Choosing the right types of guitar picks can be tricky. If you are new to the instrument, you probably don’t quite realize yet how important the right pick can be to your development. It’s one of the guitar accessories that isn’t talked about as much as others, but should be. Does this mean then that any pick will do?
The right guitar pick will make all the difference to your sound, as well as your technique. Some play styles are performed better with the right plectrum and so the choice of thickness, material, size, and shape are all critical factors to consider when selecting a pick.
With so many types available, it can be difficult to know how and when to use them, but this can make a big difference to your experience as a player.
But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! This guide has been designed to help you find the perfect guitar pick for your needs and understand why the right choice is important.
What is a Guitar Pick?
A guitar pick is a small, somewhat thin tool or accessory used to pluck or strum strings on instruments. They go by a few different names, including:
In the early 19th century, the plectra were made from feather quills and were widely used until there was a shift to tortoiseshell. The improvement in sound and stiffness was significant, and so the shell became the standard guitar pick for several years. Celluloid would replace the tortoiseshell in the 1920s, when inventor Tony D’Andrea introduced a new means of making guitar picks.
He went on to supply plectrum to companies like Fender, Gibson, and Martin with this new technique which was far easier than harvesting turtles but just as effective.
Today, we have many materials, and each one serves a different purpose. Guitar picks made it easier to improve playing technique and sound for musicians.
Do You Need to Use a Guitar Pick?
While a pick is not necessary for all styles of playing, it does offer a very large advantage to others. Some of the things that a guitar pick offers are:
- More defined string sound
- Louder volume
- Improved technique
When a pick is used on a string instead of fingers, it will produce more harmonics and create a more defined sound. A string plucked with a finger dampens the sound and doesn’t have the same impact to tone.
A string plucked with a guitar pick will also produce more volume for much of the same reasons. When there is nothing to mute a string in any way, it will be louder.
Then there is the ability to play faster and more accurately. A pick will allow a player to run up and down the neck of a guitar with ease. This is only if it’s handled properly, though, which comes with experience.
Guitar Pick Materials
Many materials are used to make guitar picks, each type offering players better performance, flexibility, or texture. Some of the more common materials are:
- Carbon Fiber
Tortoise shell was also a guitar pick material that was used for some time in the early days, but was not included in the list as it became banned in 1973.
One of the first materials used to make a guitar pick, this one is still very popular today. This synthetic material was introduced as a means to replace tortoiseshell and proved to be far more convenient.
In addition, celluloid picks are less likely to chip or flake than those that were made from other materials. The biggest factor in the popularity of this type is that it makes a very bright, crisp tone on the guitar.
Nylon Guitar Picks
Most commonly seen in the Dunlop Max Grip picks, nylon is a heavy-duty material that offers guitar players more durability than other options. This makes it perfect for strumming chords.
Since it isn’t slick like celluloid, nylon also allows for more accurate playing and better grip when moving up and down the neck of the guitar quickly. This material is capable of providing a warm or bright sound depending on how it’s struck against the strings.
This material is most commonly seen in the Dunlop Tortex pick line. This heavy-duty plastic offers guitarists a grip that feels firm, allowing for faster playing with less fatigue on top of producing a good, bright tone.
It also has a high tolerance for use over time without showing too much erosion, which makes it very popular among professional guitarists.
There are some Delrin picks made that are not quite as easy to grip, however. While still being made by Dupont, this style of guitar pick, even though made from the same material as Tortex, is smooth. Under the right conditions, losing grip is easier.
This material is known for being extra hard, making sure that there are no chips or flaking after heavy use. This means that this material will last longer than other options before losing the ability to produce a high-quality performance.
Of course, the hard material also means that there is noticeably more resistance when playing with it. This can be very useful for strumming chords on acoustic guitar or adding some articulation to a lead part on an electric. They offer a good grip and bright, balanced sound.
This polymer option is similar to Ultex in that it produces a bright tone with good articulation, but has the added benefit of being very lightweight. This material is also incredibly strong and very easy to grip, especially if the texturing is right. It’s a newer concept that is starting to become more popular over time.
This is one of the oldest materials used for making guitar picks. Many stone types are used to make picks today. Agate, Jasper, and Jade are quite popular and when made right, won’t hurt your strings. Because they are so hard, they produce a unique tone and are easy to grip.
