Why the right guitar pick matters.
Hey everyone! I wanted to talk briefly about guitar picks. As many of you know, there are so many picks to choose from. You may be asking yourself; which pick is best for me?
First, there are different thicknesses. The thickness of the pick will determine how much performance you need. I always use my car analogy: A thick pick is like a high end sports car that can maneuver quickly and allow you to play fast and articulate. However, a thick pick will feel bumpy when you're strumming an easy song. A thin pick is like a Cadillac, it can cruise nicely and absorb all the bumps when you're casually strumming your favorite song, but if you need to play fast, articulate lines, it will fall short.
The shape of the pick can make a difference both in speed and tone. A pick with a sharp tip is good for both speed and percussive palm mutes. It also can be desirable when you're using a bit of distortion on your sound. A sharp point can dig in and deliver a nice edge to the tone. In contrast, the rounder the tip, the fatter the tone. However, if the pick has a round point the performance may diminish. A round tip can make strumming chords easier. Some gypsy jazz rhythm players opt for a round pick because they can maintain the groove longer and be more accurate.
Material can really make a difference in tone. Most picks are made out of some type of plastic (Celluloid, Nylon, Acetal, Ultem, Lexan, Acrylic). I've also seen picks made out wood, metal, glass, and felt. Tortoiseshell picks are known to be the best picks, however, killing turtles for their shells has been outlawed for many years. Luckily, businesses have been able to develop an alternative pick that doesn't resort to inhumane activities. Red Bear picks are claimed to be the closes to the real thing. They use some type of animal protein that is very similar to the density and rigidness of a real tortoise shell. Downside......$20-$30 per pick and it takes a few months to get your order. They do make a pick called the turf tone for only 10 bucks, but I don't think they sound quite as good. If you're picky about tone then they are worth a try. It's hard to go back to celluloid after trying a Red Bear. Finally, I've seen some makers experimenting with different types of stone. I once gave Sinbad, the comedian, a guitar lesson and he gave me a stone pick he bought in France. Thanks Sinbad! Stone definitely has a sound of it's own, however the click of the pick is too loud for my taste.
Having a good grip is important and will reduce slippage and limit the chance of dropping the pick during performance. I change the pressure I apply based on what I am doing musically. For instance, when I am strumming, I loosen my grip to absorb the bumps in the road. In contrast, I tighten my grip when I am doing heavy palm muting or need to dig into a note. In order to keep the pick in the same spot for these different activities I need a pick that I can grip while maintaining some movement.
There are many different types of grips on picks. Over the last 5-10 years I've seen a lot of picks with holes to help with your grip. Pickboy and Red Bear are two companies that have hole options. Cool Picks come with what appears to be grip tape on both sides. Dunlop makes a cat tongue-type pick that... yes, feels like a cat tongue. I am sure there are many more, but check out the ones I've mentioned.
The edge of the pick does impact both speed and tone. Some pick makers offer what they call a speed bevel. Basically, what they do is shape the pick like it's been worn in. Check out Red Bear's speed bevel option. It does help your speed, but it changes the tone, so be aware. I prefer the standard bevel because when I play a rock/blues solos I want the pick to grab the strings at the edge. It changes the harmonic content, especially when you're using distortion. Listen to John Scofield and hear how much of his tone comes from how he slides the pick off the string.
To sum, the best thing to do is just experiment. A pick will make more of a difference on your tone than any piece of gear. The good news is most picks are relatively cheap. I change picks more often that I do guitars, because some picks are great for one thing and others are better for something else. So try some out, even during a casual gig. This is one area that pays to be picky!
Check out my gear page for the specific type of picks I use.