By Adam Perlmutter
In ongoing quests for the tools best suited to the sounds they hear in their heads, acoustic guitarists over the decades have cycled through guitar after guitar, exhausting numerous tonewood combinations and body styles—all while using the same pick. But the importance of this tiny—and usually inexpensive—accessory cannot be overstated. The pick plays such a critical role in shaping not just tone, but articulation, phrasing, and volume, as any player who has suddenly been caught without a pick has had the misfortune to discover. Without a doubt, a guitarist should be just as choosy about the pick—a.k.a. a plectrum or flatpick—he or she uses as the instrument whose strings it sets in vibrating motion.
Yet, it’s not necessarily an easy task to find the right pick. In fact, there’s a bewilderingly wide range on the market—so many different sizes, shapes, and thicknesses, in materials from cellulose to wood to stone, by familiar names like Dunlop Manufacturing Inc., the California-based maker of consumer electronics, and D’Addario’s Planet Waves, as well as small companies, relatively new to the market, including BlueChip and Red Bear Training Co.
Luckily, though, there are guidelines you can apply to make your search easier. And, best of all, it will take only a nominal cash investment to score a bounty of different picks that you can whittle down in finding what feels right. “A guitar’s tone starts with a pick and strings,” says Robert Cunningham, D’Addario’s resident plectrum expert. “Picks are a very inexpensive way to get new sounds and textures. Try them all and see what works best for you.”
FROM SEA TURTLES TO STEEL
The earliest stringed-instrument picks, dating back thousands of years, were made from feather quills. By the late 19th century, tortoiseshell—extracted from the shell of the now-endangered Atlantic Hawksbill, which is not a tortoise, but a sea turtle—had become the standard plectrum material on account of its superior tone and handling, both durable and flexible.
That all changed with the advent of synthetic materials such as celluloid. In the early 1920s, D’Andrea (dandreausa.com) first commercially offered picks made from cellulose nitrate, or celluloid, with an appearance that mimicked tortoiseshell, and was soon making these picks for such major guitar companies as Gibson, Martin, and later, Fender. Founded in 1940, Herco (which is now owned by Dunlop) developed a nylon pick known for its warmth and smooth attack.
In 1973, it became illegal to hunt the endangered Hawksbill, so manufacturers sought other alternative materials in the making of picks. Dunlop’s Tortex line (jimdunlop.com), for instance, whose iconic logo incorporates a turtle, is made from DuPont Delrin—a plastic that behaves similarly to tortoiseshell.
One of the largest pick companies, Dunlop offers plectrums in plenty of other synthetics, for a range of sonic applications. “Softer materials, like our nylon picks, give a warm tone and soft attack; harder materials, like our Ultex picks, give a brighter, bolder response and can even provide a percussive element to the attack,” says Dunlop accessories product manager Frank Aresti. “Tortex, our most popular picks, have a great tactile feel, produce a consistent tone, and add a bit of a ‘scratch’ to the attack, making chords and notes sound bold without adding too much extra overtone to the guitar’s natural voice.”
D’Addario’s Planet Waves (planetwaves.com) offers a similarly comprehensive line of picks with varying compositions that suggest different uses. “Materials can change the tone quite a bit,” Cunningham says. “Something like nylon in our Nylflex picks is very warm-sounding with rolled off highs, compared to, say, our Ultem Cortex picks, which are really dynamic, giving the notes a lot of snap and projection. Our Delrin Duralin picks are somewhere in the middle, offering a good balance of both worlds with a percussive attack.”
Other companies use proprietary materials. Graph Tech—which is known for its TUSQ, or synthetic ivory, nuts, and saddles—offers picks said to incorporate built-in harmonics, coming in three different timbres: bright, warm, and deep. Mick’s Picks’ (mickspicks.com) VEX plectrums are cut from a synthetic material called Abusite, which makes them both durable and clear-sounding. In their high-end offerings, Red Bear Trading Co. (redbeartrading.com) and BlueChip (bluechippick.net) both use special materials that mimic tortoise.
IN ALL SHAPES & SIZES
The shapes, sizes, and thicknesses of regular picks are just as variable as their composition. A rounded triangle, as pioneered by D’Andrea, is the most common shape, and a teardrop with a pointy tip, like on Dunlop’s Jazz III, is a popular variation. Other familiar shapes include the equilateral triangle and the shark-fin shape—kind of the Swiss Army knife of plectrums with its various points for string contact.
Larger picks with softer tips are generally better for strumming and are easier, at least for the beginning player, to hold. Smaller picks with pointier tips, which tend to glide across the strings, work well for precisely controlled soloing. A pick’s edges matter, too. “Many traditionally popular pick styles have more pronounced edges for a big, bold attack,” says Dunlop’s Frank Aresti. “But a pick with a beveled and hand-burnished edge, like our Primetone, noticeably reduces string drag, which makes both strumming chords and alternate picking practically effortless.”
The thickness of a plecturm is crucial to its sound. Picks are sometimes labeled coarsely, as in the classic Fender Medium celluloid pick, while others, like Dunlop’s Tortex, are identified in millimeters. Interpretations vary, but picks .44 millimeters and under are considered thin; mediums range from .45 to .69; and heavies, from .85. Generally speaking, thin picks work well for strumming a flattop guitar. Cunningham explains, “Using a very thin pick almost acts like a natural compressor where all strums and notes will be very even in volume, which can be great for recording.”
On the other hand, heavier plectrums tend to work better for dynamic single-note work. “A thicker pick will have much less give and allow you greater variation in volume. Many ‘shredders’ also prefer a thick pick that does not flex much, to improve picking accuracy,” Cunningham adds.
Julian Lage, the young jazz-guitar wizard who is in the best possible sense a shredder, uses a heavy pick, BlueChip Picks’ TP 40 (1.00mm thick), when playing his 1939 Martin 000-18, Waterloo WL-14L, or 1930s Gibson L-5. “I feel like the pick helps determine so much about how hard or light I play or how to interact with the string in general,” he says. “It really liberates the guitar as well as my technique.”
Lage’s occasional duo partner—Nels Cline, who also plays in Wilco and who travels effortlessly between musical worlds—favors an even thicker plectrum. He uses Dunlop’s fattest Ultex Standard (1.14mm) on everything from his 1930s Oahu koa flattop to his 1962 Gibson SJ-200. “Why extra heavy? For me, one can always play softer with anything, but if you want to really dig in, it’s got to be pretty heavy—no flapping! And I find the tone of a heavy pick to be far more appealing on any acoustic instrument,” he says.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE PICKY
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the many pick selections referenced in this article, just remember these simple guidelines: If you’re a strummer, go for thinner picks; if you traffic more in intricate single-note soloing, try for a heavier flatpick; and if your style combines these approaches, start with mediums. Remember: softer materials, warmer; harder, brighter.
Go to your local guitar shop and emerge with a generous sampling of different pletctrums within these broad categories, and start experimenting: Pay close attention to how the picks vary in terms of their sonic and tactile nature, plus, just as important, how each one makes you play—does it enhance your technique or detract from it?
Keep in mind, too, that the best pick for you might deviate from these general guidelines—only your own ears and fingers will know what’s best. You might not find a one-size-fits-all solution. “It’s OK to use different picks for different guitars and playing styles,” Cunningham says. “In fact, you should!”
Aresti agrees: “You don’t have to love just one pick. I like to keep a tray with lots of different picks, so I can choose something that fits my mood or the sound I’m going for in any given situation, especially when it comes to recording.”
Just as your playing evolves, so too might your plectrum needs, so remember: it always pays to be picky when it comes to choosing flatpicks.