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A Beginner’s Guide To Guitar Picks (Part 1)

Over the years, I have met only a handful of guitarists who pay real attention to their guitar picks. And I have met even fewer who spend time and effort searching for the best guitar picks for their playing style.

It is easy to neglect your guitar picks. After all, when it comes to guitar gear, there are guitars, amps and pedals - all of which typically steal most players’ attention. Not only this, but if you are relatively new to the world of guitar gear, then it is challenging to even understand the differences between different guitar picks.

I know this from personal experience. For the first few months of my guitar playing career I used a pick intended for bass players…

Yet whilst picks might be small and seemingly insignificant, they play an important role within your setup. This is partly related to tone. As I will explain in more detail throughout, different guitar picks create slightly different sounds. And this has an overall impact on your tone.

Secondly and arguably more importantly, they have a crucial impact on your playing comfort and technique. Different picks have a different feel, and are therefore more or less suitable for particular styles of playing.

As is so often the case with guitar gear, we can dive into granular detail on this topic. And here I think it is useful and important to do so. Your guitar pick is what connects you to your instrument. So it is worth understanding how to maximise this important part of your setup.

As such, I have broken this guide up into two parts. In this first part, I will look at the different materials from which picks are made, and how this affects your tone. I will also cover the different gauges of guitar picks and the impact this has on playability.

So without further ado, let’s get into it:


The first important factor to consider when choosing guitar picks, is the material from which they are made. This has an impact on tone, but more importantly - on playability, durability and comfort.

​​Guitar picks were traditionally made out of tortoiseshell. Slightly confusingly, they weren't actually made from the shell of a tortoise. Instead, they were made from the shell of the Hawksbill Sea Turtle. This was up until 1973, when the trade of tortoiseshell worldwide was banned under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

From this point onwards, manufacturers started to make picks from different materials. There are now a huge range of different materials used to manufacture picks, but some of the most common of these are as follows:


Celluloid picks come in a variety of different gauges (more on this below) but even when they are thicker, generally speaking these picks feel quite soft and flexible. In fact, a lot of guitarists describe celluloid picks as 'flappy'. This is because you can hear the pick 'flap' against your strings when you are playing. Beyond that, celluloid picks are quite sharp and bright sounding.

As a result of the softer material from which they are made, celluloid picks can wear down quite quickly. For some guitarists, this is problematic. For others, they appreciate the way that the pick naturally changes as a result of their playing style.

You can buy celluloid picks in a variety of designs, shapes and colours. But as they were first introduced as an alternative to tortoiseshell picks, they often come in more traditional shapes and are designed to look like original tortoiseshell picks.

You can see a range of celluloid picks here.


Like celluloid picks, nylon guitar picks are very flexible and often come in lighter gauges. And again, like celluloid picks, they 'flap' against your strings. In fact - because they are so flexible - this is more pronounced with nylon picks. And this is especially the case when you are playing chords.

Nylon guitar picks were used by many early blues and rock guitarists. As such, a lot of players believe they have a warmer and more vintage sound compared with some of the other materials listed here.

Nylon is naturally quite a slippery material, so nylon picks typically have a textured grip. This makes them a great choice for players who sweat a lot and don't want to keep dropping their picks!

You can see a range of nylon picks here.

Acetal / Delrin

In more recent years, a lot of companies have started to make guitar picks from a durable plastic that is often referred to interchangeably as either acetal or delrin.

Picks made from this plastic are quite a bit stiffer than either celluloid or nylon picks. And this gives them a slightly brighter tone with more bite.

In contrast to celluloid picks, those made from acetal/delrin have a textured and almost powdery feel to them. Again this makes them a good choice for guitarists who want a guitar pick with more grip.

You can see a range of acetal picks here and delrin picks here.


Acrylic feels stiffer than the other materials listed here. And although you can buy acrylic picks in a range of thicknesses, they are often very thick. As a result of this thickness and the natural stiffness of acrylic, picks made from this material tend to have quite a bright sound.

Acrylic is not very easy to grip, so these picks often have raised sections or ridges which allows you to hold onto them more easily. They are always see-through and are often produced in bold colours, so they typically have quite striking designs.

