Picking a Pick – So Many Choices
Picks; guitar-picks; plectrum. Well, plectra; many names, but the same thing. The best? That’s like asking which is the best car, the best brand of mayo, or the best sandpaper for guitarists’ fingernails. The answer is: It’s what you finally decide on. But until then, the picks you most likely received with your guitar (hopefully, the manufacturer included them) are the classic guitar-pick shape; a roughly elongated triangular piece of plastic, with each corner rounded and smooth. Tear-dropish looking. You might have a selection with L, M, or H (or, Light, Medium, Hard) imprinted on one side, letting you know the thickness or stiffness or gauge of the thing.
A good selection for a starting point.
Other brands – ones you might see in music stores or online – might have the thickness (thickness usually equates with stiffness) designated by an actual measurement in millimeters. This can get a little confusing, especially when confronted with a choice between 0.5mm, 0.6mm, 0.73mm, 0.88mm, 1.0mm, 1.14mm, 1.50mm, or 2.0mm gauge picks. I mean, who decides these specifications?
Then there are the differing shapes: equilateral triangles of various size and thickness; sharp, rounded points; dull, rounded points, ones that are shaped like fingernails but are flat; smaller, classic-shaped; contoured (from thick to smoothly-shaped knife-edge) and…then there’s a whole world of differing materials the picks are made of: the earliest and most numerous being made of celluloid (yes, like in film-stock).
I do miss the fragrance of celluloid – but that’s just me.
But to start off with, we’ll just look at the standard-shaped, standard-thickness plastic plectra, just to keep things simple.
Strum – Brushing the Crumbs Away
Let’s start with the thinnest gauge pick, marked L or Light or Thin. Hold it between thumb and forefinger; not too loose and not a death-grip. With your guitar in your lap, just strum up and down, sorta like brushing crumbs off your shirt. You can allow your other fingers to curl loosely; you might want to use them eventually for a combination of flat-picking and finger-picking so don’t try to curl them up and out of the way too much.
One way to visualize your picking-hand finger-positions is to lay your hand palm-down on a table, so your thumb is resting on its side, then slide your other fingers inwards so they curl, with just their tips touching the table-top. Like a loose fist. Then bring the underside of the thumb so it touches the nearest side of the index finger. Right there, with that feel, is where the pick will be held.
Cradle the pick just about dead center with the pointy end towards the guitar strings, then strum; downwards at first. You’ll feel the pick vibrating between your fingers, trying to get loose and fall away, so grip harder. You’ll get the feel for it after strumming for a few minutes, and when you’re ready, if you haven’t already, start strumming both ways, down and up again. There’ll be a different tug from the pick when you up-strum, but now’s the time to not think about it too much, to over-think things. Just strum. Strum slow; fast; harder; softer. Feel the flat-pick flexing. It’ll probably ‘catch’ on certain strings while reversing strum-direction, so just think about moving your strumming hand and arm parallel across the strings, evenly. Brushing the crumbs.
Angle of Attack
Here’s another concept to consider: visualize holding your guitar upright so the sound hole or pickups are facing you. The guitar strings are running straight up and down. Well…you’ll see how they angle slightly from the bridge towards the head-stock, go through the nut (grooved, white plastic thing that keeps them in place), then up to the tuning keys. That angle is predetermined and historic in a way. It adds nothing to the sound, just the ability to have a thinner neck to easily get your fretting-hand around – though not too thin so you can’t place your fingertips precisely – while maintaining a nice spacing down by the bridge so you can get your picking fingers or flat-pick between the strings. Usually only lap- or pedal-steel guitars have all the strings absolutely parallel to each other because you don’t actually have to press the strings down directly onto the frets.
But getting back to visualizing your strings: imagine now positioning your guitar pick so it’s angled upward along the strings. If you then take hold of the pick and strum, you’ll notice the flat faces of the pick contacting each string; one side for the down-strum, the other side for the up-strum.
This is fine, but depending on how you hold the pick between the index and thumb, with some people – like me, having thumbs with a last-joint which curves backward – when you hold the pick firmly, the angle will be up at the front edge of the pick and down at the back. But having thumbs which let you angle the pick down at the front and up at the back edge, like most people is also great. It doesn’t matter either way; it’s just something to be aware of, to realize what feels comfortable and natural. The main idea though, is that for most things you’ll play, this slight angle is actually beneficial: it lets the edge of the pick slice over the string instead of flicking flat-wise across it. It gives a smoother, less slappy sound.
Similar to what we were talking about with the shaping of fingernails in a previous post.
So with this in mind, start strumming again, being conscious of the angle of the flat-pick as you brush those crumbs away.
The feel of the pick between your fingers will be slightly altered, but just keep strumming till it starts to feel natural, then don’t think too much about it again for a while.
Sounds and Colors
Now try out your other picks, the thicker ones. You’ll notice with the thicker, stiffer plectra, the sound is louder with the same amount of strumming force. This doesn’t mean you have to switch picks every time you want to play louder or softer; you can even play quietly with a super stiff pick just by decreasing strumming force, or by cradling the pick just a little less tensely as you make contact with the strings.
