Types of Guitar Picks – According to Material, Thickness and Shape

While there are many types of guitar picks out there, some will enhance your playing more than others.

They vary in three main ways:

  • material
  • thickness
  • shape

The style of music you play (folk, metal, etc.) and your picking technique (economy, down picking, etc.) will determine which pick is best for you.

In this article, we’ll show you the options to consider.

Incidentally, if you’re a beginner, make sure you learn how to hold the pick correctly. If you’re doing that bit wrong, it won’t matter which you choose, they’ll all sound terrible!

Material

In the beginning, the first guitar picks were made from natural materials like bone, tortoiseshell, wood, stone, and even amber, as plastic wasn’t invented at this point.

But now we have mass-produced plastic and composite replacements that work just as well.

So, how do we decide what’s best to use?

Well, there are a few things you should consider before you start using a specific sort of plectrum. For example, density affects how flexible your pick will be and how much response you get from your strings.

In other words, a plectrum’s durability and flexibility will determine how well it resists wear and tear or damage after repetitive use.

Smoothness can also affect how your plectrum actually plays. Rough varieties can catch the strings slightly, but generally offer more grip as you strum.

Tortoiseshell

These are a sort of antique guitar pick and are a very rare find, seeing as tortoiseshell was rightly banned in the ‘70s to protect the endangered Hawksbill turtle.

Despite this, some guitarists manage to find them and believe they offer a pleasing warm tone and smooth handling.

Of course, being made from such tough shell keratin, they are extremely durable, last for years and can be re-sculpted if they ever wear down in places.

The downside is that they can be expensive or even illegal in the US, so life is probably a lot easier if you avoid trying to find one of these or go for a replica model.

Celluloid

Fender 551 Shape Classic Celluloid Picks (12 Pack) for electric guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and bass

Celluloid is a material made from nitrocellulose and camphor.

In the guitar world, these picks are favored for their bright, crisp attack and well-balanced sound. The downside is that celluloid picks degrade with time and are flammable due to containing solvents.

But that said, these picks are still being manufactured and play nicely, with a tendency to feel smooth when you strum the strings. As well as this, their design is often very colorful and fun, with logos or cool images printed on them.

Tortex

Dunlop Tortex Standard .60mm Orange Guitar Picks (418B.60)

Tortex is the ethical way of getting the tortoiseshell feel, with no harm to animals (hence the name – ‘Tor’ tex).

In terms of playability, they offer a decent grip despite being smooth, so it can handle being played at speed. They have a certain notoriety within certain groups, as musicians like Kurt Cobain and Metallica’s James Hetfield have used them.

They have a powdered surface which really helps your fingers when they’re under pressure to play complex tunes. However, they don’t deliver as much attack as some plastic versions unless you go for a very thin build.

Ultex (Ultem, a.k.a. polyetherimide)

Dunlop 433P1.14 Ultex Sharp, 1.14mm, 6/Player's Pack

These plectrums are designed to provide a good mixture of flexibility with tons of attack.

Of course, flexibility means that Ultex designs are lightweight, so are perhaps not the best at chugging out heavy chords, but saying that they offer fantastic dynamics and are very durable.

In particular, Dunlop’s Jazz III picks are the Ultex athletes of the guitar world, seeing as they’re great when playing fast, complex tunes on an electric guitar.

Ultex is made from polyetherimide, which is of amorphous thermoplastic construction.

In layman’s terms, this means plectrums made from this stuff will stay sturdy at high temperatures and can withstand some aggressive use!

Some of the Jazz III picks also have a gritty edge, which makes them easy to hold whilst playing at speed. They can be a bit plain in terms of aesthetics, however, you can usually choose from a variety of colors.

Delrin (Acetal Resin)

Dunlop Delrin 500 Prime Grip .96mm Guitar Picks (450R.96)

These are made from a resin-based material, that offers the guitarist good grip but a slightly warmer tone than celluloid designs.

Delrin is a type of thermoplastic acetal resin, designed to stay stiff and stable, without adding too much friction on your strings.

DuPont claims that this material forms the point between plastic and metal, so if you’re a heavy-handed guitarist that wants something that can take a beating, then Delrin is likely the one for you.

