Heavy Handed Part II

If there’s one topic I’ve been desperate to write about for BTM, it’s picks. The single most under-rated, under-valued part of anyone’s setup, the plectrum is one of the most important parts of your rig, whether you’ve just started or you’ve been knocking out the riffs for 40 years. In this article, I’m going to explain why that is, dispel some plectrum myths, and give you a better understanding of why changing picks can change your life.

Though their history dates back to Ancient Greece and probably beyond – when the plectrums’ great, great, great grandparents were used on instruments like the lyre – the modern era of picks really began in 1922, when the D’Andrea family standardised the shapes we all use today using numbered die stamps. That pick you’re imagining in your head, the classic teardrop shape, is the 351, named after the number of the stamp that was used to cut it. Around this time plectrums were predominantly made of Celluloid because, as the first commercially-available plastic, it was ideal for this application, and swathes of different styles, types, shapes and designs were floated. This included cork grips, propellor-shaped mandolin picks and incredibly long S-shaped units to name a few, and though the majority of these inventions have fallen by the wayside, it does demonstrate how seriously the plectrum was taken, that this much attention was paid to it, even in its early days.

The biggest inaccuracy surrounding picks is that because you can use anything as a pick, they don’t make a difference. This is a lot like saying your strings or pickups don’t make a difference, or that the shape of your guitar doesn’t matter. Everything in your rig, from your cables to your pots, the wattage of your speakers, what your amp cab is made from, how many pedals you have – it all makes a difference, as each and every piece is a component of the final sound. For the vast majority of electric players, the plectrum is the first thing that makes contact with the strings, and as a result, it sets the fundamental nature of your tone. In order to illustrate this with a practical test, go to any guitar shop anywhere in the world, and try a 0.50mm pick of any material against its 1mm equivalent. Hell, try a 1mm Nylon pick against a 1mm Delrin one. The difference is in the attack, the edge of the note, the ease with which it grips your skin, the manner in which it passes through the strings, how much wrist fatigue it gives you over time – everything.

The pick world is a lot like the pedal world, in that it’s full of small builders making what they believe to be the best option when it comes to a certain approach. That means that there’s a pick out there that is so right for you as to be almost alarming. It’s wild how many options there are, and just going into the materials alone is an article in itself. Aside from the most common culprits like Delrin (a brand name of acetal, which is what Tortex picks are made of), Nylon and Ultem, there’s more exotic materials like PEEK (Polyether-ether-ketone), UHMWPE (ultra high molecular-weight polyethylene), Tagua (a palm tree nut from Ecuador that’s used in the jewelry trade as an ivory substitute and is slowly creeping into the replacement-nut vocabulary), Acrylic, Steel, Stone (predominantly Agate), and more, with each one delivering a distinctly different tone. Some are great for jazz, others metal, sharp tones, dull tones, strumming, single-note work, you name it.

The real benefits come on many levels. A pick that’s matched to your personal playing style is less tiring and more enjoyable to play with. Thicker plectrums require less physical effort to use, and the higher density of the material delivers bigger tones. Those players with reduced grip strength can get huge, tapered-point plectrums (the biggest I’ve seen to date is 23mm, which is massive), meaning that even if you don’t have the strongest hands, there’s a pick out there to help you play. Harder, more expensive materials last longer, with materials like the aforementioned UHMWPE being insanely hardy while remaining incredibly light, and while you’ll definitely spend more on a stone pick than you would on a plastic one, you’ll still be playing that stone pick in 10 years time, long after you’ve destroyed your plastic ones. I hear a lot from pick-sceptics about how they don’t want to spend the money on picks because they’ll lose them, but that’s not a reflection on the quality of the pick or what they’re capable of. Why spend a grand on a Les Paul if you could easily knock it over and snap the neck? Why buy better strings if you’re only going to change them? It’s a little bit like the sandwich question. If someone offers you a sandwich for 5 pence, it’s still a sandwich, but the one at £3 is likely to have better ingredients, a better taste, and to be a better experience.

Still, you may be thinking, a pick’s a pick and I just use whatever is lying around/I’ve been using the same Dunlops for years. This second part is completely fair, and I genuinely don’t believe that there’s one plectrum that rules for every single human being alive. But think about how much effort and time you put into choosing your guitar, pedals, and amp, how many you had to play to find the right one, how many different ones you’ve owned in your lifetime, and how even when you play two outwardly-identical guitars side by side, they don’t feel the same. Picks are a pretty cheap thing to test, and while you might initially throw your hands up about paying £5-£10 for a plectrum when you’re using to buying them in bags, what you’re investing in is deeper tone, a more appropriate voice for your instrument, and a better bridge between you and the guitar. There’s picks out there that cost as much as a hand-built fuzz, and, like that fuzz, this is because of the time, cost and effort involved in making them. Like guitars, there’s no link between the cost of each pick and how much you’re going to get on with it, but spending a bit more money on your plectrum shouldn’t be a frightening, unacceptable thing – it’s an exciting thing.

From a personal perspective, the best thing about picks is that it makes me look forward to playing the guitar even more. It’s like getting a new drive pedal but even more involving, because you’re truly physically connected with it. The biggest thing is knowing your options, then embarking on the same journey you took when it came to everything else in your setup – testing things to see what works for you. I can promise, as sure as the sun rises, that trying a few different plectrums will improve your relationship with your guitar, bolster your confidence, and open up a whole other universe of tonal possibilities. If it doesn’t, paint me blue and call me Charlie.

John Tron Davidson.

Heavy Repping!