The Pick - The Guitarist's Key To Achieving A Great Tone

Controlling Your Tone

There are numerous factors which contribute to a guitarist's sound: guitar, strings, pickups the amp, effects, etc. However, it's the pick (or plectrum) that produces the initial attack which generates the sound. It is often overlooked, perhaps due to it's size and low cost, when guitarists look for ways to vary their tone. Experimenting with different types of picks is cheapest and easiest way for a guitarist to achieve a varied sound.

Personal preference, comfort & musical style is a big influencing factor when a guitarist chooses which pick to use. Rhythm guitarists and guitarists who do a lot of strumming often favour thin picks. Lead guitarists typically prefer thicker picks which give a feeling of control and accuracy. Every material used for picks will have different molecular properties and densities which means that they will interact with the string differently

Picks come in a variety of shapes & sizes but the vast majority come in the "tear-drop" format. The thickness of the pick and the material have a significant effect on the overall sound.

Thick or Thin?

Thin picks (anything less than about 0.5mm) produce a sound which is noticeably different to that of a heavy one. They tend to give the guitarist a brighter sound with accentuated overtones but will be result in less depth. The sound will be softer and the dynamics will also be a little more controlled or "flatter" with thinner pick. Thinner picks are best suited for acoustic guitar playing, especially when one is doing mostly strumming!

Heavy or thick picks will produce more volume and to some extent, a fuller tone. More dynamics are possible with a thicker pick and these are favoured by most jazz guitarists search for a richer tone. Heavy picks are those which measure at least 1.5 millimetres in thickness and are good for loudness, deeper bass, durability and accuracy. However, beginners will find that these are difficult to grip and increase the likelihood of broken strings.

Some players prefer to stick with a general all-purpose medium gauge pick such as the Dunlop USA Nylon 73mm. They provide great grip, are almost indestructible and deliver a good balanced sound in volume and tone. These are the ideal choice for acoustic guitar players.

Manmade or Natural?

The most common modern-day materials for guitar picks are plastic, nylon, Tortex (introduced by Jim Dunlop) and more recently, Ultem / Ultex which provide a good manmade alternative to tortoise shell. These picks are cheap, durable and also less likely to damage the guitar than metal, glass, stone or wooden picks. However, guitar picks are also available in a wide range of natural materials, and each with its own tonal character. Many professional guitarists use hardwood guitar picks which have a deep, rich, resonant tone and are responsive to the strings. Others use metal picks and Brian May used a coin!

In Search of the Perfect Pick

For those starting to learn guitar, a good choice would be a "plain vanilla" medium pick such as the Jim Dunlop .73mm Nylon. This offers an acceptable compromise for strumming and lead work. After a few months, you can begin to look at some alternatives.
Don't just use a particular pick because your favourite player also uses them. The pick connects your hand with your guitar. Your fingers & hands are unique, and the way in which you attack the strings with your strumming and picking techniques may differ to other guitarists. For this reason, you need to experiment and find out which pick gives you the most comfort and desired tone. However, even when you find one that works well, try new picks from time to time because you might be surprised to find one that's even better! Also, bear in mind that when playing classical guitar, you should learn to play "finger style" to achieve an authentic classical sound.

The ultimate goal is to find and use the most appropriate pick. The experienced guitarist learns to use different picks in the same way that a great artist distinguishes between different paint brushes.

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Comment by Benjamin Sealey on September 15, 2010 at 2:41pm
Completely agree with this article. I'm always banging on to people about the importance of the right pick. I have gone though hundreds of makes and sizes to find what I like for each different style.
Comment by Toni on September 15, 2010 at 9:22pm
I agree with the general thrust of the article, except that in my experience thick picks result in a thin, brighter sound and a medium pick (like the 0.73 nylon you mention) will give a fatter tone. This is an area where everyone's experience is likely to be different, but it's good to think about.

It is a little difficult however to be categorical about this because at this level of assessment tone is absolutely in the fingers. A few years back I'd asked another guitar player to work with me, and at our first rehearsal was amazed at the thin, bright tone he got from his Les Paul standard and Marshall amp, compared to the fat tone I had from a strat. So of course we swapped rigs, and suddenly the strat sounded all thin and his Paul was nicely girthy. We more or less traced it to the (very heavy - wannabe lead player) picks he was using, but it might well have just been picking technique as much as anything.

My pick-pilgrimage has moved from medium and heavy black triangular Gibson (medium for electric, heavy for acoustic - they still used to break regularly) to the humble nylon pick (0.73mm for electric, 0.88 for acoustic). The stiffer picks are OK for lead and rock rhythm work, but can't cut it at all for funk tones: nylon's extra flexibility lets you dig in and damp at the same time to give a funky, chunky and almost vocal sound. The one deficiency is that if you want that Brian May/Billy Gibbons squelchy attack then you have to use a hard-edged pick.

And of course, the more distortion, the less it matters what pick you use (or even which guitar).
Comment by Nigel Wiggins on September 22, 2010 at 3:00pm
Hi Guys

Thanks again for you feedback and encouragement!

Comment by Wayne Pau on September 22, 2010 at 3:51pm
Wow. What a Pandora's box. Not sure if this in the scope of the blog, but I think just as important as the pick is how it's used. I mean Edge is famous for using Herdim picks "sideways", so the non-slip part grates at the strings. The story goes that no-one ever told him how to hold the pick, so he just naturally did it sideways.

See this cool which analyzes the audio output of Edge style of picking:

Besides thickness and material there are different shapes and textures. Similar to Edge's use of the non-slip texture, there are also the famous "sharkfin" picks:

Then there is the really wacky Jellyfish pick:

..and these are only the flat picks! ;) But maybe that's going a little too far. Probably outside the scope of the blog.
Comment by Nigel Wiggins on September 22, 2010 at 7:50pm
Thanks for the links! I really want to try one of those JelliFish picks :-)
Comment by ML Rocky Jones on September 26, 2010 at 2:07am
A Dunlop 208 (2.0mm) gives me the best tone, for flattop or electric.
That said, I believe the main consideration is in the hands and how the pick is held; after that, the actual pick (thickness, material, shape, etc).
Strumming, flatpicking, position and firmness in the hand, make or break the tone more than the "equipment" (ie pick).


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