Picture this for a moment: You’re in the middle of an intense practice session or performance. Your solo part is coming up and as you get ready to shred that solo your guitar pick slips from your fingers as it strikes the first note of your part.
Better yet, if you’re like 90% of us and not putting on performances: Have you ever tried to practice your chords only to have your pick slip all over the place? Yeah, I’ve been there too.
These problems can easily be avoided if you’re using the right guitar pick. In this lesson I am going to teach you how to choose a guitar pick.
What Is a Guitar Pick
A guitar pick is a small piece of plastic that is used to strike the strings of a guitar to produce a note. Guitar picks, originally known as “Plectrums” (and can still occasionally be heard called by seasoned guitarists and many folks over in the UK).
Today, guitar picks come in a wide variety of materials, shapes and sizes.
How to Choose a Guitar Pick
There are many important factors to consider when choosing a guitar pick. However, the most important thing to consider, by far is: feel.
Ask any seasoned guitarist and they will tell you that if the pick is uncomfortable, or hard for you to control, you likely need a new one.
How exactly do you find the pick that feels right? I’ll tell you.
There are 5 main factors to consider when choosing a guitar pick:
Guitar Pick Shapes
Guitar picks come in a dizzying array of shapes, so how do you choose the right one?
Well, for starters, eliminate novelty picks. For example, picks shaped like skulls, fish or pot leaves probably aren’t the most effective choices. Their awkward shapes and sizes may look cool, but are often impractical.
When it comes to the shape of a pick there are 2 factors to consider:
- The “top” of the pick
- The “Bottom” of the pick
The top of the pick is the part of the pick you hold. It is the most important part of the pick for the overall comfort of the pick in your hand.
The bottom of the pick is the part that makes contact with the strings. This is most important to the feel and play style of the pick.
Sharper bottom picks, such as the Dunlop Jazz III, tend to have much more attack and lend themselves to a faster, more aggressive play style. These picks are awesome for shredding your guitar scales.
Picks with a rounder bottom have a much softer attack that lends itself best to acoustic style playing.
Guitar Pick Sizes
Much like shapes, guitar picks come in a wide variety of sizes. Unfortunately, also like shapes, there really is no standard all manufacturers follow.
You will find a wide array of picks from tiny to massive and the only way to know what size feels best is to try!
Go to your local music store (or buy a variety pack online) and try out as many shapes and sizes as you can and see what feels best. If you have bigger hands, you may want to check out some bigger picks, whereas if you have smaller hands, maybe you’d like a smaller pick.
Everyone is different and one size does not fit all.
With that said, the size of your pick will have an impact on your playing. In general:
- Smaller picks are best for speed
- Bigger picks are best for strumming
Finding where your hands and playing fall within the spectrum though is the key.
Guitar Pick Thickness Guide
Luckily, there is a universal system for measuring a guitar pick’s thickness. The thickness of all picks is measured in millimeters (mm).
Generally speaking a pick thinner than .60mm is considered a “thin” pick. A pick between .61 and .80mm is considered “medium” and any pick over .81mm is a “heavy” pick.
Thinner picks tend to be best for strumming. You will hear the attitude and feel of the pick striking the strings. It will add character to your strums. They are also great for beginners as the increased flexibility adds forgiveness and room for error to your playing.
Medium picks are considered a “jack of all trades” that provide a great middle ground. It’s possible you’ll still hear the pick hit the string, or you may not. They still provide some flex and therefore some room for error for beginners, but less so than a thin pick.
Finally, there are heavy picks. Heavy picks are very stiff and provide aggressive tone from your strings. You will hear the pick striking the strings the least (likely not at all) with heavy picks.
Heavy guitar picks are great for getting notes to ring out loud and clear and offer greater precision in your playing. For this reason, they are best suited for intermediate to advanced guitarists, as they offer much less forgiveness than light and medium picks.
One great method for finding what thickness works best for you is one I learned from GuitarGearFinder:
Buy a variety pack of Dunlop Tortex picks. The variety pack will be great for a few reasons:
- The shape of all the picks will be the same
- The material and texture of all the picks will be the same
- Thickness will be the ONLY variable
Once you’ve found the thickness that feels best for your play style, then you can dive into different materials, shapes, textures, etc at that perfect thickness.
Guitar Pick Material
Dating back hundreds of years ago, early picks were made of stone, wood or even the quill of a bird. (Read more on this awesome Sweetwater article). However, these picks were used on the guitar’s ancestors, such as the lute.
Eventually, as picks evolved, the shells of the Atlantic Hawksbill Sea Turtle became commonplace. Revered for their superior feel and tone, these picks gained massive popularity in the 1800s.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s, when the sea turtle became endangered, and the CITE ACT was passed, banning the use of these picks. This is where the term “tortoiseshell” pick came from, despite the original picks being made from the shell of a turtle.
However, Celluloid quickly took over the top spot for materials as it most closely mirrored the feel and tone of the tortoiseshell picks.
Today, there are a variety of guitar pick materials to choose from. Each material offers distinct pros and cons.
Nylon – A thinner material than Celluloid, typically has raised lettering on the pick to help improve its grip.
Celluloid – Hard plastic, probably most common
Delrin – A hard plastic with a dull finish to it that enhances the grip slightly. This is my personal preference.
Stone - Usually much thicker than your average pick and heavier. Stone is not a common material though it can be fun to experiment with.
Guitar Pick Textures
While a pick’s material can help add a lot of grip to the pick, that isn’t quite as effective as adding literal grip to the pick!
In order to keep picks in your hands and off the floor, there are a variety of different guitar pick textures designed to enhance your grip:
- Polished, fine grip unless you are prone to sweaty palms/fingers (okay maybe this one doesn’t enhance your grip much)
- Sanded Picks - Common with Dunlop's Tortex designs, this texture has a grated finish that feels similar, but not quite as rough, to sandpaper
- Raised picks - These are most common on nylon picks but can certainly be found on other materials.
Modifying Guitar Picks
Pick modification is a practice I didn’t get into until I started hanging around some touring musicians.
Before I get into this I want to stress that this can be very dangerous. Please use caution when using any sharp objects and get parental supervision if you’re a minor.
TheBestGuitarLessons.com is not liable for any injuries sustained while attempting to modify picks. Proceed at your own risk - and please - BE CAREFUL!
In fact, I had never even thought of it. Picks are designed by professionals, after all. Why should I need to modify their work?
Well, let’s say you’ve found your favorite pick size, thickness and material but just can’t find a texture that provides you with the right combination of comfort, feel and playability.
This was actually my exact problem. You see, my favorite picks are the Dunlop Tortex picks. I love the way they feel and play, they last a crazy amount of time - they’re just good picks. The grip is even pretty decent out of the box.
However, I have clammy hands. They get sweaty pretty fast when I practice and I was always dropping my pick or having it shift mid-song resulting in missed notes and having to re-position on the fly.
Then one day a friend showed me their pick. They also used Tortex like I did but they had carved grooves in a crosshatch pattern on their pick to increase its grip. I tried it out - and it was a game changer for me. Suddenly the pick was firmly in my grip and I could play whatever I wanted with confidence.
This is just my preferred way to modify my picks, though I’m sure there are many out there. Do you like to modify your picks? Let me know how in the comments below!
Every guitarist has their own preference for what the ideal pick is for them. Having completed this lesson you now know how to choose a guitar pick effectively. Get out there, try a bunch of different picks and find your perfect fit!
Have you already found your perfect fit? Let us know what your favorite guitar pick is and why in the comments below!