Since this material is tough to produce with consistency, the cost is very high when compared to other options. The stone pick also tends to scratch instruments if there is no guard where you strum.
Made from the same material as guitar bodies, wooden picks are extremely low-maintenance. Since wood is very sturdy, it won’t flex like plastic and can be quite thick. They also tend to break down quickly, but can be sanded if needed to create a custom shape for better grip.
There are many types of wood that are used in making guitar picks, like mahogany or rosewood, so the tone can vary from bright to warm. This also depends on the designs, but in some cases, also makes them harder to use.
Metal Guitar Picks
This is another option that tends to be very rigid, but can produce some cool sounds when used for picking. Metal plectrums are not the most common type of pick out there due to their tone and added string erosion. The sound they produce can vary in tone based on whether they are plated, but tend to be brighter.
You will also need to be careful not to scratch your guitar, as metal is more capable of this than plastic. As the metal pick begins to break down, you will also need to watch for any pieces getting attracted to the magnetic pickups, depending on the metal used.
Guitar Pick Thickness
The thickness of the guitar pick will determine how much volume projection you hear when it’s being used. The right material and shape can also affect this, but in most cases, thicker picks produce a tone that stands out more than thinner ones do.
For strumming an acoustic guitar or plucking individual notes on electric, medium to heavy picks are the way to go. For lead parts, you can use a lighter pick and for clean or bass-heavy sections of a song, you can use a thicker one.
With so many styles of guitar picks out there, knowing how they work and what tone you prefer can help guide your search when looking for the right plectrum. Also, knowing what type of guitar technique you use, will help to find which ones work best.
There are 5 common thicknesses:
- Extra light
- Thick or heavy
It’s good to test the thickness of the pick yourself, by holding one in your hand without gripping it too tightly and seeing how much pressure you need before it starts bending.
Thickness: 0.40 mm and under.
This option is very useful for strumming chords lightly or playing fast lines on an electric guitar. Thin guitar picks will glide over the strings without grabbing them too hard, keeping the sound clean and allowing you to play with ease.
They tend to produce a plastic sound when strumming, which is not acceptable for some players, but this depends on the strings and guitar as well. This thickness will produce a softer sound with the lowest volume projection of all the options available.
Light Guitar Picks
Thickness: 0.41 mm – 0.63 mm.
If you are looking for a pick for lead work or acoustic guitar, light is a good choice. They are sturdy enough to be used for strumming and lifting off the strings while producing a tone that is slightly louder than extra light. This depends on how hard you use the plectrum, however, which will also stress it more as they are a thin guitar pick.
This option provides slightly more volume projection than extra light picks do, although not as much as a medium plectrum.
Thickness: 0.64 mm – 0.86 mm.
This pick is a good choice for strumming chords and lead work. They are sturdy enough to glide over the strings, but thick enough to produce a tone that stands out from an extra light pick. This means it won’t be as bright or clean as the medium thickness.
I take this pick as a good combination of brightness and strength, which makes it perfect for a beginner when starting.
Thick Guitar Picks
Thickness: 0.87 mm – 1.2 mm.
This type of pick is a good choice for strumming chords and lead work as it produces some rich mid-range sounds. The thickness also adds volume projection compared to a medium plectrum and provides a solid attack which is great for heavier music.
Because of their added stiffness, they require more finger strength to keep a solid grip. Otherwise, when playing aggressively, it’s easy to drop them due to the lack of flexibility.
Thickness: 1.21 mm and over.
This type of guitar pick will produce a fat, warm tone when strumming chords or performing lead work. It’s a good choice for a beginner who wants to sound strong from the start while also being able to play a wide range of music and use different techniques.
The added thickness makes it harder to glide across the strings without touching them, which is why you will need slightly more strength than medium picks to prevent dropping them with this type of plectrum. But the volume is at maximum when you strum with an extra thick pick!
Guitar Pick Shapes
It’s important to note that the shape of your pick can also contribute to the tone you produce, as well as your technique execution. Several shapes can help with some interesting sounds that are not normally possible with others.
Standard Plectrum Shape
This is the most common guitar pick shape. One edge is more rounded than pointed, which allows you to play chords with ease while also making it possible to perform lead lines. It’s somewhat of an isosceles triangle shape and is where it all started with the first cellulose plectrum. This shape is referred to as the 351 and is very versatile.