You can see this by looking at a range of acrylic picks here.


In more recent years, ultem has become an increasingly popular pick material amongst guitarists. It is similar to acetal/delrin, except that it is both stiffer and more durable.

In fact, these picks feel really quite stiff, regardless of their gauge. They don't 'flap' in the same way that nylon and celluloid guitar picks do. And as a result, they produce quite a clear and bright tone.

Ultem picks are also more durable than most of the other picks on the market. So if you want a pick that won't wear down quickly, one of these could be a great choice. Ultem picks come in a variety of gauges, but because of their stiffness, light gauge ultem picks might still feel quite heavy.

You can see a range of ultem picks here.

If we put all of these different material together and compare them, we end up with the following:

Tone Flexibility Feel/Texture Durability
Celluloid Bright ‘Flappy’ Smooth Subject to wear
Nylon Warm ‘Flappy’ Ridged Subject to wear
Acetal / Delrin Bright Stiff Powdery Durable
Acrylic Bright Stiff Very smooth Durable
Ultem Bright / Clear Very stiff Smooth Very durable

As you can see, there isn’t a huge variation in the tonal characteristics of these different materials. Each of these picks is made from a type of plastic, and as such they all produce quite a bright and sharp tone. The one exception to this is nylon, which has a slightly warmer and more vintage tone.

In the other categories however, material makes more of a difference. We can see this if we compare the characteristics of a celluloid pick with one made from ultem. The former is very flexible and subject to wear, whilst the latter is much more stiff and durable.

The information covered so far will help you to understand the inherent differences between the various materials available and their impact. However, the material from which picks are made provides us with just one part of the picture. As such, we can’t view the table above in isolation. This is because the characteristics of any given pick will be defined by some of the further points that I dig into below and in the next part of this guide. 

Additional Materials

Before we move on to look at pick gauges, it is worth noting that the materials listed above are just some of the many available options out there. As you can see here, there are a whole range of different materials used to make guitar picks. Just some of these include:

  • Metal
  • Gel
  • Felt
  • Rubber
  • Coconut Shell
  • Leather
  • Bone/Horn

Each of these materials has a different tonal quality. To list these differences is beyond the scope of this article. But given that you might encounter some of the materials listed above on a day-to-day basis, hopefully you can build up an idea of how these picks might feel and sound to play.

For example, metal picks are stiff and have a very sharp and biting tone. Conversely, felt picks are very soft and have a more mellow tone.

Typically, picks from these materials are at the extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to tone and playability. As such, before you go out and buy one of them, I would recommend reading this two part guide in full. This will help you to understand the characteristics of common picks and assess which one(s) will help you to get the most out of your playing. It will also help you to decide if one of these less common materials will make a better choice for your playing style.

For now though, let’s turn our attention to pick gauge: 


Like guitar strings, guitar picks come in a range of different gauges. The gauge of your pick is an important factor to consider, as it has a significant impact on playability. I have noted this impact at length below, as it is probably the element of your guitar pick that makes the most noticeable difference to your playing.

The gauge of a guitar pick simply refers to its thickness, and it is measured in millimetres. There are a whole range of different pick gauges out there, and manufacturers typically categorise these gauges in different ways. So what might be considered a thin gauge by one company, may be considered a medium or even a heavy gauge by another.

Despite these slight variations and the different terms that manufacturers use when talking about their picks, we can group them broadly into categories, which are as follows:

Light gauge guitar picks

Guitar picks with a gauge of less than 0.70 mm are considered to be light. Tonally, these picks sound bright but quite soft; they don't sound sharp or biting. They also produce the 'flapping' noise noted above. This is because the body of the pick actually 'flaps' back and forwards when you play.

Partly for this reason, light gauge guitar picks are much better suited to rhythm playing. They allow you to brush lightly across all of your strings when you are playing chords, without the pick resisting your hand. This gives you a smooth strumming motion and sound.

These characteristics also mean that light gauge guitar picks are not very good for lead guitar playing. Firstly, they don't have the bite or attack that you need to accentuate single notes. You can't dig in with a thin guitar pick to change your dynamics, and this is problematic if you want to craft beautiful and nuanced guitar solos.

