Guitar picks can change your guitar sound and alter your playing style dramatically. Also called "plectrums," they come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors and are made from numerous materials in varying thicknesses. Although individual playing style dictates sound quality more than any other factor, the various attributes of the pick also contribute to overall guitar tone.
Pick material is an important consideration when shopping for picks. Harder materials such as metal and stone provide quicker string attack and volume while adding a bright tone. Softer materials like plastics produce less attack and volume with a more natural tone. Stone and metal picks do not wear out but are costly. Nylon and plastics wear at different rates, depending on playing style and material quality, but are low in price. Popular plastic pick materials include celluloid, nylon and other durable plastics.
The shape of a guitar pick has more to do with comfort than sound. Most picks are triangular or teardrop-shaped but differ in size. Depending on material and thickness, larger picks are more flexible and easier to hold, while smaller picks are less flexible and more challenging to hold. The ability to securely hold a pick of any size comes with experience, and experience will also show the different sounds you can make with picks of differing sizes.
Picks come in a variety of thicknesses. Stone or metal picks are always rigid, regardless of thickness, so the thickness of these picks is chosen more for comfort than tone or volume. Plastic and nylon picks of thinner sizes bend slightly and deflect after striking the strings. This is called "flutter" or pick noise, and may or may not be desirable, depending on player preference. Thinner picks also produce less volume because of pick deflection. Thicker picks deflect less and produce less flutter, and produce more volume and string attack.
The edge of the pick is an important attribute in string attack. Most triangular picks have a main edge that is pointed, with the remaining edges rounded off. Playing with the pointed edge produces a sharp tone with fast string attack, while using the rounded edge produces a softer tone with less string attack. Some specialty picks have a serrated edge for special effects, as well as round and pointed edges for standard playing.
Regardless of pick material, size, shape and edge, the player's technique is the dominant factor in creating tone. There are numerous ways to hold a pick, which vary greatly from player to player. Some players use different holding and angle techniques for different effects, and although the most common holding method is between the thumb and forefinger, there is no right or wrong way to hold a pick. Holding the playing edge of a thinner pick close to the fingertips ("choking up") will lessen pick deflection, produce more volume and increase string attack. Holding a thicker pick with a loose and flexible finger grip will produce less volume and attack but increase deflection.
Which Is Best?
Since the combination of material, thickness, edge, shape and playing technique produces different guitar sounds, experience and experimentation are key to choosing the right pick. The guitar pick is highly personal, as it serves as a direct link from your fingers to the strings. Some players even use different picks for specific guitars or playing styles. Try as many picks and playing techniques as you can. You will eventually find a pick that sounds and feels best for your individual playing style.
Matt McKay began his writing career in 1999, writing training programs and articles for a national corporation. His work has appeared in various online publications and materials for private companies. McKay has experience in entrepreneurship, corporate training, human resources, technology and the music business.