Buyers Guide: How do I Choose the Right Plectrum for my Guitar?
When it comes to deciding which type of plectrum is best, each guitarist has their own opinion, just like they do with guitars and guitar strings. That's not surprising, seeing as plectrums come in all sorts of different shapes, thicknesses, materials and colours. In this guide, we'll run through the various types of plectrums that are available, so that you can decide which one is right for you.
One of the first things you'll notice about a plectrum is its shape. The most common shape by far is the standard teardrop shape. If you'd prefer something more compact than this, then consider buying a jazz-shaped model, which is available in three different versions (I, II and III). Version III is popular because of its sharper point, which is excellent for fast and precise playing. If you'd prefer to go the other way and have a plectrum with a larger surface area, then a triangle-shaped model with three equal-sized points could be right for you.
As well as standard picks (another name for plectrums), there are special models for your thumb and fingers. These give you the same benefit as playing with your fingers individually, but mean that you don't have to grow your fingernails if you want to produce a sound with more attack than your fingers alone can provide. Of course, its possible to use just a thumb pick for more definition in your bass lines and let your fingers pluck the rest of the strings, just like Chet Atkins used to do.
Thin, Medium or Heavy?
When it comes to the thickness of a plectrum, the range is bigger than you might expect. Realistically, you might have to try out a few plectrums of different thicknesses to discover which one matches your style of music and guitar playing best. Generally speaking, beginners and more advanced rhythm guitarists often prefer a plectrum that is relatively thin. The norm here is usually somewhere between 0.3 and 0.7 mm. Kurt Cobain was one famous guitarist who preferred a plectrum in this type of range. Thinner plectrums are renowned for their light feel when playing the guitar.
Plectrums between 0.7 and 1.00 mm fall into the medium category. As you might expect, most guitarists play their instruments with a pick in this thickness range. Often, they are guitarists with a little more experience, who have moved on from a thinner pick. Plectrums in this range offer a high degree of accuracy and a more defined sound.
Once we get to plectrums with a thickness of 1 to 1.5 mm, we have moved in to the heavy category. It's normally guitarists who have achieved a high level of technical ability, who choose plectrums within this range. Jazz and metal guitarists who are looking for even more definition and precision, may decide to go for an extra heavy plectrum instead. Here, we are talking about thicknesses of more than 1.5 mm. In genres like Gypsy jazz, solo players even use picks as thick as 3.5 mm and it's not unheard of for rhythm guitar players in this genre to use a 5.0 mm thick pick!
Another important factor in deciding which type of plectrum to choose is the material it's made of. Believe it or not, plectrums made of real tortoiseshell used to be rather popular. Fortunately, now that most sea turtles are protected, manufacturers have tried to emulate the appealing characteristics of tortoiseshell picks using synthetic materials instead. Nowadays, a number of other materials are used too, including stone, wood and glass.
The most popular and accessible materials used of course, are synthetic. For a vintage guitar sound, a Celluloid pick (developed at the beginning of the 20th century) would be an excellent choice. Smooth Delrin and rougher Tortex plectrums are both made of a material called Delrex, that give a balanced sound. If you're looking for more warmth, then you'd be better off with a pick made of nylon. A more modern sound with extra definition can be had by using a pick made of Ultex, a relatively new material. Well-known brand Dunlop has plenty of choice when it comes to picks made of this material.
As well as finger plectrums made of materials like brass, in the last few years, top-quality plectrums have been made from a number of other materials too including ebony, rosewood, stone, glass and even cattle horn! You'll really have to rely on yours ears when choosing a pick made of one of these materials, as they all produce a slightly different sound. Ukulele and mandolin players often play their instruments using a plectrum made of leather or felt. All together, the choice of materials mentioned above means that there are a broad range of sounds to be had, depending on the material the pick you choose is made of. Brands like Timber Tones and Dugain sell picks made of some of the materials mentioned above.
Get a grip!
Tortex plectrums are essentially the same as their Delrin counterparts, but offer more grip. Whilst these are suitable for most guitarists who like their plectrums to have a grip, Dunlop have Max Grip versions of their Nylon and Jazz III models. Guitarists who experience sweaty hands when playing or those who have trouble holding on to smooth models usually prefer plectrums with a grip.
When it comes to high-quality, hand-polished plectrums, these often have special grooves engraved on them by laser, like those from Timber Tones. There are also plectrums that feature special indentations for your thumb and finger which can improve your playing technique.
Take your pick!
Hopefully, this guide has provided you with sufficient information to help you choose the pick that's right for you. Of course, you may not know for sure until you actually try a few different ones out. Don't forget that the sound a pick produces is just as important as the way it feels in the hand. Here a Bax Music, we have a large selection to choose from. Good luck with your decision.