And depending on the shape and size of the pick you have, you can also let more or less of the pick protrude from between your fingers. Just picture putting your pick between the jaws of a vice: if you clamp it at the extreme back edge so most of it is visible, then flick a finger across it, it will vibrate and bend quite easily. On the other hand, if you clamp the pick with just the very tip is showing – even a soft, thin pick – it would be nearly impossible to bend it even a little.
Selecting Your Perfect Pick
Okay, so selecting the perfect pick might take some time. Over the years I’ve collected quite a variety of guitar picks. I used to go to the local music shop (Harry’s, in my case) and sort through the compartmented display boxes of picks. My first non-traditional guitar pick was by Dunlop, called the H3 Jazz Pick. Back then they were still made of celluloid, came in H, M, and L. And even though I wasn’t playing jazz, I loved them! They were smaller and pointier than the standard shape, and just felt nice in the hand. Again, this was a personal thing and you might find other shapes that are easier to hold and manipulate (how hard you hold it, at what angle relative to the strings, where you hold it, and the other things already discussed).
I was quite happy with the H3 and would buy handfuls of them. Celluloid, as you might’ve already found out, wear down on the edges where they come in contact with the strings, especially the rougher, wound strings, though the plain unwound ones will do the same thing after a lot of playing. But…Dunlop stopped making them in the late 80s sometime! They introduced the Jazz III in Stiffo Nylon (along with the II’s and I’s with progressively blunter tips like the original celluloids), and I used those for quite some time. They were exactly the same shape as the ones I loved and had absolutely no flex to them at all. They were the first I ran into which used the millimeter thickness designations as mentioned above, and I opted with the 1.38mm.
Still, I wanted a nice fresh handful of the original celluloids and even contacted the manufacturer and asked if they’d ever offer them again. The answer was that celluloid was getting hard to come by, so they were not going to be putting them out again. They did come out with Tortex versions, which were long-lasting (I don’t remember ever wearing one out) and those were okay. Dunlop’s next step were Ultex picks, which I thought was going to be a material similar to actual celluloid, but even when I found out they weren’t, they were…acceptable. It’s just that certain plastics have different feels, even in the same gauge of thickness. I guess if you look at how the molecules of each type of plastic move when flexed, it might be more specific. But the bottom line is, it just feels different.
Included in the picture are three of my remaining celluloid favorites: H3, M3, and the thin L3.
When I found I couldn’t get them any longer I switched to ones made of the other materials because I didn’t want to run out. I didn’t want to get used to something again that I couldn’t get more of; have an Oh no, this is my last good one! moment. I could have hand-shaped some out of sheet tortoise-shell-patterned celluloid, but that would’ve been missing the point, so to speak. I wanted not to have to think about picks, about making them, where to find them, or if the world supply was running low. I wanted something that was standardized, easy to obtain.
I eventually went back to the classic (351) shaped plastic (Fender California Clears) and the Dunlop Tortex picks, because after so many years of playing, I could get used to any shape for everyday use. Funny though, Dunlop still makes standard shape celluloid picks, so…I guess the supply wasn’t all that critical?
Also included in the photo is the large triangular celluloid pick by Fender. For me, the Thin version of this pick is wonderful as a special use pick, used to give acoustic guitars a brushier, strummier sound by holding it lightly and towards the back edge, and letting the tip pass over the strings quickly but delicately. This was especially useful in home recording to get some nice, full-sounding overdubbed fill tracks going without having to use compressors and limiters. A big, soft pick on a 12-string, proper mic placement (pointing down towards the sound-hole from the 12th fret) sounds pretty full without being overbearing.
As I understand it, Santana uses or used large triangles – the thicker ones – and though bigger than standard, it’s what he’s gotten used to over the years and doesn’t seem to get in the way of his signature fluid scalar passages and complex figures. Other people, John McLaughlin for instance, use tiny picks almost the size of a fingernail, but like I said earlier, it still comes down to what fits your hand, how it feels between your fingers and what sort of sound you want to achieve.
There’s this other thing about guitar picks. I don’t know how many guitarists out there feel the same way I do, but there’s this thing about getting any new piece of equipment; you want to see and hear and feel what difference it will make when you actually get back from the store, or open the shipping envelope, and try it out with your actual rig, your own setup, your own instruments. Like the first time I plugged a fuzzbox together with a wah-wah pedal. It was like, Oh, fuzzbox into wah-wah, sounds…nasally, but wah-wah into fuzzbox sounds sweet!
In the world of guitaring, there’s really nothing cheaper you can buy to experiment with than guitar picks. New guitar strings, maybe, or a cheap peg-winder. But picks are just about the cheapest and most fun things to try out, and if you get a collection of different ones going, or start with an assortment of thicknesses, or shapes, you’ll eventually have lots of sounds to play with.
If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.
Fingers On Strings