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Learn how guitar pick thickness affects your tone.
Why there are so many variations in pick thickness?
Which pick is the one for you?
Guitar picks are one of the most overlooked pieces of gear in a guitar player’s arsenal, but they are remarkably important to the way we play, and therefore the way we sound.
In this article, I will dive into why thinking about the kind of pick you’re using is so important for your guitar tone. Let’s get to it.
The thickness of your guitar pick is an important variable when it comes to how your guitar tone sounds. Thicker picks are generally stiffer than thin picks, which results in less energy absorption when hitting the string.
Because the energy is fully transferred to the string, you get a thicker sound. However, this thick sound comes at a cost.
The thicker the pick, the less flexible it’ll feel. This can lead to a tougher playing experience when strumming chords. So while thick picks sound great for fat lead lines, you’ll find it harder to play rhythm parts.
Another advantage of thick picks is that they allow you to have more control over the dynamic range. If you hit a string hard with a thick pick the tone will be louder, because a thick pick doesn’t bend when applying force to it.
Thin picks are a great option to switch to if you feel like there’s some boominess coming from your current guitar tone. Due to its thin shape, the thin pick will not produce as much low end, because not all of the energy of the pick hit is translated to string vibration.
Furthermore, a thin pick has a limited dynamic range making it ideal for tracking parts that need to sound even. That’s one of the reasons I always keep a thin pick around when I’m tracking strummed rhythm guitar parts.
Pick Tip Shape
Next to pick thickness we need to take pick shape into account. Since there are so many unique pick shapes around in guitar land I encourage you to experiment, but for the sake of this article, I will take a few of the most well-known pick shapes and discuss how they likely influence your playing.
Pointy picks are very popular among lead guitarists. Due to the sharp point, the contact area of the string is very small, thus resulting in less friction when playing.
Sharp pick points are typically used when precision is demanded. Intricate lead lines and complex riffs particularly benefit from this shape. They also have a more direct-sounding tone that can really cut through a mix.
One of the most well-known examples of a pointy pick is the famous Jim Dunlop Jazz III, which is used by the likes of Eric Johnson, Joe Bonamassa, and many more great guitarists.
These are often found in pretty much every gig bag on the planet because they work for most things a guitarist is typically required to do.
This shape works slightly better for strumming, but can still please most lead players, which makes it great for live use as most guitarists only use one type of pick here.
They are also the most common pick you can find. If you happen to forget your guitar picks you can easily find these ones in most music stores.
These picks are mostly reserved for acoustic players that spend most of their time strumming chords. They are often described as having a softer tone with less detail in the high end.
This is particularly nice if you don’t want the guitar to cut through too much. If I were to play an acoustic session, I might even go as crazy to change my pick shape to suit the vocalist I’m working with.
If the vocalist has a very intimate and warm sound I know that it’ll be very easy for my guitar to get in the way. I will then make the decision to use a rounder pick shape to give the vocalist more space.
A pick’s material often determines its tonal characteristics. These characteristics are subtle in the grand scheme of things but are worth experimenting with in the studio.
Delrin is a synthetic material designed by the folks at Jim Dunlop to mimic the characteristics of the now illegal tortoiseshell.
Tortoiseshell was the most common pick material praised for its full sound, but since it became illegal to use that material, Dunlop created Delrin to get as close as possible.
Delrin picks are usually stiff, and they have what’s called a good “memory”. This means that the more you grip a Delrin pick, the more it’ll feel like it has molded to the shape of your fingers.
Celluloid is slightly less stiff than Delrin, which makes the sound a bit warmer. Celluloid is also a bit smoother than Delrin, which makes the pick glide off the strings more easily.
When compared to old-school tortoiseshell picks, celluloid picks are more flexible, but tonally they still manage to get quite close to the sound of tortoiseshell. Since there’s no patent on celluloid, it is one of the most common pick materials, and pretty much every pick manufacturer uses it.
When you think about nylon, chances are you are thinking about socks instead of guitar picks. Or perhaps it makes you think of nylon string guitars. But many guitar picks are also made of nylon as well.
Nylon provides the warmest tone out of all the materials discussed in this article. It’s also the softest material, which means that they are more likely to show noticeable signs of use when compared to Delrin, or celluloid.
Choosing The Best Guitar Pick For You
Just like anything in sound and music, there is no single best choice for everyone.
However, everyone has a preference, and so you really need to be asking what is the best pick for you. To help find out what pick you ought to go with, you can ask yourself these questions…
What kind of player are you?
The biggest influence of your pick choice is, of course, how you hit your strings.
If you play aggressively you might find a thin pick too flexible for your tastes, so you’ll go for a thicker one instead. If you have a strong grip you might want something that has a good memory, like a Delrin pick.
And if you spend most of your time as a rhythm player, something that’s thinner and a bit more flexible will greatly reduce strain on your picking hand.
How do you want to change your tone?
Let’s say you’ve been using the same pick for quite some time but something just isn’t right with your guitar tone.
Even though a pick only has a subtle effect on the tone, small changes might just do the trick before you feel the need to reach for the tone controls. If you’ve been playing with a pointy pick, it might be time to go for something with a rounded tip. If you think you need to have a fatter tone, try using a pick that’s thicker.
My personal favorite picks
Many guitarists struggle with finding the right pick for themselves because there’s so much to take into account.
I predominantly play Jim Dunlop Jazz III picks, and I’ll tell you exactly why.
I’ve always liked being in complete control of the dynamic range in my playing. As I already mentioned in this article, a thick pick will provide you with more control over dynamics, so I knew I wanted a thick pick with this in mind.
I knew that with a thicker pick there would be a lot of fatness in the tone, so I needed something that would add a cutting nature to the inherently fat sound. I decided I needed a pointy tip, which would add more high-end clarity. This would prevent the thick pick from creating a muddy sound.
Furthermore, the added benefit of the sharp tip was that I would have more precision in my playing. This was weird to get used to at first because having a smaller area to hit the strings with forced me to take a hard look at my technique.
However, after a few days of playing, I noticed I got more consistent with my picking, which is a true lifesaver in the studio.
The next thing I had to figure out was the material. Having played a lot of Delrin picks I knew I wasn’t a big fan of the bright tone it gave me.
I also wasn’t a fan of most celluloid picks either as they just felt a little too cheap and plastic. I was kind of reluctant to use nylon, because of its softness. I used to play at least 7 hours a day when I started seriously thinking about my pick preference, so I knew that I would go through soft material like crazy.
However, when I tried my first Jazz III, I loved it. It felt right at home in my fingers, and the sound I was after was there. I knew that having the nylon material was crucial to this great sound, and since Jazz III picks are very inexpensive I figured that having to buy picks on a regular basis was something I just had to deal with.
Half a decade later, I still use Jazz IIIs exclusively when playing live. However, as I said earlier, it helps to have multiple picks around to accommodate the style you’re playing. If you only ever have one type of pick available it limits your options as a guitarist, especially during jams where instrument roles can change on a whim.
Guitar picks come in loads of different shapes and sizes.
For every day playing it’s nice to have one pick type that you can do everything on, such as in a live setting with your band. However, in the studio, you will discover that every pick has a unique function and tone characteristic.
It’s totally fine to have a preference for a certain type or brand, like my preference for Dunlop Jazz IIIs. This will help you hone in on your guitar tone and find a pick that really feels comfortable for your playing style. But there’s no need to stop at just one, ideally you will discover a few different picks for different playing styles and music genres. It really depends on how diverse your playing gets, and what feels comfortable for you.