Learn everything you need to know about guitar picks to improve playability and get more from your rig
Over the years, I have met only a handful of guitarists who pay real attention to their guitar picks. And I have met even fewer who spend time and effort searching for the best guitar picks for their playing style.
It is easy to neglect your guitar picks. After all, when you are trying to improve your tone, there are guitars, amps and pedals that you need to think about. Yet whilst these elements of your rig are crucial, you shouldn’t neglect the seemingly less significant parts of your set-up.
For although guitar picks (or plectrums, as they are often called) might be small, they can have a significant impact on your tone. Not only that, but they have a crucial impact on your playing comfort and technique.
I wanted to address this, and so in this article I am going to cover everything you need to know about guitar picks. This includes the following:
- The different materials from which picks are made, and how this affects your tone.
- The different shapes, sizes and gauges of guitar picks and the impact this has on playability
- How to choose the right guitar pick for your playing style
- The guitar picks of choice for a range of famous blues and blues-rock guitarists
I hope this will give you everything you need to choose a guitar pick that will help you get the best from your playing. So without further ado, let’s get into it:
Traditionally, guitar picks were made out of tortoiseshell. Slightly confusingly, they weren’t actually made from the shell of a tortoise. Instead, they were made from the shell of the Hawksbill Sea Turtle. This was up until 1973, when the trade of tortoiseshell worldwide was banned under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
From this point then, manufacturers started to make picks from different materials. There are now a huge range of different materials used to manufacture picks, but some of the most common are as follows:
Celluloid was the first plastic alternative used to make guitar picks, following the ban on tortoiseshell in 1973. It has since become one of the most common materials used to make guitar picks.
Celluloid picks come in a variety of different gauges (more on this below) but even when they are thicker, generally speaking these picks feel quite soft and flexible. In fact, a lot of guitarists describe celluloid picks as ‘flappy’. This is because you can hear the pick ‘flap’ against your strings when you are playing. Beyond that, celluloid picks are quite sharp and bright sounding.
As a result of the softer material from which they are made, celluloid picks can wear down quite quickly. For some guitarists this is problematic. For others, they appreciate the way that the pick naturally changes as a result of their playing style.
You can buy celluloid picks in a variety of designs, shapes and colours. But as they were first introduced as an alternative to tortoiseshell picks, they often come in more traditional shapes and are designed to look like original tortoiseshell picks.
Like celluloid, nylon was one of the first materials used as an alternative to tortoiseshell.
Nylon guitar picks are very flexible and often come in lighter gauges. And again, like celluloid picks, they ‘flap’ against your strings. In fact – because they are so flexible – this is more pronounced with nylon picks. And this is especially the case when you are playing chords.
Although this is a drawback for a lot of guitarists, nylon picks remain popular because they were used by a range of early blues and rock guitarists (more on this below). As such, a lot of players believe they have a warmer and more vintage sound compared with some of the other materials listed here.
Nylon is naturally quite a slippery material, so nylon picks typically have a textured grip. This makes them a great choice for players who sweat a lot and don’t want to keep dropping their picks!
Acetal / Delrin
In more recent years, a lot of companies have started to make guitar picks from a durable plastic that is referred to interchangeably as either acetal or delrin.
Picks made from this plastic are quite a bit stiffer than either celluloid or nylon picks. This gives them a slightly brighter tone with more bite.
Often, you won’t see ‘acetal’ or ‘delrin’ guitar picks in a store, in the same way that you would see nylon or celluloid picks. This is because companies typically have a different trading name for guitar picks made from this plastic.
In contrast to celluloid picks, those made from acetal/delrin have a textured and almost powdery feel to them. Again this makes them a good choice for guitarists who want a guitar pick with more grip.
Initially introduced in the 1980s, acrylic guitar picks have remained popular with guitarists who like their picks to be tough and durable.
Acrylic feels stiffer than the other materials listed here. And although you can buy acrylic picks in a range of thicknesses, they are often very thick. D’Addario offer the Acrylux Reso Picks, which start at a thickness of 1.5mm. Likewise, Dunlop sell the Big Stubby acrylic picks, which are 3.0mm thick!
