guitar pick is a type of plectrum designed for use on a guitar. Over time people have made picks of various materials, including plastic, rubber, felt, tortoiseshell, wood, metal, and stone. They most often take the shape of an acute isosceles triangle with the two equal corners very rounded and the third corner rounded to a lesser extent. This shape is, however, merely one of many used by manufacturers.
Pick shapes started with guitarists filing down bone, shell, wood, cuttlebone, metal, amber, stone or ivory to get the desired shape. Most of today's classic guitar pick shapes were created by the company that made the first plastic pick in 1922, D'Andrea Picks. The plastic pick was an idea that Luigi, and his young son Tony, Sr., had after purchasing a few sheets of the tortoise shell-like celluloid from a street vendor. It appeared very similar to the real tortoise shell picks the guitarists used in their Greenwich Village neighborhood.
Most users of picks are familiar with the most popular shape, the 351. The rounded triangle is the 346 and the small jazz pick, the 358. All these numbers represent the numbers the Luigi & Tony D'Andrea assigned to each of their new "creations" at the request of the guitarists they serviced. Soon after, they requested their names be imprinted on them. D'Andrea Picks was the first company to create custom pick imprinting. One of the first to make the player imprint popular was guitarist Nick Lucas in the 1930s.
Many picks have some form of imprint on them from simple manufacturer logos to completely customized artist picks bearing the imprinted signature or bandlogo of the musician. Probably the most famous and easily recognizable name on a pick is the logo of Fender Guitars. One of the early "mass distributors" of customized guitar picks was Rick Nielsen of the rock band Cheap Trick. Rick was known to toss out hundreds of customized picks over the course of a single concert. These artist picks have become more popular over the last few decades to the point it's somewhat rare to find a famous artist who doesn't use a custom pick. As the technology for printing improved over the years, so did the variety and quality of the imprints. What began as simple block lettering has evolved into multi-color and highly-detailed graphics. Steve Clayton was the first pick manufacture to create multi-colored imprinting for guitar picks. Shortly thereafter, the Clayton facility started offering multi-colored picks over the Internet. With such a wide variety available, people began collecting guitar picks as a full-fledged hobby. There is even a global network for collectors to trade their picks called PickNET that sprang up in 1994. Custom picks are available at concerts as the musicians frequently toss used picks out to the audience. Some artists even sell their picks through their websites or fanclubs.
Guitar picks come in varying thicknesses to accommodate the different playing styles and kinds of strings. Thinner plectra are more flexible and tend to offer a wider range of sounds, from soft to loud, and produce a "click" that emphasizes the attack of the picking. However, some argue that heavier picks produce a brighter tone.
In rock and heavy metal, while playing electric guitar with hi-gain amplification or distortion, it is generally assumed that thinner picks produce muddier, heavier, less controllable sound and thicker picks produce more delicate, more controlled and well-shaped tone. Thinner picks also tend to rip or tear more often if used too forcefully, whereas a thicker one is more likely to wear down over time. Thicker picks are generally used in more discrete genres, such as heavy metal or power metal. However, there are many exceptions to these stereotypes, especially as there is an element of guitarist preference involved in selecting pick thickness.
Many death metal musicians swear by picks thicker than 1.5mm, because it allows more control over heavy gauge strings. Thinner picks tend to give less attack and do not give as much control when doing fast tremolo picking. Also, they tend to wear much faster when used with heavier gauge strings.
Jazz guitar players tend to use quite heavy picks, as they also tend to favor heavy gauge flat-wound strings. Bass players tend to prefer thick picks because their strings are far thicker than those of guitarists.
Most manufacturers (D'Andrea Picks, Jim Dunlop, Alice, Teckpick, Dava Control) print down the thickness in millimeters or thousandths of an inch right on the pick. Some other brands (Gibson, Fender, Peavey, Ibanez) occasionally use a somewhat cryptic system of letters or text designations to mark the thickness. Approximate guidelines to thickness ranges are presented in the following table:
|Text description||Approximate thickness||Other possible marks|
|Extra light/thin||≤ 0.38||≤ 0.014|
|Light/thin||0.51–0.60||0.020–0.023||"T" or "Thin" / "L" or "Light"|
|Medium||0.73–0.81||0.028–0.031||"M" or "Medium"|
|Heavy/thick||0.88–1.20||0.034–0.047||"H" or "Thick"|
|Extra heavy/thick||≥ 1.50||≥ 0.060|
Most common picks are made out of various types of plastic. Most popular plastics include:
- Celluloid. Historically, this was the first plastic ever used to produce picks, and it is still of some use today, especially for guitarists aiming for vintage tone. Occasionally, guitarists who smoke have accidentally discovered the extremely flammable nature of this material.
