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An Introduction to Guitar Picks

Choosing the Right Guitar Pick for Your Playing Style

There are many different methods for playing a guitar. When it comes to plucking the strings, some choose to use their fingers and thumb directly on the strings. While this kind of playing (finger picking) can be very effective, most guitar players choose to use a plectrum or “pick.” Among the advantages of using a pick is that it allows a harder “attack” on the strings, providing a louder sound. Picks also give you greater control over your sound, allowing softer or louder playing than most guitarists can accomplish with only their fingers.

guitar thumb picks

Guitar thumb picks
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When going over your options for picks, you may be surprised at how many different brands, materials, shapes, sizes, colors and thicknesses are available. After you review this brief introduction, you will be better able to narrow down the choices to those that will fit your genre and playing style.


Most standard picks come in 5 different thicknesses or gauges: Extra Light, Light, Medium, Heavy, and Extra Heavy. Some brands offer a larger number of gauges within certain lines they have available, but the general range of gauge runs from .044mm to 1.5mm.

Thinner picks tend to produce a lighter, more ringing sound with the strings, whereas a thicker pick will produce a more booming sound. Be aware that thinner picks have a tendency to break more quickly. At the opposite end of the “plectrum spectrum,” a thicker pick may wear down or break the strings more quickly. Please keep in mind, however, that this usually takes quite a while to happen, so don’t let those factors weigh in too heavily.

Guitar Picks

Guitar Picks
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You may wonder why so many guitar picks (Fender and certain other brands) have a tortoise-shell design. You may be surprised to learn that tortoise shells were commonly used as a material for making plectrums in earlier days. This practice was outlawed in the US years ago, even though the pattern is still very popular. Nowadays numerous materials, both natural and man-made, are used to make picks. The most common materials are plastics. Celluloid picks are very popular (the aforementioned Fender tortoise-shell picks, for example), as are picks made from proprietary plastics such as the popular Tortex lines offered by Jim Dunlop. Some picks are made from metal (typically steel or copper), although these aren’t as common. Still less common are picks made from ivory, shell and bone (these are virtually nonexistent in the US).

Plastic picks offer a wide variety of sounds and are generally gentler on strings. Metal picks have their own unique sound and are extremely durable. Please keep in mind, however, that they are harder on strings, particularly light gauge ones. Bone, ivory and shell picks can also produce rich sounds, but they can also be quite fragile. For most use, plastic picks are the way to go.

Shapes, Sizes, Colors and Designs

The most common shape and size for a guitar pick is an “inverted teardrop” about 1 1/4 inches in height, and about 1 inch across the top. This is comfortable for most people and works just fine in most cases. But let’s say you have extra large or small hands, or you strum or pick in a pattern that makes a standard pick uncomfortable or not useable? Take heart! There are a surprising number of variations in size and shape available to you.

A popular alternative pick style is the “wedge,” which has more pointed ends at the top for a different kind of grip. Some picks are triangle shaped. Dunlop offers one called The Fin, which as its name implies, is shaped like a shark fin for maximum grip.

Most pick manufacturers also offer thumbpicks and fingerpicks, which slip over your finger or thumb. These allow closer contact between the hand and the strings for a richer sound. They also minimize the possibility of dropping your pick mid-strum. (Don’t laugh, it happens.) These also come in numerous sizes and materials and are worth checking out.

With many pick brands, there are multiple designs available. For example, you can acquire artist line picks, such as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, Metallica and the infamous Lemmy from Motorhead. You can also often choose from a variety of colors for the pick of your choice, although with some lines (such as Tortex) the color corresponds to the gauge.

Picking Your Picks

One of the great things about most guitar picks is the price. Most picks are in the 25-to-60-cent range. (Unusually-shaped picks, thumbpicks, fingerpicks, or picks with a “comfort coating” cost more, but are still relatively cheap.) This means you can stock up on several different gauges and textures all at once.

There are multiple advantages to having several unique picks at the same time. If you play only one type and style of guitar, you will want to experiment with different picks to find the one that brings out the best sound for you. The experimentation is fun, you’ll learn about yourself and your playing, and you are only out a couple of bucks for your effort. If you play different styles on the same guitar, you will probably want different gauges for different intensities of sound. If you play more than one guitar, you may find that one pick works better on one guitar and another pick works best on another guitar. No matter which of these situations applies to you, you will find picks a relatively small investment. Visit your local dealer to see what is available.

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