As a result of this thickness and the natural stiffness of acrylic, picks made from this material tend to have quite a bright sound.
Acrylic is not very easy to grip, so these picks often have holes in them which allows you to hold them more easily. They are always see through and are often produced in bold colours, so they typically have quite a striking design.
In more recent years, ultem has become an increasingly popular pick material amongst guitarists. This is similar to acetal/delrin, except that it is both stiffer and more durable.
In fact, these picks feel really quite stiff, regardless of their gauge. They don’t ‘flap’ in the same way as nylon and celluloid guitar picks. As a result, they produce quite a clear and bright tone.
Ultem picks are also more durable than most of the other picks in the market. So if you want a pick that won’t wear down quickly, one of these could be a great choice. Ultem picks come in a variety of gauges, but because of their stiffness, light gauge ultem picks might still feel quite heavy.
The materials listed above are amongst the most common used to make guitar picks. If you have ever bought guitar picks online or in a guitar store, then chances are they will have been made from one of these plastics. And there is an even greater chance that they will have been made from celluloid, nylon or acetal/delrin, which are the most widely used materials.
But if you are looking for something a bit different, there are a whole range of different materials used to make guitar picks. Just some of these include:
- Coconut Shell
Each of these materials has a different tonal quality. And to list the differences between all of the materials that are used to make guitar picks is beyond the scope of this article. But given that we encounter many of the materials listed above on a day-to-day basis, hopefully you can build up an idea of how these picks might feel and sound to play.
Metal picks for example are stiff and have a very sharp and biting tone. Conversely, leather guitar picks are very soft and have a darker and more mellow tone.
Typically, picks from these materials are not readily available at guitar stores. And if they are, then many of them are more expensive than those made from some of the plastics listed above. As such, if you decide you want to try any of these slightly unusual pick materials, I would first decide the gauge and shape of guitar pick that best suits your playing style.
Once you’ve looked at the different materials of guitar picks, you need to look at the different pick gauges available. This is important, because the gauge of your guitar pick will have an impact both on playability and tone.
The gauge of a guitar pick simply refers to its thickness, and it is measured in millimetres. There are a whole range of different pick gauges out there, and manufacturers typically categorise these gauges in different ways. So what might be considered a thin gauge by one company, may be considered a medium or even a heavy gauge by another.
Unlike guitar strings, which are categorised as being ‘light’ and ‘heavy’, guitar picks are typically categorised as being either ‘thin’ or ‘heavy’. Some guitarists also describe them simply as either thick or thin.
Despite these slight variations and the different terms that manufacturers use when talking about their picks, we can group them broadly into categories, which are as follows:
Thin gauge guitar picks
Guitar picks with a gauge of less than 0.60 mm are considered to be thin. Tonally, these picks sound bright but quite soft; they don’t sound sharp or biting. They also produce the ‘flapping’ noise noted above. This is because the body of the pick actually ‘flaps’ back and forwards when you play.
Partly for this reason, thin gauge guitar picks are much better suited to rhythm playing. They allow you to brush lightly across all of your strings when you are playing chords, without the pick resisting your hand. This gives you a smooth strumming motion and sound.
These characteristics also mean that thin guitar picks are not very good for lead guitar playing. Firstly, they don’t have the bite or attack that you need to accentuate single notes. You also can’t dig in with a thin guitar pick to change your dynamics. And this is problematic if you want to craft beautiful and nuanced guitar solos.
Perhaps most importantly though, it is actually difficult to solo using a thin guitar pick. Thin picks flap around so much when you are playing that they are difficult to control when trying to solo. And this makes fast runs and licks challenging to play.
Medium gauge guitar picks
Medium gauge guitar picks are those that have a thickness of 0.60 – 0.8 mm. These tend to be favoured by guitarists who are looking for the best of both worlds. Typically, medium gauge guitar picks have enough flexibility to make rhythm guitar playing easy, without making it difficult to play lead guitar.
