Guitar Picks - What's the Difference?
We all know that picks come in all shapes, sizes, colours, materials and thicknesses but is there that much difference between them all? You bet there is! Guitarists often spend inordinate amounts of time obsessing over (and this is of course a good thing!) the minutiae of equipment; string gauge and material, choice of wood, bolt-on necks versus glued-in necks, fingerboard material, pickup height, spruce versus cedar, rosewood versus mahogany, the list goes on but how many players experiment with the myriad of picks available? I dare say not a huge number. But renowned flatpickers such as Doc Watson, Tony Rice, or Gordon Lightfoot will tell you that a huge part of their sound - in fact their whole technical approach to playing the instrument - is a by-product of the pick they use. (More on these chaps later).
Celluloid, the world's first commercial plastic, was at one time the premier material for guitar picks (not to mention combs, fountain pens, billiard balls, ping pong balls and more!). Only two manufacturers remain, on in Italy and the other in Japan, which has led to decreased availability and rising prices. The erratic and flammable character of celluloid has also led to its being largely replaced by other more stable plastics such as nylon and delrin. Pickboy of Japan, however, does offer a limited number of celluloid picks which Ring Music does carry.
Genuine tortoiseshell picks used to be quite common but since an international ban on their manufacture and distribution in the mid-70's they are virtually impossible to locate. This is certainly better for the tortoises involved although many players lament their disappearance. Tortoiseshell picks were noted for their high stiffness to thickness ratio, their exceptional durability (imagine using the same pick for years!) and their rich complex tone. They were also quite easy to reshape by sanding and filing. Alas, they are by and large gone forever...
Some players prefer the brash, bright sound that metal picks offer. They can be made of copper, stainless steel, aluminum or even a quarter! This type of pick is readily available in stores.
Stone picks also offer a unique tone. These usually come from Japan where they are hand-shaped and polished to a high degree. They are inflexible but have a surprisingly warm tone. Due to the method of manufacture they are very expensive relative to plastic picks, often costing upwards of $ 20.
Felt picks are another unique choice. They have very little attack and are the pick of choice for ukulele, autoharp and a number of bass players. They offer a unique sound to guitarists as well and are readily available.
The most common picks these days are made of various types of plastic; nylon, delrin and tortex are three of the most widely available.
Many companies offer different grips (from raised lettering to perforations) that make it easier to hold on when your hands start to sweat.
Aside from the tonal differences that the various materials exhibit, are the issues of thickness, edge bevel and flexibility. Generally speaking, a sharp tipped thin pick will have a bright, pointed attack with a fair amount of pick "flapping" sound inherent. On the other end of the spectrum a thick (say 1.5mm) round cornered pick will have a very broad, warm tone with a less pronounced attack and less pick noise on the string. Then there are all the points between these extremes which must be explored by the individual player to figure out what is best for their particular sound or style.
So what do the pros use? Well, Doc Watson, the grandfather of American flatpicking wears by Herco medium picks. And Tony Rice, arguably the most influential Bluegrass guitarist of the last 30 years, swears by genuine tortoiseshell picks which he buys as raw triangular blanks from a Japan source. He shapes them himself and hopes that his supplier never runs out. Gordon Lightfoot favours the multi-coloured celluloid picks that were popular in the late 70's and early 80's. He too has a large supply on hand and worries about the day he runs out and has to find a replacement.
The key to finding the right pick is experimentation. Sometimes different styles require a different pick choice so it's good to keep an open mind and have lots of different picks on hand.
Ring Music carries a huge inventory of picks, many of which are difficult to find anywhere, but we've got 'em so come in and check us out.
Author's note: If the topic of picks interests you I highly recommend reading "Picks! The Colorful Saga of Vintage Celluloid Guitar Plectrums" by Will Hoover. I am indebted to this wonderful book for much of the information contained herein.
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