The tortoiseshell trade spanned centuries before it was halted in 1973, when the hawksbill sea turtle became classified as an endangered species. Among the industries affected was the instrument world, which had used this material, highly valued for its clarity and timbre, in plectrums. After the ban, celluloid picks replaced tortoiseshell, even as the sound differed significantly. But over the past couple of decades, boutique makers have been experimenting with casein, a protein-based plastic touted as the closest material to shell.
D’Addario is the first major manufacturer to offer casein plectrums. At the 2020 Winter NAMM show, the company introduced a heavy 2.00mm 351-shape guitar pick ($21.99 street) and a 1.40mm rounded triangle Chris Thile Signature mandolin pick ($24.99). Both share similar features—a faux-tortoiseshell appearance, beveled edges, and embossing to provide grip—with prices lower than their typical boutique counterparts.
Using the picks on vintage archtop guitars equipped with different string types, as well as on an Eastman mandolin, I found similarly satisfying results across the board. The fabled clarity of true tortoiseshell was present and the timbre was certainly pleasing, if not mellow-sounding, relative to a heavier celluloid pick. Brash 80/20 bronze strings were easy to control with the guitar pick. Likewise, the shrill tendency of the mandolin was easily tamed by the casein, without detracting from the articulation required of a solo voice.
While the hefty gauge of the mandolin plectrum may appeal to a fairly broad range of pickers, the guitar pick is thicker than many guitarists, save for Gypsy-jazz musicians, are likely used to; players accustomed to thinner celluloid picks might find the transition a bit challenging. Considering the quality and how nice the picks sound, hopefully D’Addario will soon extend the range to include other sizes and shapes, to suit plectrists of all stripes.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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