As you might expect, tonally these picks sit somewhere between thin and heavy gauge guitar picks. They have a balanced tone that is not quite as bright as that of a thin pick, but also lacks some of the bottom end you get with a thick guitar pick.
Medium gauge guitar picks are a great option if you play both rhythm and lead guitar, or if you are just starting out and want a pick that is well balanced.
Heavy gauge guitar picks
Guitar picks with a gauge of between 0.8 – 1.2mm are considered to be heavy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both tonally and in terms of how they feel to play, these picks are the antithesis of thin guitar picks.
Heavy picks are very well suited for lead guitar playing. Their thickness prevents any pick ‘flap’, which gives you greater control and precision. These picks also give your playing greater clarity and a wider dynamic range. You can dig in with your picking hand and add bite and aggression to your tone. Equally, when you reduce the pressure of your pick attack, you can produce a softer and more mellow sound. All of these characteristics are important when playing lead guitar.
Conversely, heavy guitar picks are not so well suited to rhythm guitar playing. They are more difficult to brush lightly across the strings of your guitar. This prevents you from creating the ‘shimmering’ sound that is so pleasing when you are playing rhythm guitar. In fact, if you use a heavy guitar pick for rhythm playing, you can end up with a loud and booming tone that sounds quite bass heavy.
It is worth noting that within this category there is quite a lot of variance in thickness. And a 0.80 mm pick will feel and sound quite different to one that is 1.2 mm. If you are unsure of where to start, I would recommend thinking about the tonal characteristics and playing feel that is most important to you.
If you are playing a mix of rhythm and lead guitar, then starting on the thinner side of the spectrum might be a good idea. Conversely, if you are mostly playing lead guitar, I’d recommend opting for a slightly thicker pick.
Extra heavy gauge guitar picks
Finally, you can get extra heavy gauge guitar picks. These are picks with a thickness of 1.2mm or more. And here the range is quite extensive. You can find some guitar picks out there that are 6mm thick!
Picks this heavy are less common. And slightly unusually they tend to be favoured by guitarists at opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Jazz guitarists often use very heavy gauge guitar picks, because they typically play quick lead lines, but want soft and slightly more mellow tones.
On the other end of the spectrum, guitarists playing heavy styles of music often use heavy gauge picks. This allows them to strike their strings hard and produce a more biting and aggressive tone. It also allows them to play with higher levels of distortion, whilst retaining a greater level of clarity in their playing.
This shows that of course the guitar pick you use is just one element of your set-up. You can take a guitar pick of any gauge and use it to create very different sounds, depending on the other elements of your set-up.
As a final point here, it is worth noting that very heavy gauge picks are often made out of slightly different materials. It is quite rare to find celluloid or nylon picks much thicker than 2.0 mm. Conversely, guitar picks made from stone and wood don’t usually come in gauges much lighter than 2.0 mm.
Size & shape
Once you’ve considered the material of your guitar picks, as well as their gauge – it is time to turn your attention to their shape.
Over the years, manufacturers have produced guitar picks in a whole range of different shapes and sizes. There are too many of these variations to list here, but some of the most common shapes that you will encounter when buying guitar picks are as follows:
Standard ‘351’ guitar picks
This is the classic guitar pick shape. It is one of the most common and widely available pick shapes. It works well in most playing situations and is considered a safe option.
If you are starting out, or if you are looking for a guitar pick that is versatile, then opting for a pick of this shape is a good idea. They are typically called either classic, standard or 351 guitar picks. The latter refers to the code that manufacturers like Fender use to identify guitar picks of different shapes and sizes.
Jazz III guitar picks
Alongside the classic shape, the Jazz III is one of the most common pick shapes you are likely to encounter. This is typically a smaller pick shape that often has quite a sharp tip.
As you might have guessed from the name, these guitar picks were first used by jazz guitarists. This is because the smaller shape and sharper point of the pick gave them greater control when playing fast licks and solos.
In recent years though, Jazz III guitar picks have become popular amongst lead guitarists across a whole range of different genres.
If you are predominantly playing lead guitar, or if you want to play quickly, then a Jazz III pick would make a good choice. The small shape is economical and allows you to play with precision and clarity, even when you are playing quickly.
