You can pick your friends. You can pick your nose. You can pick your friend’s nose (although I don’t recommend it!), but you can’t pick your friend’s picks. Now that’s personal! It’s hard enough to pick one for yourself...
Selecting a guitar pick that’s right for you is as important as choosing any other piece of equipment. It’s the essential link that helps you transmit the energy, intention, and rhythm of your pick hand to the strings. If chosen correctly, the pick can become a powerful and dynamic tool for shaping your sound and harnessing the musical maniac inside of you. Choose poorly and your pick can hinder technique and sabotage your sound.
Please understand that there are a lot of factors that also effect the character of your tone, for example: how hard you pick, the angle of the pick to the strings, string gauge, string material, and of course – your fret hand fingers!
That said, your choice of pick could help to complement your technique and instrument. This choice might also change over time as your technique becomes more refined and your music taste continues to evolve.
What are the main differences between picks?
Picks can be roughly organized by several categories: size, rigidity, material.
Size: Picks come in a slew of shapes and sizes. The shape of the pick that you choose has a lot to do with your hands. Some players like to have more material to hold onto and therefore prefer picks that are larger in size. Other players prefer a smaller size that can result in greater control of technique and sound. Small, large, and weird sizes can work extremely well if enough practice is involved in the equation.
Rigidity: How rigid a pick is can determine how much energy is directly transferred to the string via the picking hand. Just like pick size, you will find picks that vary in rigidity from the extremely flexible (extra light/thin) gauge to the ultra stiff (extra heavy) gauge, and of course everything in between. In general, the more rigid a pick is the more you will be able to project your sound. Light and medium picks sound terrific in strumming situations by providing a nice airy sound, while heavy picks provide a more pronounced sound and can really shine when playing single notes. The best way to decide is to try several different picks that range in rigidity and compare them to decide which pick delivers that right combination of sound and control for the music that you’re creating.
Material: What a pick is made of really has a huge effect on the color of your sound. Some pick materials are very dense (bone, ivory, metal, etc.) and will provide a brighter tone than picks made of softer materials (composites and nylon). Really hard and bright materials might be well suited for a guitar that naturally has a darker tone or a brighter style of music like rock or country. Softer materials can work well for guitars that are naturally bright sounding or styles of music that would benefit from a darker tone.
Personally, I go for the shiny thermoplastic materials. They give a really nice warm tone. Some of the really hard materials (e.g. ivory, bone, metal) can create a scratchy sound. The really soft materials (e.g. nylon, plastics) tend to sheer off pieces of the pick as you play. Each material has strengths and weaknesses. It's up to you to decide which ones you want to put up with.
How do I choose a pick that fits my style?
My advice is to try out different types of picks. Spend some time practicing with each selection. Different combinations of pick rigidity and materials will bring out different characteristics in your sound. You’ll notice that some picks bring out lots of mid-range and high frequencies while some seem to cut the high frequencies and leave the mid range alone.
If you play lead guitar in a rock band, stiffer picks that provide high frequencies might help to bring out nuances like pick harmonics. If you’re a jazz guitarist you might prefer a small stiff pick made from a warmer sounding material to provide control through technically demanding passages. Rhythm guitar players might prefer a thin or medium pick that doesn’t project too much and mixes really well with the bass and drums. Whatever your guitar duties entail, spending a little time to make a selection will pay off in the end.
Should I use just one kind of pick?
Does anyone else carry around a small metal Altoids box full of picks in their pocket? I do.
My girlfriend always laughs at me for my noisy little pick holder. But hey, this is my solution.
After spending a week studying with master jazz guitarist Jim Hall at a master class back in 1994, I was introduced to the concept of using more than one pick for various performance tasks on the guitar. From that point on I began switching picks when I play jazz, bluegrass, rock, or acoustic guitar strumming patterns. Each pick brings out a different characteristic of my playing and helps me achieve the sound I want.
On acoustic steel string guitars I use soft and light picks when I’m playing a strumming part, and I switch to standard heavy picks when I need to strum (and be heard!) and/or pick single note parts. For electric guitars, I gravitate towards small, heavy, shiny and sharp picks. I get tons of maneuverability and tone control without any scratch and drag.
How often should I swap out and old pick for a new one?
It really depends on how much you play. My general piece of advice is to replace your old pick when you notice a difference in your performance and tone quality or notice a considerable amount of wear on the pick tip (e.g. chipping, dulling of the tip, excessive beveling).
Over the years I have used several types of picks from several different companies. Here are a few of my favorite go-to companies.
I used Fender Extra Heavy picks for years. Just a good solid pick – plus, you can find them in almost every guitar or music store.
I was hooked on the stubby 3.0mm pick for about ten years. The 205’s and Jazz III are personal favorites. Really round tones and great materials. Worth checking out.
I love, love, love these picks! The Pro Plec series picks are a current favorite of mine. The sound of these picks is beautiful. They easily compare to more expensive picks of the same style.
Custom and Boutique Picks:
I have some friends and colleagues that swear by some of these companies. I believe them. These companies sponsor some terrific players. So, if you’re in the market for a really nice pick…here you go!