Buyers' Guide to Plectrums
To try and quantify the types of plectrum available today would be a very tough task…. there are literally thousands available in a multitude of different materials, shapes and thicknesses too.
It can be a baffling task to decipher which one is the right pick for you and your playing style. Unfortunately, there is no right or wrong answer and every player will have their preference over which pick feels right for them, so, experimentation is certainly the key.
Some just ‘feel’ different. Sometimes you just can’t explain it, something will just feel right, others plain wrong. What’s right for one player isn’t right for another and much like guitar strings, it’s important to try as many as you can to discover which one is the best for you.
We’ve gone through a few different elements below to help you see how picks are categorised and you may wish to consider when buying your next pick.
Shape & Physical Size
Picks come in many different physical shapes. The traditional shaped pick is very neutral and suitable for many different playing styles. Most manufacturers of plectrums tend to stick to this tried and tested shape and it is considered the ‘normal’ or standard shape today. This shape has been referred to as the 351 shape.
The term ‘Jazz’ pick can be quite misleading as much like all picks, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, however, they are generally heavier in gauge (thickness). Some ‘Jazz Picks’ such as the Jim Dunlop Jazz 3 range are smaller in size compared to the standard shape but there are also bigger picks too. For instance, within the Jim Dunlop Jazztones range there are 5 picks that cover a spectrum of sizes and tip shapes too.
Jazz picks aren’t exclusively played by jazz players either. For instance, the small Jim Dunlop Jazz 3 picks are favoured by blues rock players too such as Eric Johnson and Joe Bonamassa. Although small in size they are thick and very rigid with a sharp tip making them ideal for precision picking and faster lead runs.
The John Pearse Sarod pick is a unique ‘Jazz style’ pick. Not only are they made from more uncommon pick materials (Ebony and Rosewood), they have a shallow bowl-like depression on one side to rest your thumb and a curve on the back for your index finger. They can feel a little different at first, but their ergonomic design is very comfortable.
Teardrop picks are smaller versions of the standard sized pick described above. They are usually available in the standard thin, medium, heavy and extra-heavy gauges but do tend to be both narrower and slightly shorter in size.
Triangle / Wedge
This is one of the largest sized picks available and commonly favoured by bass players, but again not exclusively to bassists. As the pick is shaped like a triangle, it offers 3 identical corners so whichever point you hold the pick it will feel the same...3 picks in one...we like it! Plus if one end wears down…you have two more to use.
Guitar picks can vary greatly in their thickness (or gauge as it is often referred) ranging from .38mm (which is very thin and flexible) all the way up to a whopping 7mm. Thinner picks will be more bendy and have greater flex whereas picks that are thicker (usually 1.00mm and above) will be quite rigid with little to no flexibility at all.
Manufacturers will often make the popular shapes listed above in different thicknesses to appeal to a wide variety of playing applications and playing styles. Whilst pick gauge is often measured in millimetres, some manufacturers will be more generic and ‘describe’ the thickness as opposed to giving an accurate measurement. For example, Ernie Ball describe some of their picks as thin, medium, heavy and extra-heavy, whereas in almost all cases, Jim Dunlop will give an exact measurement. As a rough guide, thin picks usually measure approximately .50mm, mediums are 0.73mm and heavy picks are 1.0mm thick and above. Most picks will usually conform to these approximate measurements, however, depending on the manufacturer, they can vary by a few fractions of a millimetre.
The tip of a pick can also be a very important area of consideration. The tip of a pick can range from a nice smooth soft curve to a sharp aggressive point.
The Standard shape pick offers a very neutral shaped tip and is ideal for a whole range of style of playing. Some players (including Blues-Jazz legend Robben Ford) has been known to turn his pick around and strike the strings using the side edge as opposed to its sharper point.
The Jim Dunlop Nylon Jazz Guitar Pick is a good example of different shape tips. The Jazz I pick has a smoother (more standard) round tip and offers a warmer, more rounded tone. The Jazz II pick’s tip is slightly sharper and gives a little more definition whilst retaining some of the smooth edge whereas the Jazz III is much sharper. A sharper point is usually preferred by player looking to achieve a little more definition and precision in their playing. The pick we know of with the most defined tip is the Jim Dunlop Tortex Sharp range.
As a general rule of thumb, you may hear people use thinner picks for rhythm guitar and for strumming chords and thicker picks for lead guitar playing. Thinner picks do lend themselves to strumming as they glide across the strings a bit easier whereas a thicker pick will tend to ‘drag’ a bit more. On the other hand, thicker picks are favoured by lead players as they give a greater attack against the strings, better control as they don’t flex and allow for greater speed too. Some players may argue a thicker pick allows them to dig into the strings a bit more creating greater dynamics and better tone too.
However, this should be used as a guide and your choice of pick shouldn’t be governed by what most people use. Choosing which gauge of pick you use should be entirely personal, much like string gauges. There is simply no right or wrong choice and it all boils down to personal taste and personal playing style. Of course, you may not want to limit yourself to using one pick gauge for everything you play either. You may want to use a range of shapes and thicknesses. Plectrums are inexpensive so we would always recommend trying as many out as you can. Only then will you find which one you like the best and bring out the best in your playing. Jim Dunlop handily produce a couple of variety packs which include a range of gauges and pick styles making them an ideal starting point for players on the journey to discover their ultimate pick.
Much like all other aspects of picks, they can be manufactured from a broad range of materials too.
Often, plectrums will be made using some form of plastic but some they can be made from woods and also metals too. Each material has its own distinct tonal characteristics and will also feel slightly different under the fingers too.
Depending on the material used to the make the pick, it’s texture can range from super smooth to something a little rougher to the touch. Whilst ultra-smooth picks will glide across the strings a little easier, they will have less grip so can prove more slippery particularly when your fingers sweat in the heat of playing. Whereas a more textured pick will give a better grip.
Plectrum manufacturers often achieve the combination of smooth feel and enhanced grip by raising their logo or having a dimpled pattern on them. Apart from aesthetic reasons, they mainly do this to add an extra element of grip so there is less likelihood of the pick slipping and spinning around whilst you play which may lead you to drop it. The Jim Dunlop Standard Nylon and Max Grip ranges are a good example of this.
Celluloid is a common material that picks are made from. You may have seen the tortoise shell finish before. This offers a warm tone and nice smooth feel and was designed to emulate the look and feel of the tortoise shell picks of yesteryear whilst remaining ethical (and more economical too). The world famous Jim Dunlop Tortex range was originally designed to be a high quality alternative to the tortoise shell picks.
A pick such as the Jim Dunlop Delrin is completely smooth to the touch. It also has no raised material so doesn’t have as much grip, however, some players prefer this as they feel there is no resistance or scratchiness when the pick glides across the strings. At the other end of the spectrum is the Jim Dunlop Gator Grip range. These have a more ‘matte’ like finish and whilst they offer a better grip than the Delrin range they certainly don’t have the smooth, glass like feel of Delrin.
Certain materials will be softer than others and will be prone to wearing down a little quicker too. Although a harder material will wear a little less ultimately it will be dependent on your playing style and how you use the pick i.e. you may be a more aggressive player or have a lighter touch?
If you do like the tone and feel of your current smooth pick but need something to add a bit more grip, an nice solution could be the Monster Grips. These can be added to a pick to add a little bit of extra ‘tack’ for good grip and can easily be added and removed to help find it’s optimum position on the pick. Pickhoney is another solution to achieving greater grip for your picks. This wax like gel becomes sticky when applied to your fingers and helps you keep hold of your pick when you play.