Heavy Handed

How much did you spend on your guitar? £300? £700? £2000? What about pedals? It’s easy to lose track. Your amp was a right steal, but even that probably set you back a few quid. With all that wedge being thrown at your unique, individual setup, how much thought did you give to your picks?

Easily the least sexy part of any player’s rig – even strings get more of a look-in – the plectrum is one of the most important parts of your sound, as this edition of Machine Bites will try and explain.

Unless you’re a flamenco player, you’ll have found yourself using flatpicks, thumbpicks, claws and so on during your playing life, and while most players will grab a handful of yellow Dunlops every time they buy strings, there’s as much choice and diversity out there as there is in PedalLand (™), so let’s dive in.

Thickness = Power
The more pick you have, the more power you have. Even if your plectrum is made from stone (and there’s plenty of those about), it’s rare that you’ll find it too heavy. Your pick is the first point of contact with the string, and as it’s also a resonant material, it makes a difference the way the material your nut is made from makes a difference. Real world test: play a guitar with a brass nut then one with a bone nut and see how utterly different they feel. Thick picks give you more power, and as they’re chiefly bevelled to a point, this doesn’t mean you’ll be playing with a plastic house brick. Thicker picks will also make you much more aware of how hard you play, and you won’t tire your wrists out as easily. This might not sound rock and roll, but as you get older you’ll thank me for this advice!

Stop Holding Me Back!
Even if your pick is made of stone – and there’s plenty of those – it won’t be that heavy, and any hindrance that you feel will most likely be down to the nature of the bevel or the drag coefficient of the material. Acrylic is slippy, carbon fibre less so, thermoset less so again (when it’s matt finished at least). Moderation is the key, as a bit of drag can be great for thickening chords in rhythm work, and extra slipperiness can be grand if you’re a blazing soloist.

Walk Along The Razors’….Bevel
This is a big one. Off-the-shelf picks can have hard, almost right-angled edges, and this can result in a hard, pointed attack. Rounded edges give greater surface contact with the pick and the material it’s made from, and careful selection can get you ever-closer to that sound that you’re trying to achieve. Real world test: try a .73mm Dunlop and a 1mm Nylon one after the other, and see how the sound softens.

Genetic Make-Up
What your pick is made from will, of course, change the tone. This, more than anything, is a question of personal preference, and even if you can’t hear a change in the sound, the change in feel from one material to another is colossal. When I’m holding acrylic, I can’t drop it – Delrin is the opposite. Stone gives you incredible note separation, Tagua impossible warmth, and so on. Real world test: try a Nylon pick and an Ultex pick back to back on anything.

Red Right (or left) Hand
Your skin is a big part of this. Players with dry hands will get much better grip from rougher surfaces, and those of us who get a bit damp will adhere to a polished surface. This is why you’ll get much stronger grip with certain materials, and not having to worry about this aspect of your setup means that you’ll have more confidence to really get stuck into whatever it is that you’re doing. Go get ‘em!


Of course, like everything, there’s no rules to this. Some people love the tone of acrylic but hate the string noise, some hate the idea of paying lots of money for a pick, even though it’ll sound better and last
longer, and some don’t want to know because they’ve got their thing and it ‘does the job’. No-one should admonish you for your approach, but there’s little harm in trying something outside of your comfort zone. After all, you didn’t buy the first guitar you tried and exclude every other one, so why should your picks be the same?