Which Guitar Picks Should You Use?

guitar-pick-celluloid-question-markHow to Pick Your Guitar Picks

If you’re new to guitar lessons, a simple trip to your favorite Portland music shop to buy guitar picks can be pretty confusing. There are so many types of guitar picks. Are some better than others? Which ones should you choose?

So Many Shapes

The first thing you’re bound to notice about your neighborhood music store’s selection of guitar picks is that they come in a lot of different shapes. There’s the standard shape we’ve all come to recognize, various types of triangles, and the mysterious “shark’s fin.” There are also thumb picks, picks shaped like teardrops, and maybe even a few in novelty shapes such as hearts or skulls.

Many rock, folk, country, and blues musicians tend to favor the traditional pick shape that we’re all accustomed to. Jazz and metal players often go for smaller, thicker, teardrop-shaped picks, as they offer greater precision for single-note lines and less drag when playing at fast tempos.

The equilateral triangle-shaped picks have the advantage of being usable regardless of which corner of the pick you’re using, and shark-fin picks (the weird ones with the ridges) can be used to give chords a fuller sound.

What About Thickness?

You’ll also probably notice that guitar picks are available in a wide range of thicknesses, from nearly paper-thin .44 mm picks all the way up to extra heavy 2 mm picks.

Generally, thinner picks give a “brighter” sound, and are quite flexible. These qualities make them well suited for strumming open chords, but fairly worthless for playing biting lead guitar lines.

Thicker picks are a bit more difficult for guitar beginners to use, but playing with them will help budding guitarists to develop a more precise picking technique, and better control over dynamics. They also tend to have a “darker” sound; more “thump” and less “sparkle.”

Pick Materials

Old-fashioned guitar picks were made of “tortoiseshell,” which was actually the outer shell of the Atlantic Hawksbill Turtle. When the turtle became endangered, the practice of making picks out of its shell was banned, so pick makers had to start making their picks out of plastics.

Celluloid is the oldest and still one of the most common of these shell substitutes. Fender’s classic picks are still made of this material, as are many other makers’ offerings. It often has a marbled, bowling ball-like appearance. It’s favored by players who prefer a “vintage” tone, but it’s not as durable as other plastics. Oh, and it’s highly flammable, so if you’re playing a face-melting metal solo, proceed with caution. I’m joking.

Delrin is another common pick material. It’s what’s used to make Jim Dunlop’s popular Tortex line (Tortex .88s are my personal favorites). This material tends to wear more evenly and is less prone to breakage than traditional celluloid.

Nylon picks are more flexible than Delrin picks of a similar thickness, and have a bit “brighter” tone. They’re most often found in shades of grey or blue, though other colors are available. They’re another favorite of vintage tone enthusiasts.

In addition to the materials listed above, you may also find picks made of stone, wood, metal, felt, carbon fiber, glass, leather… the list goes on and on.

Generally speaking, the harder the pick material, the more “crisp” the sound will be.

Guitar Pick Textures

We’ve mentioned texture a few times already, but it’s worth bringing up again: some picks are easier to grip than others. Delrin picks have a texture that is easy to hold onto, which is ideal when you’re trying to play under hot stage lights and your hands get sweaty.

Nylon picks tend to have textured grips molded onto the pick surface, so you’re less likely to drop them into your acoustic guitar’s soundhole, which guitar picks seem to think is the gateway to the promised land.

Some picks even have perforations cut into them, or are fitted with rubber grips. Remember, the smoothest picks (such as celluloid) are the hardest to hold onto, so if your hands tend to sweat when you play, you’re probably better off with picks that have some grip to them.

Collect Them All

In the end, there’s no right answer to the question, “Which pick should I use?” The “best” guitar pick will be different for every player.

The good news is that while we might not be able to purchase all of our dream guitars to see which ones we like the best, most of us can afford to buy a wide selection of guitar picks in different thicknesses, materials, and shapes.

If you’re a beginner, I’d recommend that next time you’re at the music shop, you drop ten bucks or so on an assortment of different guitar picks, and try them all out. You might be surprised at what a difference switching picks can make.

Famous Picks

Your pick choices shouldn’t be dictated by what your favorite guitarist used, but if you’re obsessed with replicating a specific player’s tone, the pick is a piece of the puzzle. So just for the fun of it, here’s a little famous pick trivia:

  • Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top often plays with a quarter or a Mexican Peso
  • Brian May of Queen is fond of using British sixpence coins
  •  Jimi Hendrix wasn’t picky about picks. He used whichever medium picks were lying around
  •  Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, and Gene Simmons are all fans of Herco Flex 75 nylon picks
  •  Eric Clapton favors Ernie Ball Heavy Celluloid picks
  •  Kurt Cobain played Tortex picks, as do Kim Thayil and Billy Corgan

If you were wondering which guitar picks to pick, I hope this article gave you a bit of clarity.

If you’re looking for guitar lessons in Portland, let’s talk!