| March 17, 2023 |

How to Find the Perfect Guitar Pick/Plectrum

Pick the ideal guitar pick for your playing style or try new sizes and materials for a host of tonal variations

Guitar picks, AKA plectrums, are typically the first conduit between your hands and the guitar, the initial physical element of expression. However, some notable players use their fingers or reach for violin bows and EBows instead.

Several materials and shapes are utilized to manufacture picks, with different gauges affecting the desired tonal outcome. Thin picks produce a vibrant sound by quickly snapping away from the string, while thicker gauges are favored for their accuracy at higher picking speeds and allow for a more uniform attack parameter, particularly when executing sweep-picking techniques. Theoretically, a thicker pick may offer a broader dynamic range, but the proficiency of picking ultimately rests on the player. Maintaining control is vital.

In tandem with pickup choice and general EQ settings on an amp (and the attendant drive settings), nothing more directly affects how strings ultimately sound when playing guitar than the material of a pick. To a lesser degree, the gauge of the pick and tip shape factors into the equation–the surface structure is also a huge variable since the higher the friction, the more likely you’ll get a raspy result. The angle of the picking motion makes a difference, too, but the material seems to top the list of factors in terms of tonal expression. And, of course, all picks and timbres are discernibly affected by the velocity of attack and where on the string contact is made–closer to the bridge, it is brighter, and closer to the neck, it is darker. Tone knobs also shape the sound but are generally passive (sometimes active) cuts to the high-end spectrum.

It’s worth exploring various materials, gauges, pick shapes, and techniques to discover what works best for you. Here’s a sampling of common materials that manufacturers use: tortoise shell (illegal in most countries) and artificial tortoise shell, animal horn, leather, stone, bone, glass, metals (including fingerpicks and coins), synthetic plastics and polymers, carbon fiber, felt, wood, rubber, cast acrylic, fingernails, and fingernails fortified with super glue and baking soda–the list goes on.

You can even manufacture your own picks from old credit cards or any other material that can be cut and shaped, such as household plastic containers. Momentary privation may drive such quests! One can alter the edges and tips of many picks, especially plastics and polymers, by dragging the pick across carpet, plunging it against the fibers and woven substrate backing as if it were a type of sandpaper. The friction, heat, and pressure often quickly “melt” and “smooth” the edge in a desirable manner. Give it a try!

On the money

Brian May, who famously uses an English sixpence as a guitar pick, told the BBC, “I used to use very bendy picks because I thought it was good for getting speed, but I gradually discovered that I wanted more and more hardness in the pick, and the more rigid it is, the more you feel what’s happening at the string in your fingers. So, in the end, I picked up a coin, and it was just perfect. That’s all I needed. And I changed the way that I held the pick, sort of bending one of the fingers around, and I never went back from that point.”

Similarly, Billy Gibbons often uses a Mexican peso as a pick. When Guitar World asked him about it, he replied, “Tommy Carter of Jimmie Vaughan’s Dallas band, the Chessmen, used a quarter to play bass. He described the serrated edge of the coin as producing a delightful scratchiness as he scrubbed the strings. That gave me the idea, and our love of the Mexican border is what drew us to the peso. The peso coin is a rarity, but we’ve still got a few filed down for the ready.”

A much revered and loved player, John McLaughlin mentioned in a video interview with Premier Guitar that he’s modified picks to “. . . hack it, I hack it with my Swiss army knife so it gives me a good grip.” This idea can be extended to the portions of the pick that touch the string, too, and offers a raspier attack across a range of materials. Obviously, some picks have imprinted logos or purposeful indentations as part of the manufacturing process, offering a better gripping surface for the thumb and forefinger.

George Benson, Pat Metheny, and Eddie Van Halen all exhibited unique methods of holding the pick and preferred angle of attack on the strings. These factors of variation are very personal and may sometimes derive from early habits developed during formative playing years. Experiment as much as you desire to discover what feels right to you. Gripping between the thumb and forefinger is the traditional approach—with the tip being more or less at a right angle from the last joint of your forefinger.

Players such as Jeff Beck (RIP) and Jared James Nichols opt to play rock-oriented music with fingers, rarely using a pick. This provides a spectrum of tonal shades affected by the absence or presence of calluses and nail thickness, nail length, and touch dynamics. Often, fingerstyle players will blend in their fingernails and the pads of their fingers at times for additional variety.

Some players advocate using a combination of super glue and baking soda (or acrylic powder) on fingernails both for nail repair and for extra nail strength—with such an approach, the idea is to build up the thickness of the nails artificially. However, glues may be toxic on some level, so it’s reasonable to consider safe-for-humans acrylic nail polish or fake nails as an alternative solution. You’ll eventually shape the nail using emery boards and sandpaper (for polishing a finer surface). And, anecdotally, it’s possible to close a cut on a finger with super glue (in desperate times).

Due to the percussive nature of the metal genre, picks are a vital part of that style, especially very thick and pointy picks, which are purported to enhance economy of motion. However, plenty of metal players use popular and bog-standard medium gauge picks and still create crushing riffs at breakneck speeds. It’s all about personal preference. There are no hard and fast rules.

In conclusion, the availability of so many choices in pick material and shape supports creativity through each player’s personal needs and choices. It’s a great problem to have, so it’s reasonable to invest some time with a variety of picks in search of the most desirable for your artistic goals with the instrument.

Check out the full range of Gibson guitar picks.