Triangle guitar picks
On the other side of the size spectrum are triangle guitar picks. These are much larger picks, which work well for players who struggle to hold onto smaller picks, or for players who have much larger hands.
As a result of their size, these picks tend to be too cumbersome for lead guitarists, who need to move quickly across their strings. Instead they are better suited for rhythm guitarists and are also popular with bass players, who need large picks to strike their heavy gauge strings.
There are an innumerable number of variations on each of the picks shapes listed above.
Sometimes these different shapes are marketed as being totally different to the guitar picks to those listed above. In most cases though, they are just slight variations on the common pick shapes.
For example, there are ‘teardrop guitar picks’, which are very similar in size and shape to Jazz III picks. The main difference is that the edges of the teardrop picks are rounded, whereas those in the Jazz III are angular.
You can then get variations on these teardrop picks. Some are thinner and narrower, whilst others are fatter and wider. And similar variations exist for the other shapes listed above too. You can get triangle guitar picks that are pointy and angular, and others that are softer and have more rounded tips.
Beyond these more common shapes, there are a huge range of different shaped guitar picks out there. These include shark fin picks, ‘dragon heart’ picks, and even picks that are designed to look like the tail of a snake.
All of these picks present interesting tonal options that you can’t achieve with a normal guitar pick. With a shark fin pick for example, you can use either the tip of the pick or the serrated edge to strike your strings. And both sides give you a slightly different sound.
Despite that, I don’t think these guitar picks are suitable for most guitarists. Often these unusual picks are quite large and cumbersome. As such, they can be more difficult to control, which will make playing at speed and manoeuvring across your strings more challenging.
To give you even more to think about, many of the guitar picks above also come in different sizes. So you can get Jazz III guitar picks that are actually quite large. And you can get triangle picks in a range of different sizes too.
The main exception to this is the 351 guitar pick shape. Typically, these guitar picks come in a single size. There are slight variations in the shape of the pick (more on this below), but these picks all tend to be similar in size.
The size of the pick that you choose doesn’t really have an impact on your tone, but it does have a significant impact on playability.
Broadly speaking, smaller guitar picks make playing easier. There is less space between your hand and the string, which allows you to keep your hand closer to the strings of your guitar. This puts your hand into a more comfortable playing position and makes techniques like palm muting easier. Small guitar picks are also easier to control. They are more compact and easier to move around and manoeuvre.
Having said that, personal taste and preference plays an important role here too. If you have very large hands or if you struggle to hold onto a small guitar pick, then I would recommend trying a slightly larger pick.
Pick tips & bevels
The last element to consider when looking at guitar picks, is the shape of the tip and the bevel of the pick. And this is where things can get a little confusing.
The tip of the guitar pick has a profound impact on both tone and playability. And in fact it is arguably more important than the shape of the guitar pick. This is because it is the tip of your pick that comes into contact and strikes the strings of your guitar.
Sharp vs. rounded pick tips
In simple terms, a pick with a sharp tip will produce quite an aggressive and biting sound. They are great for playing at speed and for fast alternate picking, but they are not so good for strumming chords. This is because the sharp point of the pick is not well suited for gliding smoothly across the strings.
Conversely, guitar picks with a very rounded tip produce a more mellow sound. They are not suitable for playing fast – as the rounded tip isn’t able to grip the strings very well – but they are great for rhythm playing and strumming chords.
If you have a guitar pick with a tip that is either very pointed or very rounded, it can fundamentally alter the tonal characteristics and playability of your pick.
Let’s say for example that you have a heavy gauge Jazz III pick made from ultem. That guitar pick should have quite a strong attack, a biting tone and be suitable for fast lead guitar playing. But if you were to totally round off the end of the pick, it would mellow the sound out and make it more difficult to play quickly.
Conversely, if you took a relatively thin gauge and large triangle pick made from celluloid, and you file the end down to a sharp point, it would make the pick sound sharper and more biting.
The effect of this is not particularly significant in the middle range. But if you go to the extremes – and choose a pick with either a totally rounded edge, or a fine point – it will alter your tone and playability.