That said, it won’t allow for elegant styles of picking and will probably take away some natural tones of an acoustic instrument.

Nylon

Dunlop 44R.88 Nylon Standard, Dark Gray, .88mm, 72/Bag

Nylon picks have been used by the likes of Jimmy Page and Gene Simmons for their bright tone and flexibility.

However, nylon plectrums are a little too thin for some guitarists that don’t like floppiness, plus they wear down faster than thicker, more robust varieties.

As well as this, nylon is quite a slippery material so it’s best to choose a plectrum design with a rough gripping edge to avoid dropping it mid-song.

Overall, this design is great for musicians that prefer thinner picks and want some bouncy attack in their sound.

Stone

Stone Tones - Bloody Basin Jasper - Individual Plectrum

Although rather thick, some guitarists use stone picks for their unique tonal qualities.

In particular, their tough, rigid structure gives out some extra harmonics and attack for a fuller, louder sound.

In terms of playability, stone plectrums are easy to grip but offer no flexibility whatsoever. This makes them better at playing a single string at a time than complex chords.

In particular turquoise, variscite and agate are often used to craft picks from, the downside is that they cost a lot more than mass-produced varieties due to stone being difficult to work with.

As well as this, their coarse texture can sometimes produce a grating noise against the strings, which isn’t pleasant if you’re playing an acoustic guitar.

That said, an electric guitar played through an amp should sound fine.

Metal

Metal Tones Mini - Copper - Individual Plectrum

As you can imagine, metal picks favor upper range harmonics and deliver a powerful, bright attack.

Most manufacturers use stainless steel, brass or copper to construct their plectrums from.

Out of the three, copper is the softest metal and therefore produces slightly warmer tones than stainless steel and brass versions.

Steel is the toughest of the three and will definitely survive the most use.

Then brass falls somewhere in the middle. The major downside here is that metal will damage your strings even with small amounts of use.

To save the day, Dunlop has designed a metal plectrum with rounded edges to reduce all the destruction. These things are also pretty hefty, which adds a little more momentum to your strumming.

Wood

Tsorryen Wood Acoustic Guitar Pick Plectrum Hearted Shape Picks for Bass Part

Wooden picks give out a warm, natural tone and are often crafted from Rosewood, Blackwood, Mahogany, Cherry or Walnut to name just a few.

We’re going to talk about two popular designs known as sheesham and surf plectrums.

Sheesham wood picks are made from a tough wood that gives them some extra durability and brightness.

Surf plectrums, on the other hand, are made from an even tougher tree called Lignum Vitae; which produces one of the hardest woods on earth!

The bad part is surf picks can be pretty thick and may limit your playability.

As well as this, even the strongest wooden plectrums will wear down faster than most plastic or stone version, so you’ll have to keep replacing them.

Felt

1pc Felt Guitar Plectrum Pick For Ukulele Uke Guitar Instrument Accs - Gray

Felt picks are one of the least common varieties you’ll find due to the fact they are very flimsy and don’t offer much attack.

Some guitarists do prefer them however, for their soft feel and ability to produce subtle, low-end tones.

That said, they’re more often used by folks that play bass or ukulele.

Most felt plectrums are made from cotton or wool, which gives them a very flexible structure.

Bone, Ivory, and Ebony

This a more exotic option, with most bone, ivory, and ebony based picks favoring harmonics and boosting your volume.

The problem is that certain ivory designs are understandably considered unethical and are illegal in most western countries.

Some shops like Clayton and US Blues offer more ethical bone varieties that can be purchased online.

The majority of these plectrums are thick, dense and have a rough surface due to the material’s chemical structure.

This abrasiveness can be an issue, as these picks tend to scrape away at your guitar’s strings, reducing your playability and producing a scratchy sound.

Thickness

The thickness of a pick can determine its playability and handling, so let’s take a look at some standard builds out there.

Extra Light (under 0.40 mm)

These are the thinnest type of pick, which tend to kick out a compressed tone as the material flexes every time you pick a string or strum a chord.

Extra light plectrums are good at delivering an even sound and are soft on the strings, making them an option for acoustic guitarists.

The bad side is that they tend to produce a little click whenever they strike a string which can get annoying.

Light (0.40 mm – 0.63 mm)

This is probably the best option for strumming chords on an acoustic guitar.

