Ah, the simple guitar pick. No, not really!
As you’re about to discover, they are far more complicated than you’d think and differ by:
- the materials used to make them
- their thickness
- their shape
The type of guitar player you are (rock, metal, jazz, etc.) and your preferred picking technique (economy, down picking, etc.) will determine to a large extent which is your pick of choice, as they all have their own sound.
In this article, we’re going to dive into this fascinating world. By the end of if you should know which is right for you.
Note: 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, none of them will sound good.
Guitar Pick Materials
The first guitar picks were made from natural materials like bone, tortoise shell, wood, stone, and even amber, as plastic picks didn’t arrive till some time later.
But now we have mass-produced plastic picks 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.
These are a sort of antique guitar pick and are a very rare find, seeing as tortoise shell 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 and 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 is a material made from nitrocellulose and camphor.
In the guitar world, these guitar 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.
However, 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.
- Check out celluloid plectrums on Amazon (affiliate link)
Dunlop made ‘Tortex’ is the ethical way of getting the tortoise shell 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.
- Check out Tortex plectrums on Amazon (affiliate link)
Ultex (Ultem, a.k.a. polyetherimide)
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 guitar 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.
- Check out Ultex picks on Amazon (affiliate link)
Delrin (Acetal Resin)
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.
- Check out Delrin picks on Amazon (affiliate link)
Nylon guitar picks have been used by the likes of Jimmy Page and Gene Simmons for their bright tone and flexibility.
However, nylon picks are a little too thin for many 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, nylon picks are great for musicians who want a bouncy attack in their sound.
- Check out Nylon picks on Amazon (affiliate link)
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 guitar 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.
- Check out Stone picks on Amazon (affiliate link)
Guitar picks made from metal 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.
- Check out Metal picks on Amazon (affiliate link)
Wooden guitar 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.
- The Sheesham wood guitar pick is made from a tough wood that gives them some extra durability and brightness.
- The surf plectrum, on the other hand, is made from an even tougher tree called Lignum Vitae which produces one of the hardest woods on earth. The bad part is they can be pretty thick and limit your playability.
In addition, even the strongest wooden plectrums will wear down faster than most plastic or stone version, so you’ll have to keep replacing them.
- Check out Wood picks on Amazon (affiliate link)
The felt guitar pick is one of the least common varieties 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.
- Check out Wood picks on Amazon (affiliate link)
Bone, Ivory, and Ebony
This a more exotic option, with most bone, ivory, and ebony based guitar 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.
Guitar Pick Thickness
Pick thickness is the subject of many a guitar forum. The thickness of a guitar 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 thin picks 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 thin guitar picks 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 guitar 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)
Thicker picks 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 guitar 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 2mm!
Heavy gauge plectrums are loved by jazz musicians (Gypsy Jazz guitarists favor a 3.5mm pick for extra attack) or bassists who require extra picking force and volume to achieve their tone.
This type of plectrum gives the musician a more accurate picking action for total control over every note.
The downside is that heavy gauge picks can feel cumbersome to hold (especially when you’re not used to it) and are easily dropped due to all the force being applied.
Guitar Pick Shapes
Is there such as thing as one pick shape? No, there are at least eight common pick shapes and probably way more besides.
Plectrums come in different shapes as well as thicknesses, all of which favor certain playing styles.
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 guitar picks resemble the standard but have 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.
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.
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.
A teardrop is a variation on the Jazz III. The narrower one is more challenging to use but offers tighter control.
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 🙂