- Nylon. Popular material, has a smooth and slick surface, so most manufacturers add a high-friction coating to nylon picks to make them easier to grip. Nylon is flexible and can be produced in very thin sheets. Most thin and extra-thin picks are made out of nylon. However, nylon loses its flexibility after 1-2 months of extensive use, becomes fragile and breaks, so guitarists that use thin nylon picks should have several spare picks just in case.
- Tortex / Delrex. By Jim Dunlop and D'Andrea Picks respectively. Brand names for DuPont Delrin which is specially treated to have a matte, opaque surface, surprisingly easy to grip even with sweaty fingers.
- Acetal. Steve Clayton's version of Dupont Delrin.
- Ultem. This space age plastic has the highest stiffness of all plastic picks. Produces a brighter tone. Introduced by Steve Clayton, the material is additionally popular among mandolin players.
- Lexan. Glossy, glass-like, very hard surface, though it wears out relatively fast. Barely bends at all and it's commonly used only for thick and extra-thick picks (> 1 mm). Usually has a high-friction grip coating. Best known example of Lexan picks are Jim Dunlop Stubby series.
Modern plastics can be ranged this way from the easiest to bend to the hardest: Nylon, Acetal, Delrin (Tortex/Delrex), Lexan, Ultem. This means that the same medium (for example, 0.70–0.80 mm) pick would be fairly flexible if made out of nylon and very solid if made out of Ultem.
Picks made out of steel will produce a much brighter sound than plastic ones. They do however wear the strings quickly and can easily damage the finish on the guitar if used for strumming, especially on acoustic guitars. Brian May of Queen uses picks which replicate his original choice — a silver sixpence coin. Some of them are produced by The Royal Mint of England and are considered to be rare and precious among collectors. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top uses a regular Mexican peso, usually filed down to more usual pick shape, resembling 351.
- Agate. These gemstone guitar picks range in thickness from 1mm (very rare) up to 5mm, and they don't flex at all. Stone is a surprisingly versatile material because no mold or press is needed allowing a single pick to be crafted to the desired specifications. Though they take some getting used to they offer the player a pick that is harder than metal (guitar strings) and can therefore resonate the strings more completely. Stone picks are (usually) polished smooth and some even come with grip features.
- Lignum vitae is a rare hardwood with unique properties. It's very hard (4500 lbf, according to Janka Wood Hardness Rating) and its cellular structure is saturated with its own natural oil, giving a pick a unique feel and sound. Such picks are usually about 2-3 mm thick.
Some picks have small protrusions to make them easier to keep hold if the fingers start to sweat (very common on stage due to the hot lights). Some picks (as illustrated) will have a high-friction coating to help the player hold on to them. The small perforations in the stainless steel pick serve the same function. Many players will often have spare picks attached to a microphone stand or slotted in the guitar's pickguard.
The equilateral pick can be easier for beginners to hold and use since each corner is a playing edge.
The shark's fin pick can be used in two ways - normally employing the blunt end or the small perturbations can be raked across the strings producing a much fuller chord or used to employ a "pick scrape" down the strings producing a very harsh, scratching noise.
The sharp edged pick is used to create an easier motion of picking across the strings.
Bass players who use a pick normally use much heavier picks than guitar players. Some bass players find that coins make excellent picks, though some prefer slightly thinner picks to increase speed and endurance.
There are some patented guitar pick shapes (usually these patents claim "ornamental design"):
- Template:US patent reference — pick with a hole that can be used to attach it to guitar strings while not playing to store guitar and a pick together and prevent a pick being lost;
- Template:US patent reference — pick attachable to natural fingernail with a spiral thimble;
- Template:US patent reference — pick with an extension loop to attach a pick to a finger
- Template:US patent reference — pick with non-planar dent to improve gripping
- Template:US patent reference — double blade pick;
- Template:US patent reference — rounded pick with two thick pads;
- Template:US patent reference — non-uniform teardrop pick;
- Template:US patent reference — pick with a flexible strap to grip to finger;
- Template:US patent reference — boomerang-shaped pick;
- Template:US patent reference — soft metal pick.
