When you are beginning guitar, picks can be a bit confusing. There are thick ones, thin ones, various sizes and shapes, finger picks, thumb picks, metal picks, plastic ones and the list goes on and on.
Here are some guidelines to help you understand the different types and help you choose and find what works best for you.
Right or wrong with regards to picks
First, there is no right or wrong when it comes to picks. People have various preferences and there are great players that like all sorts of different things including no pick at all. You will find what works best for you over time especially if you experiment with different things.
The most common picks
The most common picks are the teardrop shape flat picks that you can find at any music store. Flat picks are just that - flat - as opposed to finger or thumb picks which literally wrap around your fingers/thumbs. There are various brands including Fender, Dunlop and many others. This common teardrop shape is a good place to begin.
These picks are commonly used for picking single note leads and also for strumming chords. There are various thicknesses and you can ask someone in a music store to try different ones to see how they sound and feel.
In general thicker ones give a warm tone and are generally preferred for lead playing and also sound great for strumming. Thinner picks with more flexibility have a thinner, some would say tinny, sound but can sound rich and nice for strumming - they are generally not as good for lead work as the flexibility causes bending of the pick which slows down picking speed.
I personally have preferred thicker picks for quite a while but just recently started playing occasionally with thinner picks for some strumming and have found some nice tones.
You’ll also discover that there are different surfaces to picks. Dunlop and other brands often have picks that either have a matte type of finish or a grippy textured surface so that the pick doesn’t slip out of your fingers or move as much while playing. This is usually quite helpful.
There are also larger triangular picks that I tend to favor - they are bigger than the typical teardrop shape and are great for lead playing and strumming.
Research and Experimenting
If you begin to research and experiment you’ll also find that the tips of different picks are shaped differently - some are a very sharp triangle, others more rounded. In general, the sharper the tip the more bright the tone and more rounded tips will give a warmer, more forgiving tone.
How much do picks cost? Well, when I was a kid, you could get quite a few for very little money. Now, they’re much more expensive with good picks coming in packs of 6 or more and commonly costing $5-6. There are also boutique pick brands that use aerospace plastics that virtually never wear out and have a very refined and subtle tone and they commonly cost $20 to $50 for 1 pick. Yes, there are $50 picks out there - I have one and it’s fantastic and I’m obsessively careful to keep it in a special little tin so I don’t lose it. That’ll be a bad day when I lose that one.
There are also jazz picks which are smaller than the usual teardrop and have a sharp tip - many players including some electric guitar wizards really like this size and shape - not my cup of tea but many love them.
And then there are thumb and finger picks which I use when I play my steel resonator guitar for slide. Some finger picking guitarists use a thumb pick for regular steel string acoustic playing but that hasn’t worked well for me.
So, what should you do? Start with inexpensive teardrop picks with varying thicknesses and then experiment with various shapes, sizes, materials, brands and just see what works for you. It’s a fun and pretty cheap way to discover a whole world of different sounds with your guitar.
Andrew Bassuk teaches at Harmony Music Center in Ventura, CA and offers guitar and music instruction for kids, teens and adults. For more info visit: www.harmonymusiccenter.com