Perhaps most importantly though, it is actually quite challenging to solo using a thin guitar pick. Thin picks flap around so much when you are playing that they are difficult to control. And this makes fast runs and licks challenging to play.

You can find a variety of light gauge guitar picks here.

Medium gauge guitar picks

Medium gauge guitar picks are those that have a thickness of 0.70-1.0 mm. These tend to be favoured by guitarists who are looking for the best of both worlds. Typically, medium gauge guitar picks have enough flexibility to make rhythm guitar playing easy, without making it difficult to play lead guitar.

As you might expect, tonally these picks sit somewhere between thin and heavy gauge guitar picks. They have a balanced tone that is not quite as bright as that of a thin pick, but also lacks some of the bottom end you get with a thick guitar pick.

Medium gauge guitar picks are a great option if you play both rhythm and lead guitar, or if you are just starting out and want a pick that is well balanced.

You can find a variety of medium gauge guitar picks here.

Heavy gauge guitar picks

Guitar picks with a gauge of between 1.0-1.5 mm are considered to be heavy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both tonally and in terms of how they feel to play, these picks are the antithesis of thin guitar picks.

Heavy picks are very well suited for lead guitar playing. Their thickness prevents any pick 'flap', and this gives you greater control and precision. These picks also give your playing greater clarity and a wider dynamic range. You can dig in with your picking hand and add bite and aggression to your tone. Equally, when you reduce the pressure of your pick attack, you can produce a softer and more mellow sound. And all of these characteristics are important when playing lead guitar.

Conversely, heavy guitar picks are not so well suited to rhythm guitar playing. They are more difficult to brush lightly across the strings of your guitar. This prevents you from creating the 'shimmering' sound that is so pleasing when you are playing rhythm guitar. In fact, if you use a heavy guitar pick for rhythm playing, you can end up with a loud and booming tone that sounds quite bass heavy.

It is worth noting that within this category there is quite a lot of variance in thickness. And a 1.0 mm pick will feel and sound quite different to one that is 1.5 mm. If you are unsure of where to start, I would recommend thinking about the tonal characteristics and playing feel that is most important to you. If you are playing a mix of rhythm and lead guitar, then starting on the thinner side of the spectrum might be a good idea. Conversely, if you are mostly playing lead guitar, I'd recommend opting for a slightly thicker pick.

You can find a variety of heavy gauge guitar picks here.

Extra heavy gauge guitar picks

Finally, you can get extra heavy gauge guitar picks. These are picks with a thickness of 1.5 mm or more. And here the range is quite extensive. You can find some guitar picks out there that are 6 mm thick!

Picks this heavy are less common. And slightly unusually, they tend to be favoured by guitarists at opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Jazz guitarists often use very heavy gauge guitar picks, because they typically play quick lead lines, but want soft and slightly more mellow tones.

On the other end of the spectrum, guitarists playing heavy styles of music often use heavy gauge picks. This allows them to strike their strings hard and produce a more biting and aggressive tone. It also allows them to play with higher levels of distortion, whilst retaining a greater level of clarity in their playing.

You can find a variety of extra heavy gauge guitar picks here.

Putting it all together

In the second half of this guide, we will look at pick shape and design, and how these additional factors influence tone and playability. These are important points that you need to consider if you want to make a truly informed decision on which picks will work best for you.

At this stage though, we can already see that both the material and gauge of your picks are important to take into account.

The material of the picks that you use affects the way they feel in your hand, and the way they interact with the strings of your guitar. The material also affects how long you can play with the pick before it starts to get worn down and change shape.

The gauge of your pick is arguably even more important. This is because it determines how easy it is to play in certain styles. Light gauge picks are well suited to strumming chords and playing rhythm. Conversely, those at the heavier end of the spectrum work better when you are playing lead.

Hopefully, understanding these differences will put you into a position where you can start to zone in on the guitar picks that will work best for your playing style. And in the next part of this guide, we’ll dig down into this even further to provide you with all of the information you need to really maximise this element of your setup. I look forward to seeing you over there!

Aidan Bricker
The Happy Bluesman
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