In terms of playability, light picks have a slack, fluttery feel but still give out a reasonable level of attack when needed.

That said, they don’t work as well on metal-based electric guitar strings which require a little more force to produce a defined note.

Medium (0.63 mm – 0.85 mm)

This is a good middle ground to start off with if you’re a beginner guitarist.

From here, you’ll be able to tell if you need something a little lighter or more robust for your style of playing.

Medium plectrums deliver a well-balanced attack with some warmth that you get from beefier varieties.

Of course, they won’t have the durability of really thick picks. So, if you’re a bassist or play heavier genres of music, which requires thicker electric guitar strings, you’ll probably need something thicker.

Heavy (0.85 mm – 1.22 mm)

Heavy plectrums offer the musician extra control, with an improved dynamic range thanks to the extra force they apply to an instrument’s strings.

They also give you a slight volume boost with warmer tones than thinner style picks.

The downside is that some guitarists don’t like the slightly clumsy feel you get when you don’t use the very tip of the pick.

The extra force also tends to make heavy plectrums more likely to ping out of your hand with the string recoil too.

Overall, heavy picks are best suited to electric guitars or basses that need some extra force to get a tune out of.

Extra Heavy (1.22 mm and above)

These are the thickest plectrums out there, with some being thicker than a whopping 2mm.

Extra-heavy plectrums are loved by jazz musicians or bassists who require extra picking force and volume to achieve their desired tone.

This type of plectrum grants the musician a more precise picking action for total control over every note.

The downside is that they can feel uncomfortable to hold and are easily dropped due to all the force being applied.

Shape

9 Most Common Guitar Pick Shapes

Plectrums come in different shapes as well as thicknesses, all of which favor certain playing styles. So, take a look below to learn more.

Standard (351 and Sharp Tip)

The “standard” is the most common type most guitarists will come across. It also goes by the name of “351” or “heart-shaped”. This is a great all-rounder and a great choice for beginners who’ll be doing mostly a combination of strumming and the odd picking of a bass string of two,

You’ll also find a slightly larger version with a pointed tip, which retains the ease of use of the standard style, but gives you a bit more picking accuracy.

Pointy

Pointy picks resembles the standard but has a sharpened edge rather than a smoothed-out point. This gives you even more control and accuracy for playing single strings. The problem is, a small pointy edge isn’t great for strumming. If you’re a lead guitarist however, a pointy pick would be a good choice.

Triangle

A less common pick, bluegrass players favor this type as they work great for playing chords and picking alike. They’re much larger in size that most too.

Shark Fin Pick

These are a sort of novelty, looking like a curvier version of a triangle pick. The fun part is there’s also a wavy edge on one side of the plectrum, so you can create some interesting effects as you glide it across the strings.

The normal edge of this pick is smooth and rounded, so it is best for strumming chords, rather than precision solos.

Jazz III

No prizes for guessing who these were originally intended for (yup, jazz musicians).

Nowadays the Jazz III is appreciated by more advanced players for its precision and speed. In terms of shape, these plectrums are a little smaller than triangle versions and can have sharpened tips.

Additionally, Jazz III’s are generally thicker than standard plectrums to give some attack.

Teardrop

A teardrop is a variation on the Jazz III. The narrower one is more challenging to use but offers tighter control.

Summary

As you can see, the world of guitar picks is far more complex than most of us imagine and it can get confusing trying to choose between so many designs.

There’s no perfect choice, it more depends on your skill level and what you want to play. For example, if you play bass, you’ll need something thick and durable to cope with those chunky strings.

On the other hand, if you like to sing along to chords on your acoustic guitar, then a more flexible, triangular-shaped plectrum will be a good choice.

Perhaps you play fast metal that requires speed, precision, and attack? If so, go for a Jazz III of medium-heavy thickness, they won’t let you down.

If you love all things antique or collectible, then you could try using a bone, ebony or stone plectrum. These look pretty but, just remember, some of these have strange textures that can cause unpleasant, scratchy string tones.

Happy picking 🙂

Maddie Angel

Maddie is one of our resident senior writers at Zing. She plays guitar in a metal band and has a passion for flute and classical music. And yes, it's her real name :-)


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