Let’s imagine we are playing guitar 10,000 years ago. One starry, starry night, while sitting around the fire in our cave after a long, hard day of hunting, we begin fooling around with our bow. An accidental pluck of the string makes a pleasant musical tone. This is good. Then, another accident occurs, we push on the bow, and like a whammy bar, the string gets looser and the tone gets lower. At that moment, relative pitch is discovered.
Things seem to be developing nicely until we begin having difficulty playing at faster tempos. Then comes the thought to reach over and pick up our favorite arrowhead, and like magic, the plectrum, also known as the pick, is born.
Now, let’s fast forward to the 21st Century and look at the development of the modern pick.
Although picks may be of any shape, they generally take the heart-like shape of an isosceles triangle with two very rounded corners, and a third corner, the point, rounded to a lesser degree. Regardless of the shape, the picks edge will be smooth and rounded, or sharp and beveled. The classic pick shape of today, the 351, was created by Luigi D’Andrea in 1922. It was the first pick made of celluloid, and with the imprint and endorsement of Nick Lucas, it became the most popular pick of the 1930’s.
Picks vary in thickness to accommodate different playing styles and gauges of strings. Manufacturers usually print the thickness on the pick in millimeters. The following is a thickness guideline: Extra thin/light less than 0.38, Thin/light 0.51-0.60, Medium 0.73-0.81, Thick/heavy 0.88-1.20 and Extra Thick/heavy more than 1.50.
Thinner picks are flexible and do not deliver a forceful attack. They do not play very loudly and tend to make a clicking sound when the string is struck. Thin picks do not respond well when fast alternating down and up strokes are required. Also, they tend to rip and tear when used forcefully or with heavy gauge strings.
In contrast, thicker picks produce very strong attacks and are capable of both quiet and loud dynamics. Thicker picks are less likely to wear down over time and they offer more control with heavier gauge strings.
Jazz guitar players, who favor heavy gauge flat-wound strings, often use small tear-drop shaped medium picks of various materials.
In a pinch, just about anything will function as a pick: a coin, button, popsicle stick, credit card, paper clip, ice cream wooden spoon — even a baseball card. Over the years, picks have been made out of just about every material imaginable: bone, shell, tortoise-shell, wood, amber, stone, gemstone, coconut, ivory and metals: steel, brass, nickel, silver, gold and platinum.
Metal picks produce a very bright sound and tend to wear out the strings quickly. Metal picks can easily damage the finish on the guitar if used for strumming, especially acoustic guitars. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top uses a Mexican Peso filed down to the classic 351 shape.
Today, the most common of all modern pick materials is plastic. Plastic ranges from the easiest to bend, nylon, to the hardest to bend, ultem. It’s interesting to note that a pick of the same thickness will be fairly flexible if made out of nylon and very stiff if made out of ultem. Thickness and material go hand-in-hand.
It should be mentioned that plastic is very slippery and many non-slip devises and friction coatings such as: wire loops, rubber, cork and holes were incorporated into pick design from the very beginning to provide traction to keep the pick from twisting and flying out of sweaty fingers. As Aerosmith said, get a grip! Now, let’s examine some of these plastics.
Celluloid, discovered in 1870, was the first commercial plastic and the most popular pick material of all. More picks were made from celluloid than all other materials combined. By the turn of the century, the celluloid pick had begun to replace the warm and comfortable tortoise-shell pick. And by the 1940’s, picks of modern plastics were out selling celluloid picks. Amazingly, D’Andrea continued to make tortoise-shell picks until 1973 when the Endangered Species Act halted production. Fender didn’t stop making celluloid picks until 1993.
Nylon is more slippery than celluloid and most manufacturers add a high-friction coating to make them easier to grip and less likely to twist and fly out of the players fingers. Nylon is extremely flexible and most thin and extra-thin picks are made from it. Nylon picks tend to lose their flexibility and become fragile and break after extensive use, so, guitarists should have several spare picks in the case, just in case.
Delrin by DuPont, also called Acetal or Tortex, is smooth, glossy and slick. It is very hard and stiff and wears down slowly.
Lexan has a shiny, glass-like and extremely hard surface that wears down relatively fast.
Ultem is a space age plastic that has the highest hardness and stiffness of all plastic picks. Ultem produces a very bright (treble) tone.
Tortis is made from polymerized animal protein, and comes very close to the sound and feel of natural tortoise shell picks. Tortis picks are usually thick with smooth beveled edges. Dweezil Zappa endorses a tortis pick.
Agate guitar picks are harder than metal andcannot be flexed regardless of their thickness. Since no press or injection mold is needed to make an agate pick, they may be individually crafted to meet the players specifications.
Lignum Vitae is a rare wood that is harder than ebony. Its cellular structure contains natural oils that give this pick its unique feel and sound.
Glass picks are generally hand blown and range from round points with natural edges to sharp points with beveled edges.
The pick is usually played with the pointed end and gripped with two fingers: thumb and index. However, many players use different grips.
Eddie Van Halen holds the pick between his thumb and middle finger, while James Hetfield and Steve Morse hold the pick using three fingers: thumb, middle and index. Pat Metheny also holds the pick with three fingers, but plays using the rounded edge of the pick. George Lynch also plays with the rounded edge and so did Stevie Ray Vaughan. George Benson and Pat Martino hold the pick very tightly between the thumb and index finger and attack with the surface of the pick nearly parallel to the string for a very articulate and consistent tone.
Circle picking is a technique where the thumb is bent on the downstroke and straightened on the upstroke, causing the tip of the pick to move in a circular pattern. This tends to produce a lighter articulation.
The angle of the pick in relation to the string can create a broad range of effects. For example, moving the pick edge along the length of a round wound string at 90╝ produces the pick scrape.
Shredding is a goal for many and there are two main approaches to fast picking: alternate and efficient. Alternate picking is when the player maintains strict down and up strokes regardless of which string is being played. Efficient picking is when the player uses the least amount of strokes. For example, if the next sound is on the same string, pick with an alternate stroke, however, if the next sound is on a different string, pick toward that string. Here is a very cool site for an indepth look at right-hand picking styles. http://troygrady.com/
In closing, here’s a tip my classical guitar teacher taught me to keep my fingernails smooth and slick. I discovered it works on picks too. Lightly sand the point edges of your pick with 600 grit sandpaper until a smooth, slick surface that slips effortlessly over the string is achieved. Do this when the edges get rough from playing, and since new picks tend to have rough edges, be sure to sand your pick before you use it the first time. One final thought, my pick of choice is a Dulop Delrin 500 Series, 2.0 mm.
‘Til next time, no matter what pick you use, get to the point and have some plectrum fun. I’ll be listening!