A guitar pick, also traditionally known as a plectrum, is a small triangular aid for musicians of stringed instruments. It is usually made of plastic or other flexible materials and is used to strum the strings instead of the musician’s fingers. Picks can vary drastically based on the type of music and the guitarist’s personal preference. In an extreme example, think of how differently a folk musician might strum guitar strings compared to a heavy metal musician. For this reason, picks are available in varying types of materials, thicknesses and shapes.
Today, plastic or rubber are the most affordable and common materials for manufacturing picks. In the plastics category, celluloid was popular a long time ago and is valued among guitarists for the nostalgic tones it produces. Recently, nylon has taken over instead, although it is not as durable as celluloid. Nylon is also less easy to grip well especially if the musician is sweating, so manufacturers add a patch of small bumps or a special treatment over the surface to help users hold the pick better. Acrylic picks are more durable than nylon, but is not as easy to grip. In answer to this, Tortex was introduced as an alternative. Unlike many other plastic varieties, Tortex is matte in appearance. The lack of a shiny, smooth surface makes it very easy to hold – the feeling (versus using other plastic picks) is almost akin to gymnasts who rub their hands in powder before approaching the bars. Some guitarists choose picks made of glass, metal or wood instead. Glass picks are popular in jazz because they are so hard, but come at a higher price. Metal picks are a bit of a novelty, thanks to the sharp, higher tones they produce, and are not used nearly as widely as plastic. Wood picks range tremendously in the sounds they produce because different types of wood have their own unique qualities. Historically, tortoiseshell (from hawksbill turtles) was prized for its durability and aesthetic qualities. However, following its ban, devoted users have had to turn to tortoiseshell substitutes, such as one made from natural materials which closely resembles the ultimate look and feel of the original. Another exotic and expensive pick material is agate, a type of quartz. It usually comes in thicker sizes and does not bend like plastic.
During the lifetime of their playing careers, musicians can often fluctuate between their most preferred thickness of pick. A pick’s thickness is known as the gauge and it is generally measured between 0.38 millimeters (thin) to 1.5 millimeters (extra heavy). There are two main differences affected by pick gauge, sound and control. Thinner picks create a weaker or more muffled sound, while thick picks give a chunky, strong tone. Thick picks are especially useful for soloing, since the added control helps the guitarist to be far more accurate in the notes they play. Some companies go even further than the standard 1.5mm picks and offer gauges of up to 5.0mm! Jazz, bluegrass and metal musicians tend towards these heavy varieties. A little lower down the scale, in the medium to thick gauges are rock, blues and pop musicians. Folk and folk-pop musicians usually prefer thin picks to give a softer, dreamier sound to their music.
Pick shapes are the final deciding factors when choosing the right type of guitar pick. When looking at picks, there are two things to notice: the overall shape and also the tip of the pick. The shape of the pick should be based on the size of your fingers and the type of music you play. It should fit between your thumb and the top third of your index finger to develop a comfortable picking technique. The most common types are equilateral (triangular with equally rounded ends) and standard (wider at the top with a pointy tip). Teardrop picks, which are oval with very pointy tips, offer a more controlled attack for guitarists. Similarly, jazz picks are thick and rounded at the top with very sharp points. The sharper and pointier the tip, the more control it offers. Finally, sharkfin picks feature a rounded tip on one end, a pointier tip on another and a frill shape on the third side. The appeal of sharkfins is that it can be used in multiple ways to produce many difference sounds and strumming effects.