A short and quick guide on what you need to know about picks

For many of us, spending time considering what kind of pick to use seems like a waste of time, when in actuality it affects your entire experience. In discovering my style of guitar playing, it became really clear to me that the kind of pick I use is critical to my playing. The material, shape, and size of picks contributes to your sound, affecting the mobility of your hand, rhythm, and tone of the strings.

The functionality and concept of a guitar pick is not limited to the history of guitars. As the use of stringed instruments developed in music history, tools used to explore elements from tone to ease in performance became an important aspect. Guitar picks are a type of plectrum, which originates from ancient Greece, meaning “to strike.” Plectrums are tools used to strike, or pluck stringed instruments and the shapes, sizes and materials have developed and changed, typically relating to the culture of the instrument. For example, in ancient Greece plectrums were made of wood and used for playing the lyre. In Thailand and Cambodia traditional string instruments,the chakhe and krapeu, use plectrums made of ivory or bone. Stringed instruments across many cultures see plectrums made of various other natural elements and animal fragments. In the history of the modern guitar, and in America, guitar picks were commonly made from feather quills, and then tortoise shells. Around the 1950s, the introduction to plastic was made, and laws banning animal use in these products came about in the 1970s. Such is the story of how guitar and bass picks have transformed into the standard look and feel we understand today.

There are many different brands and styles of picks, and each brand may emphasize or specialize in particular shapes and sizes. The Ernie Ball Prodigy Pick are the latest picks released that are unique and challenging the standard guitar pick by its new design.

MATERIALS

The materials most commonly used for guitar picks are plastic based — celluloid, nylon, and delrin being the most common. The feel of the pick will vary based on the material and design, such as if there is a raised grip, or flat surface. There is no standard for which plastic is more widely used, it will vary by the brand and manufacturer. Ernie Ball’s Prodigy picks are composed of delrin based material. They have a solid non-slip grip so they have a smooth, satin like feel. The material of the Prodigy pick coupled with its particular shape — which is more compact than the average guitar pick — fits well between the index and thumb allowing you to maintain a firm yet relaxed grip. For me this is a very comfortable way to hold and use a pick. I do not want to tense or stress my hand too much by having to grasp tightly or feel like the pick will fall from my hand.

SHAPE & SIZE

Size is factored by its top shape, wideness, tip, and thickness of the material. The standard pick is a triangular shape with a round top that tapers into a tip. They range in size and weight from light, medium, and heavy which correlate directly to the thickness of the material, typically measured in millimeters (mm). You may also see a light pick labeled as “thin” and medium to heavy picks labeled as “thick.” The shape of the Prodigy has a standard top shape, that tapers down, but has beveled edges that adds to the uniqueness of the guitar pick, and smooth, comfortable feel. The Prodigy picks come in two sizes and shapes, 1.5mm and 2mm; “mini” and standard.

“Light” ( .45mm – .88mm )

For styles of playing that are rhythm guitar parts or chord accompaniment, I find light picks to fit this style well; they tend to be wider with a rounder tip. When strumming chords, the attack on the strings is softer and may create a brighter quality in the sound. Light guitar picks pair well with acoustic guitar style of playing, often used in genres such as, but not limited to folk, country, blues, rock. Light picks can also produce a scrappy sound from strings that fit for many punk-rock songs, or fast power chords.

“Medium” (.88 mm – 1.5mm)

I find medium to heavy picks more compatible for lead parts, especially fast, rhythmic lead lines, such as with genres of rock, jazz, and metal. The weight of a medium to heavy pick, such as with The Prodigy, allows for a more deliberate attack to the strings, which to me has a more controlled sound as there is less resonance from the pick striking the string. I also feel more control holding the pick due to the weight.  

“Heavy” (1.5 mm and up)

Heavy picks are thick and rigid, which means it may be more difficult to strum chords. Though chords aren’t impossible to play with a heavy pick, it just takes a technique to match the style of playing. Using a medium to heavy guitar pick when playing chords can allow you to better accent certain notes, which may enhance the harmony or melody of what you’re playing, which is common among modern jazz musicians. There is a common guitar pick, referred to as a “jazz” pick. The length is slightly smaller than that of a standard guitar pick, but maintains similar width, they are heavy (1.5mm and up), and have a more defined tip. “Jazz” picks are used by many jazz, blues, and rock players. The Prodigy “mini” bears similarities to a typical “jazz” guitar pick, they are smaller than the standard guitar pick, thick, and have accentuated fine tips. The very fine tip of the Prodigy offers a ton of control on the brightness and warmness of the tone of the string.

Overall guitar picks shape and affect your sound by how it fits and moves in your picking hand and affecting the tone of the string. The pick allows every guitarists to achieve their sound and the process of discovering is to just try it. Experiment with various picks. You can often buy variety packs or mix and match at your local music place. Experiment with different sizes and materials and feel how the texture fits for you and your sound!