With all the money that we spend on gear, it’s hard to imagine that a simple guitar pick could make any real difference at all, right?
As a beginner, you don’t really even think about the pick.
But after a few months or years practice, you come to find that a simple pick change can improve, or at least alter your playing literally overnight.
At which point, you get online and find an article just like this one, and finally answer the question once and for all:
What exactly are the different types of guitar picks, and how will they affect my playing?
So let’s find out right now…
The 5 Key Specs of Guitar Picks
The playability and tone of a pick depends on 5 primary factors:
So let’s look at each of these factors one by one, starting with…
1. Thinner vs Thicker Guitar Picks
Guitar picks come in 1 of 4 gauge ranges:
- Thin – .40-.60 mm or less
- Medium – .60-.80 mm
- Heavy – .80-1.20 mm
- Extra Heavy – 1.20 mm+
Depending on the manufacturer, these ranges can vary considerably.
In general though, here’s how the thickness affects things:
THIN guitar picks are typically better for:
- Brighter Tones – because their striking surface accentuates high frequencies.
- Tighter dynamic range – because their flexibility limits the volume that can be achieved, which works especially well for studio recording.
- Acoustic Guitar Strumming – partly because of the tighter dynamic range, but also because it adds more clarity to the individual notes in the chords.
THICK guitar picks are typically better for:
- Mellower Tones – because the weight and rounder edges emphasize more bass, and less treble.
- Wider Dynamic Range – because they offer greater control over volume and attack.
- Electric Lead Guitar – because they allow for more speed and accuracy during fast solos.
- Heavy Distorted Sounds – because they offer more clarity and separation between notes.
2. Harder vs Softer Guitar Picks
With thinner picks made from a harder material…
You’ll find is that the added stiffness offers performance characteristics resembling that of thicker picks.
And the opposite can also be said as well…
Thick, but softer picks typically have performance qualities closer to that of most thinner picks.
Make sense? Perfect.
3. Slippery vs Textured Picks
The more textured the surface of the guitar pick…
The more friction will exist between the pick and your fingers.
And the easier it will be to grip, especially when sweaty. The same goes for softer picks as well.
And for the most part, more grip is a good thing for everyone.
However…there MAY or MAY NOT be a trade off…because texture also affects how the pick rolls off the strings.
Smooth slippery picks produce cleaner, natural tone, whereas rough picks will add more grit and color to the tone.
And smooth round EDGES will have a warmer, more purer tone, while sharp edges will have a stronger attack and brighter sound.
So if smooth and clean is what you prefer, you may have to compromise with a more slippery pick.
4. Size and Shape
With smaller guitar picks, there’s less distance between your hands in the strings…
Making it easier to incorporate various hand techniques such as palm muting or fingerpicking.
Of course, “small” is a totally relative term, depending on the size of your hands.
So perhaps the best advice is to find a pick big enough to fit your hands…but NO bigger.
Now, moving on to shape…
You can find all kinds or weird pick shapes if you look hard enough (sharkfin picks being the most famous example)…
But in almost all cases, you are better off sticking to a common variation of the standard triangular teardrop shape.
Which variation you choose will depend mainly on the sharpness of the striking surface. Here’s the difference:
- Sharper points – have a stronger attack with a brighter tone, and typically work better for soloing.
- Rounder points – have a softer attack with a mellower tone, and typically work better for strumming.
5. Acetal vs Celluloid vs Nylon Guitar Picks
As the final and most important factor of all…
The material of the guitar pick is what ultimately determines the stiffness, texture, and overall performance.
So let’s take a look at our options, shall we?
Throughout history, musicians have tried making picks out of almost everything imaginable…
And the best material of all came from the shell of the Atlantic Hawksbill Turtle and was known simply as “tortoiseshell“.
But starting in the early 1900’s, plastic picks designed to emulate tortoiseshell slowly gained in popularity…
Up until 1973, when the Atlantic Hawksbill became endangered, and plastics took over entirely.
And among the many variations, these became the 3 most popular:
- Nylon – which is typically softer with a textured grip, and is best suited for lightweight flexible picks.
- Celluloid – which is stiffer, with a smoother slicker texture compared to nylon.
- Acetal – aka Delrin (Dupont’s trademarked name), aka Tortex (Dunlop’s popular line) – which has a textured grittiness that closely mimics the feel of tortoiseshell.
It’s worth noting also that other, less common pick materials include:
- bronze and steel on the hard end, and…
- wood, felt, leather, and rubber on the soft end
Think of these more as special picks for special occasions. And choose your go-to picks from one of the popular plastics mentioned above.
Guitar Picks I Recommend
Now that you’ve been thoroughly educated on the subject…
The final obvious question is: Which guitar pick should I get?
And while I’d love to give you a straight answer here…
As I’m sure you know, you can only learn so much from pure “information”…and you can’t know for sure which pick you’ll actually like until you try them all.
But luckily for you, I’ve figured out a super easy way for you to do exactly that, without spending the day annoying the shop owner at your local guitar store.
Since picks are practically free anyway, just buy assortment pack of different gauges, and different materials, and try them out at home on your own time.
That way, you can take as long as you need to figure out what you like and what you don’t.
And after much online searching, I found two specific packages that would be perfect for this test.
For different gauges, try this:
- Fender Assorted – (Amazon)
And for different materials, try this:
- Dunlop PVP101 Assorted – (Amazon)
And just so you know…it’s no coincidence that Fender and Dunlop are the two brands I chose to recommend here. Currently, they are the clear industry leaders in guitar picks.
In general…Fender is known more for their celluloid picks, while Dunlop is known more for their Tortex and Nylon picks.
And while there are probably a dozen other brands that are arguably as good, if you prefer to keep things simple, your best bet is to stick with one of these two.
So below I’ve included links to some of the most popular models for each brand.