Jazz III Plectrum Shape
This shape is somewhat of an equilateral triangle. It’s easier to produce a brighter tone than a standard pick, which makes it great for strumming. It has quickly become one of the most popular shapes among players that lean towards lead work over strumming, especially in shred metal music styles where fast lines are needed to keep up with the speed of the drums.
Sharp Point Picks
This shape is a standard pick with a point that is very close to being sharp. This allows it to glide over the strings while still maintaining a decent grip. Because of this, the sound projection is not as strong as a regular plectrum, but is used for lead work more so than strumming. The sharp point is great for accuracy and precision.
Triangle Shaped Picks
There are several triangle-shaped picks available. Some with very sharp tips, and some with more round ones. They each have something to offer players, but are all able to increase control due to their larger size. Bass players favor these picks because of the extra control and dexterity they offer and are more comfortable.
This style of the guitar pick is designed for accuracy and speed, but requires more finger strength to use properly. They are thinner to be able to use without dropping frequently, which also makes them pretty versatile when some strumming is also necessary. They are also known as model 358 and are known for a warmer and round tone.
Finger and Thumb Picks
There are various styles of finger and thumb picks available. They each offer something unique, with most of them giving great control and tone, while still allowing you to use your fingers to pluck the strings with ease. Finger and thumb picks are often used in bluegrass music because they allow the player an extra grip for that classic sound.
Shark Fin Pick Shape
This is shaped like the top fin of a shark. The tips are sharp and are perfect for speed picking techniques as well as strumming. Each tip can produce a different sound, which makes them popular with musicians who want warm and bold tones. They are not easy to use however and do take some time, so they are not recommended for beginners.
Dragon Heart Pick Shape
This is a super unique pick shape and is great for players who need both a strumming, and a lead plectrum. This guitar pick is normally thicker with beveled edges and is aimed more at people who play heavier music styles on electric guitars that require loud, bold sounds. One edge is great for speed, while the other is perfect for rhythm.
Guitar Pick Textures
Guitar picks can come in a variety of textures, ranging from smooth to small ridges. The texture is totally up to personal preference and the grip you need to prevent dropping picks. However, the pick you choose will also determine how much control you have over your playing style.
Smooth Texture Picks
A smooth plectrum has no texture and slides through your fingers easily, especially if you begin to sweat. A majority of the picks made are smooth or polished and are normally easy to hold. But if you are having issues with your grip and continue to drop them, you may want to change the plectrum texture you are using.
Sanded Texture Picks
A guitar pick with a sanded or powdery texture is generally easier to hold onto because it has something for your fingers to grip. The difference between this and the smooth pick is easy to notice and will help keep a grip on your plectrum, especially if sweaty, slippery hands are an issue for you. Tortex picks offer this extra support, which is why they are a more popular plectrum.
Raised Ridges Picks
A plectrum with raised ridges is considered a medium-textured pick and offers the best of both worlds. Your fingers can easily slide and move around on it, so you won’t have to worry about gripping too hard and having it interfere with your technique. But they also offer you the benefit of having ridges to grip onto when things are getting slick. Sometimes it’s simply a raised logo on the pick that makes all the difference.
Then there are natural textures provided by materials like wood or stone. Some of these different materials can help with grip, but are also very different from one another. Some wood picks will have less texture than others.
While stone guitar picks, if porous enough, can offer a great deal of added grip. When selecting a material to try, it’s also good to keep the texture in mind, just in case you cannot hold on to it when playing.
How To Select The Right Pick For You
Before you choose a pick, it’s important to think about what you are planning on playing and the technique involved. If heavy metal is your game, then perhaps the shark fin shape would be best for you. But if jazz is more your style, then maybe try using a rounded tip for more warm sounds with less attack. If you are a beginner, stick with a standard shape of medium thickness.
Thin vs Thick Picks
Thinner guitar picks are perfect for faster players who need to control their plucking style. The thinner the pick, the more you have to pay attention to each stroke. This will help to keep it consistent so that your sound doesn’t change drastically. However, thicker plectrums are great for strumming chords and will give you a fuller sound with a more aggressive attack.
Thickness & Dexterity
If your guitar playing involves complex finger tapping, or you are simply having an issue holding on to the pick, you may want to adjust the thickness. Again, this is all about your style of play and what kind of dexterity you have. Some people just cannot handle the thickest plectrums due to their dexterity, while some guitarists need that extra thick grip to play at faster speeds.
