Posted by: kubiakl | December 13, 2008

Take Your Pick

There are many links in the tone chain.  The wood of the guitar, the strings (and their age), your hands, pickups, temperature, room acoustics… all of these come into play.

One of the biggest factors is the pick (or plectrum, if you’re reading this in U.K. – in which case, howdy!) you use.  The material, thickness, shape, and how you hold it can drastically alter the sound of your guitar.  Since hitting the strings is the genesis of the sound, picks should be looked at as one of the building blocks of your tone pyramid.  (And yes, I realize I just shifted analogies without a clutch.  So sue me.)

I’m not going to delve into thumb and finger picks.  Those are their own breed of monkey.  We’ll stick to flat picks for now.  The most common style of guitar pick is this:


Kind of a teardrop shape.  Some people use the pointed end, some hold them sideways, and some hold them upside down.  I fall into the last category.  To me it gives everything a softer sound to use the rounded side – you hear less of the pick noise and more of your notes.  If you’re a speed demon it probably won’t give you the accuracy you’re looking for though.  I also vary the way that I grip the pick.  Generally I curl my index finger underneath it and lay my thumb on top.  The last joint in my index finger is parallel to my thumb.  This shape allows me to anchor my pinky finger below the high E string, which gives my hand a reference point so I don’t have to look at which string I’m hitting.  It also gives me a good balance in tone between my strumming and picking.

If I’m just strumming though, I will sometimes hold the pick with my thumb, index, and middle fingers.  The tip of my thumb will go in the middle of the top of the pick, and my two fingers will be on each side and slightly underneath (about half of my finger will be showing when looked at from the top).  This stiffens up the sound a little.  Ever listen to the Rolling Stones song “Torn And Frayed”?  It reminds me of the tone of the acoustic in the intro.  There are no rules when holding a pick though.  Just do what feels and sounds best for you.

The material of the pick is kind of a big deal.  Tortex, celluloid, nylon, ultex, delrin, stone, metal… just about any material can be used.  I’m not even going to try and get into the differences between all of them.  I did some experimentation in my younger days (nothing serious, just a few dalliances with different materials) before a friend turned me on to the picks I use now:


Dunlop Tortex.  The red ones are .50 mm, which is the thinnest.  Previously I was using medium celluloid picks (Fender 351s) and they sounded good, but these really just feel right to me.  I had tried all gauges of celluloid, as well as Ultex, nylon, and metal.  I even tried different gauges of the Tortex picks (the orange, which is .60 mm, and the green, which is .88 mm).  Again, good sound, but not quite as good as the red Tortex for my style.

Some other shapes you may encounter:



Fat man and little boy.  The trianglular picks feel really solid in your hands because there is so much to hold.  The slim one is considered a jazz pick and I can’t say anything about them – never owned one.

A pick that has received a lot of attention is the Dunlop Jazz III.  It even had it’s own article in a guitar magazine.  Eric Johnson uses them (and they have even produced a signature pick line for him), as do many other guitarists.  I bought a pack at one point and use it occasionally:


They are very thick, so there is almost no give.  They are also TINY.  This gives them a very precise, accurate feel – you only hit the strings you intend to hit.  With my thin Tortex I just kind of aim in the general vicinity of the string and mute the unwanted strings with my left hand.  It’s no wonder that Eric Johnson (who is obsessed with accuracy) chooses them.

So that’s my take on picks.  Hopefully you’ll open up to trying different materials and styles until you find the one that’s best for you.  In the meantime, keep on pickin’.



  1. Guitar picks and Nuclear weapons…who’da thunk it.

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