- Template:US patent reference — pick with perforation holes;
- Template:US patent reference — pick with sharper corners and a beveled playing edge;
- Template:US patent reference — a three-way pick that can be held multiple ways;
- Template:US patent reference — pick designs with 2 symmetric teardrop holes;
- Template:US patent reference — pick with extension relief to improve gripping comfort
- Template:US patent reference — equilateral triangle pick with bevels and round hole in the middle;
In 1996, Dave Storey introduced the patented Dava Multi-Gauge design pick, later trademarked as Dava Control. These picks are made of compound layers of plastic, connected to form a flexible central section of a pick. A guitarist can easily adjust the pick tip's flexibility by applying various pressure to this central section: a hard grip yields hard pick (thicker one) to play lead, a soft grip yields soft pick (thinner one) to play rhythm. As of 2007, Dava Control offers guitar picks with tips made from nylon, delrin, celluloid and nickel silver.
Patented methods of producing guitar picks Edit
There is one patented method of producing guitar picks. A method to produce picks from credit cards and identification cards. Useful for recycling and destroying credit cards and identification cards:
Picks are usually gripped with two fingers—thumb and index—and are played with pointed end facing the strings. However, it's a matter of personal preference and many notable musicians use different grips. For example, Eddie Van Halen holds the pick between his thumb and middle finger; James Hetfield and Steve Morse hold a pick using 3 fingers—thumb, middle and index; Pat Metheny also holds the pick with three fingers but plays using the rounded side of the plectrum. George Lynch also uses the rounded side of the pick. Stevie Ray Vaughan also played with the rounded edge of the pick, citing the fact that the edge allowed more string attack than the tip. His manic, aggressive picking style would wear through pickguards in short order, and wore a groove in his beloved Fender Stratocaster, Number One, over his years of playing. Jimmy Rogers and Freddie King had a special kind of technique utilizing two picks at once.
The motion of the pick against the string is also a personal choice. George Benson and Dave Mustaine, for example, hold the pick very stiffly between the thumb and index finger, locking the thumb joint and striking with the surface of the pick nearly parallel to the string, for a very positive, articulate, consistent tone. Other guitarists have developed a technique known as circle picking, where the thumb joint is bent on the downstroke, and straightened on the upstroke, causing the tip of the pick to move in a circular pattern. Circle picking can allow greater speed and fluidity. The angle of the pick against the string is also very personal and has a broad range of effects on tone and articulation. Many rock guitarists will use a flourish (called a pick slide or pick scrape) that involves scraping the pick along the length of a round wound string (a round wound string is a string with a coil of round wire wrapped around the outside, used for the heaviest three or four strings on a guitar; this wrapping creates a rippled surface that produces quite a distinct sound when scraped with a pick).
The two chief approaches to picking are alternate picking and economy picking. Alternate picking is when the player strictly alternates each stroke between downstrokes and upstrokes, regardless of changing strings. In economy picking, the player will use the most economical stroke on each note. For example, if the first note is on the fifth string, and the next note is on the fourth string, the pick will use a downstroke on the fifth string, and continue in the same direction to execute a downstroke on the fourth string. The economy picking technique sounds as though it would require more conscious thought to execute it but many guitarists learn it intuitively and find it an effort to use alternate picking. Conversely, some guitarists maintain that the down-up "twitch" motion of alternate picking lends itself to momentum better, and hence trumps economy picking at high speeds.
Picks wear out with use, and many guitarists prefer the playing "feel" of new picks.
In popular culture Edit
Usually, a guitar pick is hidden within a player's hand, so a casual viewer may think that a guitarist plays with bare hands. However, some guitarists may fling their picks out into the audience in an attempt to prompt a dramatic effect from those listening. Direct references to guitar picks are usually considered as a sign of somebody having close relation to playing an instrument.
- Dreamweb, a 1994 computer game, starts with main protagonist going to his friend, whose apartment's floor is covered with guitar picks spread randomly. This fact emphasizes that the friend is an avid guitarist.
- Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny features a mystical guitar pick carved from the tooth of Satan, which possesses supra-natural qualities (a "whole other level above super-natural").
- Some fashion studios offer jewelry made of guitar picks, such as guitar pick necklaces, earrings, pendants, chains, etc. Guitar pick jewelry complements merchandise line usually produced by an artist (i.e., t-shirts, bandannas and other memorable items).
- In the film Wild Zero, Guitar Wolf uses electric picks as a weapon against zombies
- Buddy Holly, the 1950s rocker, always hid an extra pick behind his pickguard. When restoring his 1958 Fender Stratocaster in 2006, the pick was discovered.
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