One thing that has always surprised me is how little interest people take in plectrums, or, to be more accurate, how disdainful players can be about spending money on their picks.
In the last few years, I became increasingly fascinated with picks. I tried out all sorts of things; different materials, companies, thicknesses, bevels, shapes, you name it. Presented here are my findings, which I hope will be of help or interest.
Remember, the pick is your first point of contact with the strings, and if you want a simple demonstration of how much difference it makes, play an acoustic with a red Dunlop .55mm, then with a blue 1mm, and tell me you can’t hear a difference.
If you’ve ever wondered why shredders favour the eternally-loseable Jazz III, it’s down to two things; the hand position generally required for trem picking, and the beveling of the plectrums’ edge.
A hard-edged pick like a Dunlop Tortex 1mm means that you are meeting the string with little give in terms of angle, like walking with your shoulders completely square through a crowd. The more resistance you’re met with, the more you have to push, and the more tiring playing becomes over a long period. Every strike of the pick against the strings sends a little vibration up your wrist, and over time this can worsen conditions like RSI, so having a pick that fits the force you play is extremely important.
Though I use a lot of picks for different things, the best edges I’ve come across are the Jim Dunlop Primetones, which have symmetrical bevels, allowing for a fast and even pick response, as well as a fluid feel while strumming. The 1.4mm triangle shape is the bollocks, so I’m recommending that.
So far, I’ve played with a few materials, so here’s a quickfire synopsis.
- Tortex: Dunlop created this following a welcome tortoiseshell ban in the 70’s, the idea being that it behaves the same way by sticking to your hand. The tone itself depends on the player wielding it a lot more than other materials, but overall it’s a balanced, ordinary sound. Easily replaced, which is handy, and consistent.
- Celluloid: I’ve never liked these, because they click against the strings and notch really badly. The tone is thin and lacks any real body, leaving you feeling disconnected from the instrument. The sort of picks you get free with magazines and lose instantly.
- Acrylic: Favoured by the likes of V-Picks and Gravity, acrylic has a brighter, more focused attack with more body than Tortex or Celluloid, and I’ve found the best results with it come from thicker gauges, i.e. 1.5mm and up. I’ve got some silly big ones from V-Picks, like the Snake, and although they can feel like a handful, the power is immense, especially the bottom end.
- Thermoset: A plastic that hardens significantly after being heated, Thermoset picks are most commonly associated with Chicken Picks from the Netherlands. The most confounding material on this list, the sound they produce is fantastic; bright, powerful, full of mass, but because of the nature of the molding process they need to be thick, so good luck getting one under 2mm. No joke, if you hybrid pick, nothing will touch this, but I’ve never found them ideal for strumming.
- Ultem: The most useful material, from my perspective, by miles, Ultem melts at a higher temperature, and when punched out has a naturally rounded edge. Someone told me this is what skateboard wheels are made from, but that’s polyurethane, though as I’m not a scientist I don’t know how closely related they are. Dunlop bought special machinery to make the Ultex picks, which were my gateway into fancy picks. Powerful and fast but not quite as focused as acrylic or as treble-conscious as thermoset, picks like the Dunlop Primtone have made this my number one.
- Metal: You know the ones; you bought one when you were 15. Maybe you wore it as a necklace, but you didn’t play with it for very long. ‘Zingy’ would be the word I’d use, but I always found metal an unnerving material to play with. Some people love these, but I’m not one of them.
- Nylon: An easy point of reference is to compare nylon to Tortex. Whatever gauge nylon you have, go back two thickness and that’s the Tortex equivalent. Great for players who do a lot of strumming, the sound is a bit limp and fluffy but perfect if you’re trying to achieve softness, or if you like a thick plectrum that doesn’t feel like you’re playing with a brick.
- Carbon Fibre: I’ve only played these in Jazz III form, but the material behaves exactly like active pickups; immediate power with cock-all dynamic, though if you’re playing tech death or similar and have little in the way of a clean tone, they are amazing. Utterly unyielding and harder than maths.
Of course, there are others, like stone, dinosaur (see here), animal protein, nut shells, coins etc, all of which have their advocates and detractors. I’ve never played with dinosaur or meteorite picks, though I imagine the effect to be similar to that of stone, except that everyone will hate you for being a douche.
Of all the materials listed above, acrylic has the most bottom end, thermoset the most brilliant highs, Ultem the most speed, and nylon the least everything, but this is only my experience. Being totally honest, I’d use the thermoset picks for everything if a) they were easier to strum with and b) they were slightly thinner, though I appreciate this is part of the process. If you really like to get in about it, I can’t recommend Ultem highly enough, and if you want to know if it’s right for you without hurling too much cash at the problem, try the Dunlop Ultex first and see how you go. This is, however, dependent on….
I like picks over 1mm, that’s my thing. I used to play very, very hard indeed when I was 21 and used the pink 71mm 500’s, but once I got onto hard picks, I understood that I could play less hard and have the pick do more of the work. I’d liken it to learning to let the PA do the work as a singer, rather than singing harder. My playing changed significantly once I had this revelation, and now when I play with regular picks it feels like I’m strumming with a bus ticket.
As a general rule, thicker = more power in your tone, though this does not equate to better for you. My pal Jamie, who is a ripping player, plays with those silly Dunlop red things, and my other mate Pin only uses thumbpicks. I even know a few people who like the original Dava control pick, which is useless, so it really is up to you.
Hopefully this was helpful to you. Check out some of the companies below and find your ideal match; I’m not affiliated with any of them in any capacity, I only want to be of help. Keep playing!
Jim Dunlop: http://www.jimdunlop.com
Chicken Picks: http://www.chickenpicks.com
Dragonheart Picks: http://www.dragonheartpicks.com
Fellow Plectrums: http://www.fellowplectrums.com