choosing a plectrum for guitar

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Choosing a Plectrum

Choosing a plectrum for guitar playing is one of those things that are difficult to define, however in my 33 years of playing I can say that I can generally speak about what to look for.

Often a much overlooked part of guitar playing, the plectrum is a very important part of playing, different pick materials, shapes and thicknesses all impart different tone to the particular guitar you play. In fact I have certain guitars which I will only use one type of plectrum with because it influences the tone of the instrument so much. This is particularly the case with a steel string acoustic guitar.

Before i go any further, let me say that you should only use what I am saying as a guide, and I encourage you to try all different pick types, thicknesses and materials. Ultimately, if it sounds good to you then thats fine, if the pick you are using allows you to achieve the sound and attack you want then good.

In general there are many pick materials, but the most common are celluloid and nylon. Celluloid picks are the traditional tortoise shell looking picks, they are softer to the string and great for just about anything. a great all-rounder. However the celluloid material is less responsive than others and will not give you a bright "snap" when used on an acoustic guitar. Celluloid picks wear quickly but are very comfortable to play with.

Nylon picks are less wearing, stiffer and will generally give a brigher tone to a guitar. These types have been around many years now and are excellent. I have used heavy nylon picks (1mm and greater) for years because I love the stiffness and the way they glide over the strings for lead work. However, medium thickness nylon picks give an acoustic guitar a lovely feathery sound.

Depending on what music and style of music you play, the shape of the pick is also very inportant. More importantly the thickness of the pick together with the SHAPE OF THE POINT of the pick is particularly important for articulate lead and jazz playing. Recently I have moved to the so-called speed picks (also known as stubby picks). These picks are thick, made from LEXAN an extremely stiff and responsive material. Their thickness, stiffness combined with sharp point allows the pick to easily glide over the strings wth less resistance and the sharp point allowing the clarity of the note.

So to summarise:

Choose picks based on:

  1. material, celluloid is softer, nylon is stiffer, lexan is stiffest
  2. shape, size of pick, sharpness of the point, comfort
  3. thickness, thinner for light rhythym playing (especially acoustic) thicker for lead and power chords.

Having said all that, there are players also using metal picks, stone picks, coins, picks made from cow horn, etc etc ... the possibilities are practically endless.

  • Brian May from the band Queen uses an english sixpence on his home made guitar
  • Johnny Winter uses a thumpick.
  • Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top uses an american quarter which has been fattened to a point on one side

I can say, that for very little money, you can experiment with a multitude of different picks for different sounds and playing styles. Even if you have found your pick, dont be afraid to try new ones, sometimes new sounds can bring out different things on your playing.

Feel free to drop me a line at any time if you have any comments to my guide. Remember its not an exact science, its what suits you to achieve what you want to achieve in your playing, and remember that may be different from guitar to guitar.

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