Guitar picks come in all shapes, sizes, textures, colours and materials and are widely available at music stores at a relatively low cost, so you can try a few different ones to see what you like best.
Most of us are familiar with the classic guitar pick shape. If you look at the Toronto Guitar School logo, that’s it! Over the years, this shape has emerged as the overall most comfortable pick shape for playing guitar. That said, pick makers have tried every shape you can imagine. The bottom line is that it has to be comfortable and it cannot interfere with effectively plucking the strings. So go ahead and try some different shapes and see how you like them!
The size of a pick can be measured in two ways:
1) the dimensions (width and length)
2) the thickness
The dimensions of a pick are limited to the necessity of how it fits between the thumb and forefinger. It can’t be too wide or too long without it interfering with its intended purpose. It also can’t be too small because it will be too hard to hold and control. The thickness on the other hand can vary quite a bit and will affect the tone or sound that is produced. Thickness of picks is measured in millimeters or fractions of an inch.
Guitar Pick Thickness chart
|Thickness in millimeters
|Extra Thin or Extra Light
|0.44 or less
|Thin or Light
|0,45 – 0.69
|0.70 – 0.84
|Heavy or Thick
|0.85 – 1.20
|Extra Heavy or Extra Thick
|1.21 or more
A thin pick will produce a thin sound. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a preference and a thin sound may be desired in certain circumstances. A thin pick is also generally easier to control because the resistance from the strings when you play will be absorbed by the pick and the pick will bend and adapt to the picking motion accordingly, in which case the action of picking will not affect your grip on the pick.
A thick pick will usually produce a full sound that is rich in bass tones, but is harder to control compared to a thin pick. Even so, it is usually easier to play faster using an up and down motion (called alternate picking) on a single string with a thick pick because the pick will not bend during the picking process. The rigidity of the pick allows for a very precise and focused attack on the string. Thick picks are used a lot by jazz guitarists who play a lot of single notes during solos.
Some pick makers produce picks that vary in thickness from the thumb area to the tip of the pick. This shape is very unusual and may offer no real advantage, but some believe it may offer a better grip while producing a thinner tone via the thinner tip. Almost all picks, regardless of thickness, will have tapered edges all around the perimeter for comfort and to promote a smooth interaction with the guitar strings.
Some pick manufacturers have produced picks with a textured grip to prevent slippage, giving the player more control over the pick. This can be helpful if you tend to sweat and the moisture creeps between your thumb and forefinger. A smooth, flat pick will be harder to handle in this case. The texture is usually created in the manufacturing process through the addition of protrusions that can vary in size and shape on both sides of the pick in the gripping area. In some cases small holes or a single hole is introduced into the pick to create texture and to allow sweat to collect without interfering with grip. In other cases a secondary material, like rubber, is added to the grip area.
Materials Used for Picks
The most common materials used currently for guitar picks is plastic, nylon, celluloid and other composites, but ever since people have been using picks (originally called “plectrums”) for playing stringed instruments, they have tried everything and anything you can imagine. Some of the more common natural materials used for picks are turtle shell, abalone, wood, stone, metal (including coins, like Brian May of Queen), coconut shell, animal horn, tusk or bone. Each material will have its own properties of weight, texture, durability and the tone it produces on the string.
Thumb Picks and Finger Picks
Thumb picks and finger picks are most commonly used for bluegrass style guitar and banjo playing, where the attack on the strings is very aggressive and would in most cases break the fingernails of the player. They are usually made of plastic or metal, which produces a loud and bright tone. Thumb picks are often used by guitarists in combination with their fingers where the thumb is used for “bass” notes on the lower strings while the fingers play the higher strings. In this case, the thumb pick brings out the bass notes, giving them more definition and prominence. Chet Atkins and Lenny Breau both used thumb picks without finger picks.
To Pick or Not to Pick
Picks are almost never used by classical or flamenco guitarists, who tend to use their fingers exclusively. The most desirable sound in these genres is produced by the combination of the skin of the fingertip and the fingernail. Guitarists that don’t use a pick often follow a regimen for keeping their fingernails in top condition for optimal tone production. Some even use artificial nails that are glued onto their existing nail when their nails are damaged or break. They will also use a nail file to keep the edges smooth and ready for action, since the rough edge of a fingernail will lead to breakage.
Popular Guitarists Who Don’t Use a Pick
Some of the more famous guitarists that don’t use a pick are Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, Albert Collins, Lindsay Buckingham and John Mayer. Many guitarists use a combination of finger style and picking with a pick. Jazz guitarists often use a pick for single note improvisations and then use their fingers to play chords when they are not soloing. Wes Montgomery, famous for his jazz guitar sound, used his thumb exclusively for single notes and for chords. Merle Travis invented “Travis Picking”, a finger style that has become widely used in popular music.
If you’re new to playing guitar and are not sure how to proceed, try a regular shape medium thickness guitar pick to start. Most experienced guitarists use this type of pick, even after years of experimentation because they work well for most of what you will want to play on guitar. By all means try some different picks and experiment with finger styles. Happy picking!