Guitar picks: everything you need to know

Blue Morris custom guitar picks from UglyDog.ca

Students often ask me what type of guitar picks they should buy. I tell them the answer is not so simple. To me it depends on the type of guitar I'm playing and the style of music. There is also an element of preference.

Below are some general guidelines that reflect my preferences on guitar picks.

Shape and size:

I have yet to figure out any good use for a larger pick, like those giant triangular ones, or a smaller pick. I heard Joe Pass say he cut his picks down to a smaller size. I tend to grip the pick quite low down to the point, so it doesn't make a difference to me. And I'd rather have more plastic available to grip than less.

Sometimes I will choke up on the pick more, usually when soloing, and sometimes I will leave more of the pick free to click against the strings, especially when strumming softly. So the standard size pick works just fine.

Thickness

Some pick brands are only manufactured in light, medium and heavy, while some manufacturers will have the thickness measured in millimetres. While the terms may vary, a light pick is usually around 0.6mm to 0.7mm. Medium picks might be a little stiffer but still have some give to them, at around 0.8mm. And heavy picks have very little flexibility at around 1.0mm thick.

For most music, I tend to use light to medium picks because I like the flexibility in the pick. The custom picks I order are in the 0.7 to 0.8mm range.

Blue Morris guitar pick broken from playing Miserlou

Why different thicknesses? There are two reasons in my opinion. First, pick thickness changes how it feels to strum and pick. This is what most people notice when trying out different picks. But to me the more important difference is in the sounds they create. Lighter picks have more of a "clicky" sound and produce more treble. Heavy picks have more of a "plunk" and much less treble. They also tend to be louder.

For most acoustic strumming and electric guitar playing I tend to use picks that are 0.7 to 0.8 mm. However, when I play with my swing band and I play my archtop acoustic guitar, I use the heaviest picks I can find -- at least 1.0mm. That's what the early swing guitarists used. Their picks were made from tortoise shell, which is now illegal. The thicker pick gives you more volume, which they needed because they played unamplified guitars accompanying drums, brass, reeds, and vocalists.

You can also find some picks out there that are very light, some feel almost like using paper. They are for specialized situations. For example, if you want to create very gentle, clicky-sounding strumming for a particular song these picks will do it. But I find it's hard to do much else with the very thin picks. They feel very slow to pick a solo with and they don't give much volume on an acoustic guitar. That being said, I have one student who uses these for all his playing, and he sounds awesome.

Blue Morris guitar pick broken from playing Helter Skelter

Types of plastic:

I've purchased thousands of picks in my life and I've come to the conclusion that the best picks are the ones made from Delrin plastic, like the Dunlop picks (the ones with the turtle on them).

Most people don't think about the type of plastic their picks are made from, but the plastics sound different and some are more durable than others.

I find that the Delrin picks are the best sounding and they last the longest. I don't like a pick that doesn't have a sharp enough point to it so I want a pick that won't wear down early on.

I've used other picks that would last me only one gig. I've used some that look beautiful because they have deep colours or are translucent, but they crack and break with hard playing, or they develop razor sharp edges that cause string breakage.

I learned this after performing Helter Skelter in our Beatles Burlesque show, and Miserlou in Tarantino Burlesque. If you're going to play these songs hard with a low quality plastic pick, you will need a new pick after playing that song alone.

Other features

Grips and ridges: You will find a whole bunch of other features in picks, including various "grippy" picks that have some bumps or other textures on them which can help prevent the pick from slipping out of your fingers. I rarely drop picks so these don't interest me, and I think for most students who have this problem the solution is actually just to grip your pick a little harder.

Thump picks are plastic picks that wrap around your thumb so that they stay put without you having to hold on to the pick with your first finger against your thumb. This allows you to do finger style picking with your remaining fingers. They're a great thing if you play that style. But for most students that's not what we're learning, so stick with the standard picks for now.

The short answer

Clearly I have put a lot of thought into the subject of guitar picks. Maybe too much? Here's the simple answer: For most students who are strumming a steel-string acoustic, I usually suggest a medium pick of a standard shape and size. Hey that's easy!

Guitar neglect


Sadly there are tens of thousands of lonely guitars locked in closets around the world. I will make it my job to unite them with people who will play them.

Music has value in schools

Guitar lessonThere is a great letter to the editor in the Vancouver Sun today that expresses the value of learning music. The letter is in response to the current threats to music programs in Vancouver schools, but Hans Verhoeven's letter could apply to all of us.

I would just link to the article but it's buried at the bottom of a page of other letters, so here it is below.

Music has value in schools

Benefits of learning an instrument and playing in bands go beyond classroom

Playing music in schools teaches our kids the value of hard work, patience and persistence. It develops concentration and focus, rewards self-discipline and self-motivation, and hones fine motor skills, creative/abstract thinking and problem solving, all at the same time.

Music doesn’t care how much money you have, where you’re from or what you look like, what gender you are or what your sexual orientation is, or if you’re the most popular kid in school or not. It only cares whether or not you can play, and anyone can learn.

Above all, playing music in an ensemble or band class teaches people to work together to combine their various talents and abilities to achieve a common goal. It makes you listen to each other and help and support one another to create something greater than any of us could achieve working on our own. It shows you how to be your own unique self while working in harmony with others completely different from you to create something beautiful and meaningful, together.

Music feeds your soul, and what with our parks open to industrial development and the relentless and dogmatic commodification of anything and everything that can be made to turn a profit, no matter how short term or irresponsible, music has never been more important.

--HANS VERHOEVEN, Nanaimo

Dirty Dancing Burlesque Tour 2014

We are back from another very successful tour, this time with the Dirty Dancing Burlesque show. We sold out in Prince George and had a great crowd in Kamloops B.C.

We've been asked to tour Tarantino Burlesque up that way so we'll announce those dates as soon as we get them.

Here's a video of us doing a vocal rehearsal in the car driving from Kamloops to Prince George. We are singing a capella "In the Still of the the Night" by the Five Satins, which is a song on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

You can see all the watermelons behind us :)

That's Red Heartbreaker, Alex "Homebass" Kelley, and me singing. Skins is doing the driving.