Finding the right plectrum, as it was originally called (and still is in the UK), is a very personal endeavor. The genre of music you play, as well as your individual playing style, are both factors to consider when selecting your pick. And, I would be remiss not to mention the most important criterion of all, which would be the intangible qualities of what sounds the best for your playing style, and what simply feels the best in your hand while playing. The following suggestions for choosing your guitar pick are simply that—suggestions and, as with many things in music, there is more than one way to skin a cat. The only way to truly know if you like a pick or not is to play guitar with it, but, hopefully, this guide will point you in the right direction when you’re first getting started.
The most common materials that you’ll see guitar picks made from today are celluloid, nylon, and Delrin. Celluloid is the most flexible and yields a bright sound. Nylon has a bit of a softer feel and darker tone, but it doesn’t break quite as easily as celluloid, and tends to be a bit easier to grip. Delrin is the hardest of the three and is designed to mimic the feel and sound of tortoiseshell, which was a popular material no longer in use today. Delrin will offer the sharpest and most pronounced attack of the three, physically and sonically, and, for some people, is easier to grip versus celluloid or nylon. In addition to other types of plastic, there are other less-common materials in use today, such as metal, which you’ll find used for specialized picks such as finger picks for fingerstyle guitar playing.
Guitar picks come in a variety of shapes, the standard shape being the most common, which is probably going to be the best place to start. This shape is suitable for most styles and is undoubtedly the most popular shape of pick today. Then there are triangle picks, a favorite of many bass guitar players, but many guitarists swear by them as well. I find the triangle shape to be the easiest to hold, but they may not be suitable for some styles of play. Another fairly common shape is the teardrop, which is a smaller pick, designed to be more agile for faster styles of play.
Picks come in a variety of gauges. Thin are generally .40mm to .59mm; Medium are .60mm to .79mm; Heavy, .80mm to 1.49mm; and Extra Heavy, which are 1.5 mm and thicker. While the thickness of your preferred pick is definitely a subjective and personal preference, there are some usage trends, so to speak, which I’ll outline below.
If you’re a singer songwriter who plays acoustic guitar to accompany your voice, or a rhythm guitar player who does a lot of strumming, a thin pick might be the gauge for you. Many strummers like thin picks because they have a bit of “give,” bending slightly as they hit the strings, offering less resistance, making it easier and smoother feeling to strum than with a thicker pick. For acoustic guitar, celluloid picks are a common choice due to the brightness of the sound that is produced as they strike the strings.
If you play a style that calls for fast and accurate pick work, such as jazz, bluegrass, or metal, a thicker pick may be the choice for you. In addition to a thicker pick, many players of more speed-centric styles prefer a smaller, teardrop-shape pick, which makes advanced techniques such as alternate picking and palm muting easier to do.
For Finger Pickers
If you play fingerstyle, you may be interested in a different breed of pick entirely. Finger picks are worn around your fingers, and players wear them on two, three, or even four of their fingers while playing. Finger picks are generally made of metal and are really only intended for this style of play.
As mentioned above, bassists often go for the triangle pick shape. Thicker, Delrin picks lend themselves nicely to playing bass, mostly due to the ferocity of their attack on the strings, as well as their propensity to stay in your hand when playing hard.
If you’re just getting your feet wet with the guitar, nothing beats the hands-on experience of simply trying different picks back-to-back and seeing what sounds and feels right to you. Luckily, picks aren’t too expensive, plus there are tons of variety packs on the market, which is an excellent place to start for beginners.
I hope this article helped point you in the right direction on your journey to find the perfect guitar pick, and I encourage you to leave any questions you may have in the Comments section, below. Do you have a favorite shape and gauge of guitar pick? Tell us why.