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A Pick Primer

Buc McMaster

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I suppose guitarists of all levels of skill will always experiment with picks, searching for the one that works for their particular style and desired tone. But what is it that determines the tone of various picks? Setting aside different string attacks for the moment, let's look at a few points that may help narrow the focus of the search.....


- Thin Picks

The flexibility of thin materials is a characteristic that makes this the choice of many beginners. It is easy to hold and push through the string(s) for the untrained hand and for this reason it makes for very easy chord strumming. They are very forgiving for the beginner. They are, however, slow to rebound from flexing and not very useful for single-string work, such as solo guitar, which is in part why, as players progress, they generally move to progressively stiffer picks.


Thin Pick Tone Tone wise, thin picks produce just that: a thin tone. They can sound quite "clicky" and, regardless of the quality of the guitar, will not draw the best tonal character from an instrument. The problem is not enough pick to drive the string well, kind of like trying to drive a ten-penny nail through a 2x4 with a tack hammer. Increasing the intensity of attack won't yield much increase in volume with a thin pick, just more of the clickity-clackity sound of a thin pick.


- Medium Picks

Mediums are the choice of many players, offering an acceptable balance of attack power and lower pick noise on the strings. For chord strumming, medium picks are perhaps the best choice: they rebound quite well from flex and have enough stiffness to drive the strings to a good strumming volume. They also work well for many players for single string solo playing - they don't wimp out as much as a thin pick when driven through the string.


Medium Pick Tone Medium picks produce good tone by having enough stiffness to drive a string well, which in turn drives the guitar top, generating tone. Varying attack intensity can vary volume production as well, from soft, controlled strumming to manical Townshend windmill wailing. Mediums are a good, all-around choice and the favorite of most players.


- Heavy/Ex-Heavy Picks

Now yer talkin'! A heavy or ex-heavy pick with zero flex is the choice of many players that have mastered pick attack. The inflexibility requires and allows for maximum control of the pick and the trained hand knows exactly where the pick tip is relative to the string. It is this control that can produce speed and volume unlike thin and medium picks.


Heavy Pick Tone These picks will extract the maximum in tone and volume from any guitar, given a pick hand that knows how to use them. Full, rich, robust volume and tone are the hallmarks of heavy picks. More than enough stiffness for driving the strings, heavy picks allow an experienced player a broad range of expression by varying attack with a pick that responds quickly.


- Pick Shapes, Edge Profiles and Materials

In addition to the thickness of your pick, its' shape and edge profile will make great differences in tone production and "feel" on the strings. Generally speaking, the heavier the pick the more pronounced these attributes will be displayed. The following assumes a consistant angle of attack: perpendicular to the guitar body and parrallel to the guitar string.....a "machine" attack, if you will.....with a depth of attack just enough to fully engage the string.


Pointed Picks The sharper the point of the pick, the thinner and clearer tone it will produce. The sharp point minimizes the size of the area of contact between pick and string. The pick goes though the string quickly and cleanly with this minimal contact.

Rounded Picks Round edged picks engage more of the string at contact and the string, in a manner of speaking, rolls over the edge, producing a smoother, fatter tone.

Edge Profiles Thinner picks do not offer much variance in edge profile: they are too thin to allow for this. Thicker, heavier picks can have squared profiles with no radius at all, or rounded, well-radiused edges. The rounder the pick edge the more mellow the tone produced, the rounded profile of the pick sliding off the string more like the tip of a finger, generating a tone with muted high frequencies.

Pick Materials In general, the softer the material, the rounder and mellower the tone produced. For example, a Tortex heavy pick will produce a more rounded tone than a Red Bear heavy, the latter being a harder material. Very hard, slick-surfaced picks like the Red Bear can and do produce a glassy attack tone if not held firmly in the hand and driven through the strings with authority: the hard material can "slap" the string with a high freq tone if held loosely.


- Angle Of Attack

And here, my friends, is where much of the rubber meets the road. The angle of attack produces tremendous variations in tone regardless of which pick you choose. In fact, there is so much variety it is really pointless to try to quantify it here. This is where experimentation comes into its' own to fine tune your style and tone. It bears mentioning that once you have dialed in your pick, the consistancy of your attack becomes paramount in maintaining tone production. It is quite easy to lose perspective on the pick hand when in the heat of the musical moment and alter tone production considerably. Such is guitar playing: the ability to keep your poop in a group when the water gets hot!


(Too much info? I agree. Maybe I should just delete all this nonsense!)

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Good stuff Buc. . . . I'm gonna copy in what I posted on Wiley's thread.



The angle of the pick attack can be used/adjusted to tweak the sound. Experiments with pick/pluck angles (whether use a pick or fingerstyle) can result in some good sound tweaking techniques - including the angle of the pick to an individual string pluck, the angle of the pick during a strum, and the angle (path) of the strum across the strings.


