Getting into guitar or mandolin picking? One of the first things you will need (besides your instrument) is a good collection of picks.
It’s never a bad idea to start out with an assortment—over time some picks will definitely come to the forefront as favorites. Furthermore, until you have a handle on basic flatpicking technique, your playing will be more of a limiting factor than your pick.
But once you have implemented good picking technique in your playing, you may want to expand your pick collection to create a sound that is uniquely your own.
So what do you look for in a good pick?
Shape does affect sound to some degree, but the main reason that shape is important is that it affects how easy the pick is to hold and maneuver.
The standard pick shape, sometimes known as the 351, is a triangle with rounded corners. All other picks are essentially variations on this design. Therefore, it is a good idea for beginners to become acquainted with this shape right from the start. You can’t go wrong with the balanced playability and precision of the 351.
One of the most common variations on the 351 is a sharpened tip. The pointed tip enhances playing speed and precision, making dazzlingly complex lead lines easier to play. Note that balance is necessary here—a point that is too sharp becomes too awkward to use.
Similar to the sharpened tip is the true triangle. This pick is sometimes used by bluegrass guitarists who play both rhythm and lead and thus need both a good hold and a precise tip. Triangular picks are typically larger than other picks to give the guitarist more surface area to hang onto. They also have the advantage of having three identical playing surfaces, so the pick can be rotated as it wears out.
A deviation from the standard rounded triangle is the round pick. Round picks allow for a fuller, thicker sound. This is superb for mandolin use due to its big, rich sound, although it may be a little muddy on the guitar.
There’s nothing wrong with a basic plastic pick. It’s probably where every instrumentalist will want to start. Note that there are many types of synthetic materials available, and each will have slightly different tonal characteristics. Your options range from bright, flexible nylon to an extra-stiff material known as ultem. One of the most popular synthetic materials is celluloid due to its long tradition of smoothness and warmth. Every company seems to have at least one unique formulation, so be sure to read plenty of reviews before purchasing.
The traditional tortoiseshell pick was banned in the 1970s as the sea turtle species used to make them became endangered. However, they are manufactured for the black market. If you discover a tortoiseshell pick for sale online, make sure that it is a vintage item—antique picks are still around due to their great durability. There is an authentic farm-raised slider turtle shell pick that is sold as a legal substitute. Because, however, the slider turtle has a rough shell, playing with a turtle shell pick will produce a scratchy noise and feel.
Another tortoiseshell substitute is buffalo horn. While this provides a classic sound and smooth feel very much like the genuine tortoiseshell, buffalo horn is brittle and prone to splintering. Buffalo bones are sometimes used to make picks, as well, but they have a very rough surface. Some people think they sound harsh, while others appreciate their volume capabilities. It’s all a matter of preference.
Wooden picks vary considerably by species, but on the whole they are warm-sounding and easy to grip. Most wood picks retain a full range of harmonics, although some can sound muddy. Rosewood and maple are soft and flexible. On the other end of the spectrum, Osage orange is extremely stiff but rather scratchy, while lignum vitae is incredibly dense but smooth. Note that harder wooden picks can cause damage to guitar strings.
And then there is stone. Very few musicians will want to deal with playing with (let alone finding) a stone pick. But some mandolinists swear by the heavy weight, good grip, firm tone, and rich harmonics of picks made from a variety of natural materials ranging form marble to jade. Electric guitarists may also enjoy the aggressive sound. For acoustic guitar, however, a stone pick is too inflexible and harsh-sounding to provide a pleasant experience.
Or how about rubber? Rubber picks are a new concept in guitar playing. They are generally considered to produce a tone similar to fingerstyle playing—soft, but warm and clear.
Metal is another option, primarily used because it looks cool. It produces a crisp, bright sound and is very easy to handle, making it superb for lead guitar. Just keep in mind that it will tear up your strings rather quickly. Materials used for metal picks range from softer, warmer brass to durable stainless steel. (And, yes, if you are caught without a pick, you can play with a quarter from your wallet; just keep in mind that the standard quarter was not minted with smooth attack in mind and will subsequently produce a grating sound.)
Gauge is a measure of the thickness, and hence the flexibility, of the pick. Gauge is arguably the most important factor to consider when buying a pick, as two picks made of the same materials but manufactured with different gauges will sound markedly different.
Light picks are generally recommended for beginning rhythm guitarists only. In practice, it is probably better just to avoid them altogether due to their brittleness and thin, unpleasant sound. Also, light picks can inadvertently foster bad technique because of their too-forgiving flexibility. Beginners will do well to start with medium-gauge picks.
Medium picks are good general-purpose guitar picks. This is where beginners on both the guitar and the mandolin should start, and it is where many guitarists will be content to stay. A medium-gauge pick is particularly recommended for rhythm guitarists to avoid overwhelming the other instruments. For other instrumentalists who find the stiff, chunky feel of heavy picks overwhelming, the medium pick is also an excellent choice.
Heavy picks are stiff and hard to handle, but they produce a solid tone that many will love. Their precision helps players add dynamics to their solos. The mandolin really shines when played with a heavy pick. Lead guitarists looking to beef up their sound will appreciate the heavier gauge, as well.
Extra-heavy picks are also available (check out the Dunlop Big Stubby). These can really pull some sweet tone out of your instrument, but at the expense of some crispness. Furthermore, their stiff feel offers great precision for those who get used to it, but by others has been compared to playing guitar with a 2×4. It’s a tradeoff. Be careful when buying a really heavy pick, as playability is a limiting factor. Make sure your new pick has a good grip and a nice smooth playing edge to make the transition as easy as possible.
A grip is a nice touch, but not strictly necessary in most cases. If you are having problems holding your pick, all you need to do is scratch some texture into it with a nail file.
But for those using extra-heavy picks, a built-in grip is a must. Grip designs vary by manufacturer, ranging from grooves to raised letters to powdered coatings. The best way to determine what works for you is to experiment with several picks.
And, finally, there are all those esoteric things that make playing so fun. Be sure to factor in color and pattern when pick shopping—you won’t regret it in the long run.
Want to customize your picks? Here’s another way to experiment. Read our full review.