The thickness of your pick also plays a role in what kind of sound you get out of it. When choosing something new, always try playing with it on a guitar before buying it to get a general idea of the tone you might expect. Simply hold down some basic open chords and see how it sounds compared to the picks you are used to using.
Custom Guitar Picks
There is a whole world of many types of guitar picks out there that can help you find the sound and look you are going for. If you have been playing for a while, then it’s also possible that your fingers have adapted to all the practicing, making it even more important to explore different picks and textures.
Companies like D’addario provide the option of custom guitar picks that allow you to shred in style! They offer many personalized plectrum options like:
- Single color pad print
- Full-color laser prints
Guitar players can select options like size, shape, thickness and even materials like nylon picks to print their logo or pictures on. So if you are an artist looking to create a career, having your own custom plectrum is a great way to make a statement!
Guitar Pick FAQs
We have answered several frequently asked questions to help you find the right plectrum!
Which pick is the best for strumming?
If you are looking for something that will give you a good, consistent strumming sound, then most plectrums are geared towards this type of playing. However, if you are specifically looking for one that is durable and tough, then medium thickness, nylon picks are a great choice.
It’s normally a good idea to try a bunch of different plectrums and see what feels the best in your hand. Because picks are pretty affordable, it is easy to collect a few for different techniques and play styles.
What thickness should I get?
If you need something that provides a ton of grip, then thicker picks are the way to go. For many players with dexterity issues, the most simple solution is to grab something thick and wide to hold on better. But if you require more control over your sound and strumming patterns, thin picks will help you out there instead.
Then there is the music style you play. An aggressive rhythm part may require thicker picks for bold tone and plenty of projected volume. The harder you dig in, the more vibration you will get from your strings. A thicker pick can help with this. However, a thinner plectrum might be better for acoustic guitar strumming that is warmer and softer.
What guitar pick size should I get?
This is a matter of personal preference, as some people might feel that something larger or smaller is better suited for them. Normal size picks are usually pretty comfortable for most players, but those with bigger hands may want to go up from there. Triangle-shaped picks are preferred by most bassists because the size helps with grip and comfort.
The best way to find the right fit is to get a few samples for each of the play styles you like. Start with some of the more standard guitar pick sizes and then get a few larger as well as smaller ones. Then try them out for the different styles and see which are the most comfortable.
What is the best guitar pick thickness for beginners?
A good place to start is with a traditional nylon 0.71 mm pick, but if you find that these are still difficult to hold on to, you could grab a 0.80 mm plectrum instead.
Tone-wise, these are typically pretty bright with plenty of high-end clarity, so it will be easy for you to hear the different notes being played. However, if all you are looking for is something that is durable and comfortable, then thicker picks are always better choices.
How can I tell what thickness my guitar pick is?
The best way to find out the thickness of your guitar pick is to simply measure it. If you do not have a means of measuring it, then see if it’s labeled. Sometimes it is clearly marked on the pick.
If this is still not possible, then you can place the pick next to another (that has a known thickness) on a flat surface and run your finger over them both. You will then be able to determine if the pick with the unknown thickness is higher or lower than the other.
If it’s higher, then it is thicker. If lower, it’s thinner and will help you determine roughly what category it may fall in for size.
What is the best guitar pick material?
Two popular materials used in making guitar picks are nylon and tortex (or Delrin). Nylon thin to medium thickness picks provide a nice crisp sound as well as some smooth release from the strings. Tortex picks have a little more bite, but they do not last as long and will wear down faster.
Both of these materials are great for most styles, so it’s really just a matter of personal preference. Try out both types to see which is more comfortable in your hand and offers you the sound you want when playing.
What is the best pick thickness for acoustic guitar?
For strumming, using a thin to medium nylon pick will be great. On acoustic guitars, you do not need to worry about volume as much since the sound is naturally amplified. So anything around 0.80 mm or even thinner picks are usually sufficient for this purpose.
If you choose a very thin pick and get a plastic-like sound when strumming, this may be a bit too slim. Some guitar players are bothered by this tone and decide to use thicker picks as a result. Others do not notice and are fine, but it’s good to know this when selecting thin guitar picks for the acoustic.