The final design element of a pick that is worth considering, is whether it has a beveled edge. In simpler terms, this just means that the pick has one side that has been slightly worn down and rounded off.
It is rare to find this on thin guitar picks, as there isn’t enough material to round off. As such, you will typically only find a beveled edge on thicker guitar picks.
If you do use a thicker pick though, it is worth looking out for one that has a beveled edge. These don’t impact tone, but they do have a positive affect on playability.
The rounded edge prevents your pick from getting stuck on your strings. This allows you to play chords more easily, and also to move between strings nice and smoothly.
So if you plan on going for a heavier pick, then I would definitely recommend looking at one that has a beveled edge.
Different types of guitar picks
It is worth noting quickly here that in addition to ‘regular’ guitar picks, there are a range of different picks out there. The most notable of these are thumb and finger picks.
Unlike normal guitar picks, you don’t hold these between your finger and thumb. Instead, you slide them over either your thumb or your finger.
Freddie King is one notable electric guitarist who used these types of picks. He used metal finger picks to snap his strings up sharply, and this added bite and aggression to his tone.
Broadly speaking though, these picks are more suitable for acoustic guitar and fingerpicking styles. If you also play acoustic guitar and fingerpicking style, then it might be worth trying some of these picks out. Beyond that though, I wouldn’t recommend them as one of the main options for either rhythm or lead guitar playing.
How to choose the right guitar picks
At this point, I suspect that you might be feeling somewhat overwhelmed. And I am not surprised. After all, who would have thought that so much could go into a little piece of plastic?
Don’t worry though, you don’t need to know the minutiae of all of the different types of guitar pick out there to find a pick that will work for you.
The key to choosing the right guitar pick for your set-up, is to work out roughly what you are looking for, and then refine your search from there. And this is actually simpler than it sounds. If you simplify all of the information above, then you will see that all of the characteristics that make a guitar pick good for rhythm playing, make the same pick unsuitable for lead guitar playing. And vice versa.
Let’s look at this in a bit more detail.
Best Guitar Picks For Lead Playing
If you were to design the ‘perfect’ guitar pick for lead playing it would be:
- Heavy gauge
- Made from an inflexible material, like ultem, acrylic or wood
- Sharp tipped
All of the above characteristics help with lead playing. They help you to play fast, give you a greater dynamic range and will give your playing clarity and precision. Tonally, these guitar picks will be brighter and produce a sound with a more defined bottom end.
Best Guitar Picks For Rhythm Playing
Conversely, if you were to design the ‘perfect’ guitar pick for rhythm playing it would be:
- Made from a more flexible material, like celluloid, nylon or leather
- Round tipped
All of the above characteristics help with rhythm playing. They help you to strum smoothly and comfortably, and they produce a well balanced and shimmering tone.
Striking the balance
Now the reality, is that most guitarists don’t fall neatly into the categories I’ve outlined above. Most guitarists play a variety of different styles, and so need at least some versatility from their guitar picks. As such, I would recommend going down 1 of the following 2 routes:
1.) Choose a single type of guitar pick that works well for you. Decide the characteristics that are most important to you, and then try out a range of different guitar picks in that style. With a bit of trial and error you’ll eventually settle on a pick that is comfortable and suited to your playing style.
2.) Choose different guitar picks for different occasions. If you like to play acoustic rhythm guitar on some days and fast lead guitar on others, it might make more sense to use different guitar picks at different times. In this way you can use picks that are suited to the specific style you are playing at any given moment.
Beyond that, I would recommend thinking about the following when you are searching for the right guitar picks:
Compared to guitars, amps and pedals, guitar picks are very cheap. Even boutique guitar picks – made from unusual materials like stone and coconut shell – typically cost less than $10/£8 each. And although there are some very expensive guitar picks out there, in most cases, your pick is still likely to be by far the cheapest part of your guitar rig.
As such – provided that you don’t limit your search exclusively to boutique guitar picks, you can buy and try out a lot of different types of pick, without incurring too much expense.
