Possibly the most overlooked piece of guitar gear is the humble guitar pick.
It makes sense to me.
When there are so many factors to consider that add up to “your sound” such as your guitar amp, pedals, guitar wood, string choice and so on, I’m not surprised that the smallest piece of gear gets disregarded the most.
But if you think about it your guitar pick is an extension of your fingers. It’s at the very forefront of your guitar signal and connects you to your instrument.
With that mindset, choosing the right guitar pick becomes a more important choice. If you have never given it much more thought than picking out a random pick from “the pick bowl” or from whatever pops up in your sofa, then this is the article for you.
What Makes a Good Guitar Pick?
It’s pretty simple really. It’s personal preference. Sometimes no pick is a good pick. That’s why Jeff Beck plays exclusively with his fingers.
A good guitar pick is one that is comfortable to you, gives you the sound you want, and that allows you to trust your right hand. You’ll know rather quickly if a guitar pick is going to work for you or not.
The 5 Elements of a Guitar Pick
Even though guitar picks are small, they have a huge impact on the feel and tone of your instrument. Each of the elements below modify at least one of those two aspects, so keep that in mind when choosing the right guitar pick for you.
At the end of each of these Element sections, I will suggest some picks worth experimenting with. Since picks are generally cheap, I suggest picking up a bunch and trying them all out!
Possibly the first thing you will notice about a guitar pick is its shape or size. For the most part, picks are about the size of an American Quarter and resemble a teardrop triangle shape. However, there’s plenty of variation in terms of how sharp the edges are or how big the pick is.
Choosing a pick with a sharper point on it can allow for more precision and faster alternate picking. It also creates a thinner sound than a pick with a rounder edge to it.
The size of your hands may determine whether a smaller or larger pick is more comfortable to play on. Spend some time experimenting with different size picks and see which feels comfortable to you.
Picks of Varying Shape/Size to Experiment With
- Jim Dunlop Jazz III – Pointed Edge and Smaller Size
- Fender 346 – Wider Triangular Shape
- Dunlop Tortex Fins – Odd shape for Multiple Tones
Guitar picks are usually categorized into one of four thickness gauges:
Thin – .40-.60mm or less
Medium – .60-.80mm
Heavy – .80mm-1.20mm
Extra Heavy – 1.20mm+
Of all the elements of a guitar pick, I would say that thickness has the biggest impact on the resulting tone they produce. Thinner gauges typically produce a tighter dynamic range that accentuates the high-end frequencies. It is for these reasons that they make good picks to strum on acoustic guitars with. My pick of choice for acoustic strumming is the Dunlop Tortex .50mm (aka the red one).
Thick picks, on the other hand, create a wider dynamic range and are more suitable for lead playing and for electric guitars. The tones are less bright and offer a heavier attack. Thicker picks are an obvious choice for bass players as well in order to combat the large string gauges.
While thicker picks have more resistance to them, therefor requiring more strength to use, I find them to be a more reliable playing experience especially when playing fast. Try it for yourself: alternate pick on any note, on any string, starting slow and gradually ramping up the speed. Try it first with a thin pick, then again with a heavy pick. Which one can you go faster with?
Picks of Varying Thickness to Experiment With
- Jim Dunlop Tortex .50mm Reds – The Standard Thin Pick
- Dunlop Variety Pack – Variety of Thickness/Textures
- Ernie Ball Everlast 2.0 mm – These won’t break on you
Ever think about what your guitar picks are made out of? They don’t all say. Once upon a time they used to be made of actual tortoise shell. Now, not even “tortoise shell” picks aren’t made from real tortoises (thankfully).
Most picks are made from either Acetal, Celluloid, or Nylon. However, picks can be made from just about anything.
Ever played with a felt pick? How about a wooden one? Or Acrylic? Acrylic gives a really glassy smooth tone, like playing with a glass slide. Nylon can sound thin and has a looser feel. Ultem, an engineering grade plastic, can be made into really thin picks but still keep a stiff feel (more on hardness later). Whatever the material you choose is going to have a profound impact on the tone and the feel of your pick. It’s fun to find picks of similar shapes and thickness, but made of different materials, and then compare.
Picks of Varying Materials to Experiment With
- V-Picks – A special blend of Acrylic that feels like glass
- Clayton Exotic Picks – Wooden picks with a groove for your fingers
- Dunlop Nylon – Nylon picks with a grip
The hardness is naturally interwoven with the material and thickness of your pick. Not all guitar picks have the same hardness to them, and it is worth looking into in respect to the thickness of your pick. If you like a thinner pick, but still want high reliability and tension, then having a harder pick could be a good choice. If you prefer the feel of a thicker pick, but don’t like the heavier sounds that come with them, then getting a softer pick could help. Or Vice Versa.
Picks of Varying Hardness to Experiment With
- Honbay Felt Picks – Loose and flexible for light acoustic or ukulele
- Clayton Ultem Picks – Clean tone with limited flex
Grip was the element of a guitar pick that I always found most fun to experiment with. A pick without any kind of grip to it is usually a deal breaker for me, as I keep a pretty loose grip and can get sweaty on stage, so I drop picks frequently. Having that extra confidence that I can hold onto my pick is important to me, and it can be accomplished in a number of ways.
Even a pick’s material can add extra friction for grip. For example, I find that Acetal picks like the Tortex series have just a slight powdery feel to them that I find appealing.
There are more creative solutions too. For the longest time I used Star Picks, which have a star hole punched through the middle. This allows for your index and thumb to feel each other while picking. I still use these from time to time and would highly recommend them.
There are also picks that have raised bumps on them. These allow for a little extra grip and in some cases can be scraped against the strings for a gritty sound. My two favorites right now that utilize this tactic are the Dunlop USA Flow picks and the Keith Urban signature picks. The KU picks are especially unique because the grip is only in one corner, giving you three distinct corners to play around with.
Picks with Varying Grip to Experiment With
- Keith Urban Signature Ultem – Solid grip and versatile edge tones.
- Everly Star Picks – Feel your fingers through the pick
- Dunlop Flow – Classic, low profile raised bump design
You Don’t Have to Pick Just One
I’ve tried out a lot of guitar picks in the 15 years that I have been playing guitar. One of the most rewarding realizations I’ve had over guitar picks is that you don’t have to just pick one type!
I like to use thin picks when I’m strumming acoustics, but I like a thicker Ultex pick when I’m playing leads and melodies. Jazz III’s are excellent for shredding on electric, but they aren’t right when I want to play a good funk rhythm part. Sometimes, no pick is the answer and I’ll play fingerstyle, or a hybrid of pick and fingers!
I invite you to try out a wide variety of guitar picks. A lot of guitar shops have picks of every sort in organized containers (or sometimes a hodge-podge fishbowl) for you try out. If that isn’t an option for you, buying a variety of picks is pretty inexpensive.
Even if you don’t like some of the picks you try out, keep them all in a little bowl for when your other musician friends come over. Believe me, guitarists are bound to forget a pick and you will be their hero if you hand them a variety of picks to choose from.
I hope I have helped you in your search for a good guitar pick. When in doubt, trust your ear and your sense of touch, and have fun exploring all the options available to you. Happy guitar playing!
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Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.