple sets of strings. There’s no reason to ignore our good friend the plectrum any more.