When you are starting out, avoid opting for guitar picks at the extreme ends of the spectrum. I have encountered very few guitarists who use a pick less than 0.50mm thick. Likewise, I have met very few players who use a pick much thicker than 2.0mm.
Whilst everyone has a personal preference, it is useful to look to other guitarists for guidance. I would always advocate starting with relatively safe options and then being more adventurous after that.
Keep on tweaking
Even if you are happy with the guitar pick you use, I would still recommend trying out and tweaking the picks you use. You would be surprised at the differences that even small alterations can make.
I speak from personal experience here. After experimenting with a lot of different guitar picks for a number of years, I settled on Dunlop Tortex Standard 1.14mm guitar picks. These felt comfortable and I really enjoyed playing with them. I liked the material from which they were made, the gauge, and the size.
Then one day – just out of curiosity – I decided to try some Dunlop Jazz III guitar picks. These are the same material and gauge as the standard picks I had used before. The only difference was the shape.
I was amazed at the difference it made. The pick felt more comfortable in my hand and my playing improved almost instantly. I could play quicker and my playing was more precise and controlled. I have used Jazz III picks ever since.
So even if you are happy with the guitar picks you are using at the minute, try mixing things up every now and again. You might just find something that works even better for you.
Control your G.A.S
Having said that, you need to be mindful about not getting carried away. I know as well as anyone the dangers of guitar/gear acquisition syndrome (G.A.S. for short). It is easy to think that the perfect piece of gear is out there just waiting for you. And whilst I do advocate trying out different guitar picks, you don’t need to make this a frequent or even continual process.
If you find a brand and type of picks you like, stick with them. Then every now and again, try out a similar but slightly different set of picks.
Guitar picks of the greats
If you are still a unsure of where to start with choosing your guitar picks, then you can take some inspiration from these famous blues and blues-rock guitarists:
- In his early career, Gary Moore played heavy gauge nylon Herco Picks. He later switched to using Gibson Heavy Picks.
- Like Gary Moore, Rory Gallagher also used Herco Picks when he played electric guitar. When playing acoustic however, Gallagher used medium gauge Fender Celluloid Picks.
- So the story goes, Billy Gibbons used to play with a Mexican Peso for a pick. He now uses extra heavy Dunlop Gel Picks. His guitar tech is convinced that this is not so much about tone, but rather because they glow in the dark…
- Stevie Ray Vaughan used medium gauge Fender Celluloid Picks. But he turned them upside down, so he struck the strings with the rounded end, rather than the tip.
- Although the specific brands he used are unclear, Jimi Hendrix favoured medium gauge guitar picks, most likely in the standard 351 shape.
- Joe Bonamassa uses Dunlop Jazz III picks, and has done ever since he saw Eric Johnson using them. Eric Johnson has his own set of Dunlop Jazz III Picks, which are a slightly heavier gauge of 1.38 mm.
Based on all of the information outlined in this article, you might find the choices of some of these players unusual. Just look at Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan had a heavy pick attack and an aggressive sound. He played fast, and most of his playing was based around solos and single note lines.
As such, the fact that Vaughan used a medium celluloid pick turned upside down is surprising. And this brings me onto my closing point…
The information outlined here is intended as a guide. When you are buying guitar gear – be it something as small and inexpensive as a pick, or something as large and expensive as a guitar – it is good to know what you are buying and why. This will empower you to make the right buying decisions.
Yet whilst all of this information is important, don’t buy new gear based solely on facts. Buying guitar gear is all about finding the sweet spot between tone and playability. And most importantly, it is about figuring out what works best for you. On paper, a small, thick and inflexible pick might seem like the obvious choice for your playing style. But if after repeatedly playing them, you find those picks to be difficult and challenging, try something else.
Your guitar pick is what connects you to your instrument. So if in doubt, err on the side of comfort and playability. Don’t get so wrapped up in the tonal properties of the different materials or in what you think you should be playing. If you are playing at your best, then you will be producing a great tone, and enjoying yourself. And that’s what this is all about.
Good luck with your search, and if you have any questions at all I can help with, just pop them in the comments below or send them over to email@example.com. I’d love to help!
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