Of all the things that define your guitar’s tone, the pick is the easiest and cheapest to shoot out. At almost never more than a dollar, and most of the time closer to a nickel each, getting hold of a massive variety to test is cheap, easy, and soooooo worth it. It’s like picking up a Gibson or a Fender: when you find the one that fits your playing style, it’s like a breath of fresh air to your playing. But you’ll still want a bit of an idea of what you want before you go buying picks willy nilly, so here’s a guide to get you started.
Ideal picks by genre:
For lots of tremolo picking across multiple strings, you want something with plenty of give, a medium pointy tip, and a large thumb hold, probably with a grip (goat blood makes things slippery). For maximum blaspheming, I recommend a Dunlop Nylon 1.0mm.
More precise, single note tremolo picking requires something with some give, but enough stiffness to define individual notes. A Tortex Jazz III XL is a larger version of the Jazz III made from Tortex material (more on that below) for a snappier attack than the Nylon versions.
For fast shredding solos and sweep picking, you’ll probably need something very stiff and pointy with a tapered edge for maximum speed off the string and note definition. I’m personally all about the Jazz III Ultex for this stuff, it gives the best attack without too much friction.
For playing slow, a wider, lighter pick will not only let you get the most out of every note, but it will make your pinch harmonics really easy to access. A lighter pick will really let you hear the scrape of the strings as well, bringing out some meatiness in your playing. The Ernie Ball Everlast .70mm feels the best to me for that.
Maximum attack is necessary. As the only part of your rig which cannot yet be modeled, you’ll actually have to get the real thing – I recommend a harder material like acrylic or Ultex, but in a medium gauge – something like the Ultex Sharp .73.
A homemade pick punched out of an old credit card is simultaneously DIY and spitting in the face of capitalist corporate America. Plus, it doesn’t matter what kind of pick you use to play those 3 power chords you use for each song, so use anything, or nothing, I don’t give a shit.
So how did I come to these conclusions? Well, aside from playing many different styles of music over the years and going through probably thousands of picks, I’ve broken up the aspects of the pick into these categories that will help you decide further which pick is right for you:
I’ve found after many years of experimentation that for me, the most important factor in choosing a pick is the thickness. As a general rule, a thicker pick will give you more control (which I find better for precise lead playing), and a thinner one has more give (which is better for thicker strings & rhythm playing, or strumming chords).
I find that the higher gauge strings you use, the thinner your pick needs to be – because one or the other has to give in order for the string to vibrate, so as the thickness of your string goes up, the thickness of your pick goes down. Of course, I use a pretty thick pick to begin with, so this is a relative measurement – I use a 2mm pick for a set of .64-.10 7 string set.
If you’re trying to strum chords on a steel-string acoustic with a 3mm pick, you’re gonna have a bad time. If you’re trying to shred on .08’s with a extra light pick, you’re gonna have a bad time. In both cases, you’ve got the wrong tool for the job. For strumming, you want the notes to blur together a bit, to sound like one sound, not like six distinct sounds one after the other – a nice light pick will mush the sounds together so it sounds like a symphony instead of plink city. For shred, a thick pick will give you the control you need with a stronger attack and more definition of the notes.
As with all of these parameters, you should naturally use whatever feels most comfortable, but it’s imperative that you know what different ends of the spectrum will give you.
Teardrop? Triangle? Rounded? Oblong? What’s each one good for and why? Just like people, picks come in many different shapes and sizes.
The teardrop is easily the most popular shape, mostly due to the need for a point on the end that you hit the strings with (for attack and precision) and a nice round part at the other end (for a comfy grip). But that doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you – Kerry King of Slayer uses great big triangle picks because he is constantly breaking them, so when that happens he can just turn it to the next corner and keep on ripping.
Maybe you don’t want a sharp, hard attack – maybe you want the note to kind of ease itself into being, to subtly slide its way into the song. A more rounded pick might be what you’re looking for, and it will dramatically impact your tone, for a subdued transient that will emphasize the other elements of your tone than the attack.