The angle or path of the strum across the strings can be changed from perpendicular to a more obtuse angle.


The angle of the pick to the strings can be in two ways: There's the angle the flat face of the pick has to the string. The flat of the pick can be flat against the string, or you can rotate the pick toward the pick edge a bit (in the extreme 90º rotation the edge of the pick edge would be against the string).


And there's the angle the flat face of the pick has toward the horizontal. The flat of the pick can be perpendicular and flat against the string, or you can lay it back a bit (in this extreme, the flat side of the pick would be parallel with the surface of the guitar top).

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I think this information is spot on. Pick rotation can be modified in all three planes. The point can be aimed straight at the guitar or it can be aimed either toward the headstock or tailpiece (not completely toward either but tending in either direction). That's one plane. The pick can also be angled toward the floor or the ceiling (second plane). Finally, the pick can be rotated by rotating the thumb nail down or up so that the front edge of back edge of the pick makes initial contact with the string (or, in the neutral position, so that the whole flat underside of the pick, rather than an edge, makes initial contact). For triplets, for example, I use the edge rather than the flat of the pick and tend to aim the point slightly forward or backward. That has the edge of the pick striking the string with the string sliding off off of the pick tip. For me, that gives me speed and control and an even tone on the down-up-down pattern I typically use for a triplet. I will hold the pick flatter, using less of the edge, for stronger single notes. This all happens pretty automatically at this point in the game.


I mainly learned pick control on mandolin, where the stiff double strings can really require a lot of pick control and where the pick can easily hang on the strings. Encountering frequent picking errors really required me to analyze how I was holding and controlling the pick. For example, when I found that the pick was hanging on the strings more often with strokes in one direction than the other, I was forced to analyze my grip and realized that the amount of pick clear of my index finger didn't match the amount of pick that was clear of my thumb (my thumb tended to be closer to the tip of the pick on its top than my index finger was from the tip of the pick on its bottom). This uneven "hinge" created less force -- and more string hanging -- on upstrokes. Determining why it was happening took some time but once I figured it out, the correction was easy -- pay more attention to grip.


As Buc said, this stuff can get kind of complicated but I think the bottom line is to figure out what aspects of the pick and how you hold it have what effect on tone. Then you can make conscious adjustments and, eventually, pretty much unconscious, on-the-fly adjustments that give far greater tone control. These days, I do more fingerpicking that flatpicking but the same principles apply -- figure out what mechanics alter what tone in what ways. As with a pick, the angle at which and force with which the fingers strike the strings have a big impact on the tone you get.

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Others may disagree.


I was told years ago that the heavier the plectrum you can play with the more fluid your playing will be. I use a fender extra heavy and have done for years. But do use a more flexible one if I am playing stuff like The Who's pinball wizard well for the heavy strumming parts.


I am also aware that a lot of professional players really play with quite a force and pick quite hard.


In the studio its a bit different as the engineer will often get you to try different picks to see how it affects the recorded sound.

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I was told years ago that the heavier the plectrum you can play with the more fluid your playing will be.


Yes, this is correct, but it should be mentioned that the biggest part of this equation is an experienced hand holding that heavier plectrum. Hand a beginner a thin pick and a heavy pick and see which is preferred. A thin pick is much more forgiving of the untrained hand.


And this, I feel, reinforces my thinking that all the good stuff in guitar playing is a result of the pick hand. Given a few weeks of practise, a beginner can learn a I-IV-V blues progression with the fretting hand and play it pretty well. The three chords don't change....ever.....but give that same player two or three years and that 3-chord tune can become so much more as the pick hand learns what is possible. A heavier pick is what gives the advancing player a level of control not possible with thinner ones.

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Excellent topic. Being a mandolin player I've always used a heavy gauge pick (BlueChip 55), it's how we get volume and tone to escape that little funny shaped wood box with F-Holes. It's how I was taught by my mandolin instructor and have stayed with it. Also a great point is the importance of right hand technique in picking, strumming or tremolo attack. While the nimble left fingers may be able to fly with feats of fancy, it's the right hand that drives the sonic engine what ever style you play.

To the The Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe the right hand was everything it created his famous pick shuffle & tremolo technique all trying to emulate the fiddle bow shuffle of his Uncle Pen.

Of course we're talking acoustic instruments here not finger tapping on the Les Paul with a Marshall stack behind you.

I use heavy Wegen Bluegrass picks on my J-45 they just sound better. And I'm not dissing the left handed players just flip it over.... you're used to it anyway right?

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I play with Fender mediums almost exclusively but use the round shoulder instead of the point. I also hold the pick so that very little pick is clear of my fingers. I get a rounder tone with very little pick flex and an articulate tone. I find holding a pick in the traditional way and using the point pretty foreign feeling.


Dunno... Works for me. I find it very interesting how people develop very specific and different techniques that sound good for them, but don't work for others.


Great thread.




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