December 12, 2023

Choosing a pick

The word “plectrum” is the Latinized form of the Greek πλῆκτρον (pléktron), “anything to strike with, an instrument for striking the lyre, a spear point”[1] and that from the verb πλήττω (pletto), the Attic Greek form of πλήσσω (plesso), “to hit, to strike, to smite, to sting”[2]. “Plectrum” has both a Latin-based plural, plectra (from Greek plural πλήκτρα) and a native English plural, plectrums. Plectra is used in formal writing, particularly in discussing the harpsichord as an instrument of classical music. However, plectrums is more common in ordinary speech. In vernacular speech the abbreviation pleck or “plec” (plural: plecks) is sometimes used.

Pick shapes started with guitarists filing down bone, shell, wood, cuttlebone, metal, amber, stone or ivory to get the desired shape. Most of today’s classic guitar pick shapes were created by the company that made the first plastic pick in 1922, D’Andrea Picks. The plastic pick was an idea that Luigi, and his young son Tony, Sr., had after purchasing a few sheets of the tortoise shell-like celluloid from a street vendor. It appeared very similar to the real tortoise shell picks the guitarists used in their Greenwich Village neighborhood.

Most users of picks are familiar with the most popular shape, the 351, which is merely the rounding off of the top of heart, which was a popular pick shape early on. The rounded triangle is the 346 and the small jazz pick, the 358.

Now, lets have a look at the infinitely subjective world of the guitar plectrum or pick. THe first thig to stress is that there is only one hard and fast rule when it comes to guitar picks:

The best way to move forward is to buy as many differing picks as you can,  over time and try them all out until you find one that really has that magical feel to it. Personally I used one particular pick for around 4 years and I was virtually traumatised when I lost it after playing with it for so long.

You`ll be looking for something that facilitates both rhythm and lead playing and also the kind of response, tone, sound and playability you are looking for. So you may prefer thin plectra, or thick, some medium, some swear by textured grip surfaces, some by thin points, some by more circular points. If it feels right and plays well for you it doesn`t matter what shape or material it is. If you are recording then you may need a variety of picks for different songs, rhythms and sounds, different guitars, string guages and effects.

Thinner picks will produce a more tremulous and less controlled sound and thicker picks produce a more controlled and well-shaped tone. Thinner picks also tend to rip or tear more often if used too forcefully, whereas a thicker one will last longer.  Thinner picks tend to give less attack and do not give as much control when doing fast tremolo picking. Also, they tend to wear much faster when used with heavier gauge strings.

Brian May for example, from the rockband Queen  played originally with an English sixpence piece and  uses picks which replicate his original choice . Some of them are produced by The Royal Mint of England and are considered to be rare and precious among collectors.

THIN  – usually less than 0.4mm

A thin plectrum is usually more popular amongst beginners because of the flexibility of the material. Thin makes for easier rhythm playing, but doesn`t give the control , response and tactile transmission of a thicker pick.

MEDIUM – usually 0.4mm up to 1mm

A medium pick will give a much better tactile and therefore expressive response for lead work but requires much greater skill and control for complex rhythmic, picking and other techniques.

THICK usually 1mm or more

Once you move into HEAVY territory, usually above 1mm in thickness then the lead and tonal capabilities are at the forefront whilst the rhythmic flexibility is deprecated. If you find yourself handling anything over 2mm then you must be some kind of serious jazz player….man.

The choice of material and shapes is almost infinite! Starpicks in Australia make their picks from exotic materials and this pair made from Gibeon meteorites and  cost $4,674. There are abalone, ebony, gemstone, steel, wood and shell plectrums available.

Most common picks are made out of various types of plastic. Picks made out of steel will produce a much brighter sound than plastic ones. They do however wear the strings quickly and can easily damage the finish on the guitar if used for strumming, especially on acoustic guitars.  Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top uses a regular Mexican peso, usually filed down to more usual pick shape, resembling 351.

Most popular plastics include:

Historically, this was the first plastic ever used to produce picks, and it is still of some use today, especially for guitarists aiming for vintage tone.

Popular material, has a smooth and slick surface, so most manufacturers add a high-friction coating to nylon picks to make them easier to grip. Nylon is flexible and can be produced in very thin sheets. Most thin and extra-thin picks are made out of nylon. However, nylon loses its flexibility after 1–2 months of extensive use, becomes fragile and breaks, so guitarists that use thin nylon picks should have several spare picks just in case.

Tortex / Delrex. By Jim Dunlop and D’Andrea Picks respectively.
Brand names for DuPont Delrin which is specially treated to have a matte, opaque surface, surprisingly easy to grip even with sweaty fingers.

This space age plastic has the highest stiffness of all plastic picks. Produces a brighter tone and the material is additionally popular among mandolin players.

Glossy, glass-like, very hard surface, though it wears out relatively fast. Barely bends at all and it’s commonly used only for thick and extra-thick picks. Usually has a high-friction grip coating. Best known example of Lexan picks are Jim Dunlop Stubby series.

So here are the links you`ll need if you want to find out more:

Jim Dunlop

Dava picks


Silver picks

Wooden Picks at Sleipner

Well, That`s all folks,

Jake Edwards

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