3. Tip Type/Edge Type
Some picks have a flat tip, where the tip is the same thickness as the rest of the pick. Some have a tapered tip, which allows for a smoother transition from the flat of the pick to the end, where the actual note will be released. Some have a rounded tip and/or edge, for a less pronounced attack. I find the taper to have a smoother feel overall, as the transition is less abrupt, making each stroke seem very natural. The flat tip, on the other hand, feels more decisive, no easing into anything, just here and then gone. A rounded tip has the smoothest feel, but the control aspect is a bit mushy, without as clearly defined strokes.
Of course, this only applies to picks thick enough for it to matter – some are too thin for a taper to have any effect.
Here are some weirder tips that don’t quite fit into any category:
The edge of your pick can also be tapered, which can give a different effect if you use more of your pick’s surface area when you pluck or strum. The sound of a flat surface vs. an edge being drawn along a string, especially a wound string, will be dramatically different. Paul Gilbert talks about increasing your pick angle for a more “cello-y” sound for this reason.
For maximum edge drag, try something like the V-Picks Ghost Rim roughly finished edge.
That’ll put some serious friction into your picking.
A larger pick, which has a larger area to grip, will also give you more leverage, allowing you to commit more to each note. Conversely, a smaller pick can allow you to commit less, for faster playing. The Dunlop Jazz III is popular with shredders for this reason – it’s small and sharp, so lots of transient attack but a quicker response. Depending on whether your motion comes from your fingers, your wrist, or your elbow, you’ll need a larger or smaller pick.
If your motion comes mostly from your fingers, Yngwie-style, a smaller pick is likely most beneficial, because you’re likely holding less of the pick to begin with, and an overly large backside will just slow you down and get in the way.
If most of your motion comes from your wrist, it could go either way. Basically, the larger the motion you use, the bigger the pick should be, to give you more leverage and grip.
If most of your motion is from your elbow, you’re gonna want a pretty big pick, because you’re probably hitting the strings good and hard, and extreme accuracy probably isn’t your number one goal, and not dropping your pick is probably pretty high on your list.
Celluloid – Old school – made as an alternative to tortoiseshell after it was made illegal, a warmer tone and smooth surface with a nice snap to it.
Nylon: Highly flexible and smooth, best for strumming, not very stiff even at large gauges.
Tortex – also made (by Dunlop) to imitate tortoiseshell. Much stiffer than nylon.
Felt – extremely soft, popular with ukulele players and bassists looking for a fingerstyle sound with a pick. Very muted attack, warmest possible sound.
Metal – obviously the hardest material, as well as the highest stiffness-to-thickness ratio. Extremely bright and zingy, will shred the shit out of your strings.
Wood – depends entirely on the species of wood. Ranges from bright and attacky to soft and muted.
Bone – Hard feel but a warm sound.
Horn – Very bright and durable.
Tortoiseshell – Illegal since 1973. Who knows?
Acrylic – Very stiff and bright sounding, extremely smooth but stick to your fingers.
Leather – they sound… kinky? Never tried them, but I’d be willing to bet they’re pretty soft, and none too durable.
Vinyl – made from recycled LPs, they sound like hipster.
Satanstooth (The Pick of Destiny) –The Pick is a tiny part of the Beast, and so it has supranatural qualities, a whole other level above super. There is only one in the world because the secret of the Pick died with the blacksmith who made it. Tonal qualities include howling like damned souls, pinch harmonics that cause internal hemorrhaging, and smooth soulful dulcet tones that will set the maidens atizzy.
These are only tendencies – there are no absolutes, and every person’s preferences will be different, some vastly so. You’re gonna have to make compromises, especially if you play multiple genres/styles/rhythm/lead etc., and some picks are highly specialized, so I don’t want to hear any bitching, got it? Try different things and figure out what suits you best.