5 Best Guitar Picks: Perfect Plectrums
By Mason Hoberg
While guitar picks may not subject to the widespread debate surrounding the pros and cons of various guitar brands and pickups, they actually have just as dramatic an impact on your overall tone. While guitars picks may not seem like they’ll make that much of a difference, you have to keep in mind that a guitarist’s pick is the equivalent to a violin player’s bow.
Picks effect every element of your tone; from your attack to your overall dynamic range. That’s why choosing a pick can be so difficult. They are incredibly important, but do to the advent of online retailers you have dozens of choices at your fingertips right now. All of these picks are made of a different material and sit at different price points, which makes choosing the perfect fit for your situation incredibly difficult.
Thankfully, this article is going to help. We’re going to give you all the information that you need in order to figure out how to select the best guitar pick for your needs on your own, and to aid you in your search we’re also going to throw in a few great recommendations toward the end of the article.
- Guitar Pick Materials
- Guitar Pick Thickness
- Top 5 Guitar Picks
Guitar Pick Materials
Essentially, even picks of the same material are going to function differently based on the circumstances. When considering the information surrounding different pick materials you have to keep in mind that these are all loose generalizations as opposed to hard fact. Your experience is going to vary due to the rig you use and your personal preference.
With that being said, there are a few things to note that are generally pretty consistent. Tortex (DuPont’s Delrin, a material that was widely adopted following the tortoiseshell ban of the early 70s) is generally considered to have a relatively mild impact on the tone. It’s focused without emphasizing high-end frequencies, and it also doesn’t cut too much warmth (warmth in this case being a combination of low and low-mid frequencies).
Another important innovation in the field is Ultem, a plastic which attempts to mimic the response of tortoiseshell to a higher degree than tortex. This material is a tad more slippery than tortex, which generally has an almost powdery feel. It’s also more rigid than tortex of a similar width, making it a good fit for players looking for a tighter sound which emphasizes high-end.
Nylon picks, as used by musicians such as Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, and Gene Simmons, are the warmest sounding pick out of the three main types commonly utilized (tortex, Ultem/tortoiseshell imitators, and nylon). Nylon is less rigid than either tortex or ultem, which gives it a warm and rich response. The only con here is that in some cases nylon picks can make darker voiced rigs (the combination of your guitar, pedals, and amps) sound a bit muffled.
There are also picks made out of stone, wood, metal, and exotic materials. Basically, the denser a pick the more signal will be produced (a harder pick with strike the strings harder for the same amount of force) and in most cases the more high-end frequencies are going to be emphasized.
Guitar Pick Thickness
Thickness is odd in guitar picks, because counter to what many would first expect the thicker the guitar pick the warmer the tone will end up being. Thin picks, those measuring around .60mm, are going to have a bright and zingy sound well-suited to strumming. Thick picks, generally considered to be somewhere in the neighborhood of .80mm, actually produce a warmer tone.
Thick picks are also well suited to playing lead, because while thin picks may produce a brighter tone they also tend to create a thinner one. They just don’t strike the string hard enough to bring out a full range of dynamic range, though of course this can be compensated for with proper equalization.
The only thing that’s really up for debate here is whether or not medium or thick picks are equally suited to playing lead. The thicker the pick the more well-rounded of a tone it will produce, but at the same time wide picks have the possibility to feel a bit unwieldy for the average player (until they become accustomed to them that is).
Really, the most important thing here is to play a variety of picks in different thicknesses. The differences between thicknesses of picks is going to vary incredibly dramatically with the technique you use, some of which will work well with how you play and some of which won’t.
Top 5 Guitar Picks
As always, our recommendations are selected with widespread applicability in mind. With picks, we recommend picking up several types and experimenting since they are so accessible, widely available, and inexpensive. Having said that, you can't go wrong with starting your exploration with these five!
D’Addario Pearl Celluloid Guitar Pick
Founded in 1974, D’Addario is one of the most well-known manufacturers of musical accessories currently in operation. They have proved themselves a force to be reckoned with in the market, selling hundreds of different products all around the world. Though the company may be best known for their strings the company also sells cables, capos, ear plugs, electronic tuners, straps, humidifiers, slides, drumsticks, and guitar picks.
Though D’Addario may be a relatively recently established company (when compared to Martin or Gibson), the D’Addario family has actually been involved in making strings for instruments for centuries. The D’Addario name dates back to the Italian town of Salle, where a distant relative (named Donato D’Addario) was named as a cordaro. Cordaro roughly translates to “a maker or seller of ropes and strings”. The fact that D’Addario was a string maker isn’t all that surprising considering that according to historical records the town’s primary occupations were either farming or string making.
The D’Addarios we’re more familiar with (Rocco and Carmine) emigrated to Queens, New York following an earthquake in their native Italy. The brothers were seeking to expand their market, acting as sales representatives for the strings their family made back in their mother country. Rocco eventually returned home, but Carmine chose to stay in New York and made strings of his own in a small shop behind his home. Carmine’s effort paid off in time, with D’Addario growing to become one of the largest manufacturers of strings currently in operation. While the company’s strings may be their most notable business venture, the other products made by the company carry a similar level of quality and authenticity. No exception to this trend, the D’Addario Assorted Celluloid Guitar Pick pack is a viable option for any musician. To learn more about the picks, check out the specifications below.
As with other picks made from this material, the first thing you have to know about this product is that celluloid is more slippery than tortex. This is a key difference that many players don’t consider before they try out a celluloid guitar pick, and while the difference in the stability of the pick is going to be jarring it can be alleviated through the use of proper technique.
This may sound like a petty concern, but it actually extends farther than you would first think. If you’re not comfortable trying to hold a celluloid pick, whether that’s because your hands sweat or you use a loose grip, odds are that either the pick is going to consistently slip from your grasp or you’re going to have to significantly tighten your grip in order to ensure it doesn’t slip from your hand. Both of these things can be incredibly distracting while you’re trying to practice and disastrous during a live performance, so think carefully about them before you choose to purchase this guitar pick.
With that being said, this assorted pack of guitar picks comes in three different gauges, light (.50mm), medium (.80mm), and heavy (1mm). As with any other guitar pick, lighter gauges will be more suited to strumming while heavier gauges are better suited to lead lines.
Celluloid is generally considered to be a very warm sounding guitar pick, though not quite as warm as nylon. When considered against other materials it’s still a relatively neutral sound, whereas more exotic materials like metal or stone tend to heavily brighten your tone. While the difference is present it’s not going to be so dramatic that it can’t be eliminated through proper technique or equalization.
Bottom Line: The D’Addario Pearl Celluloid Guitar Pick offers a great value to any musician on the hunt for an affordable celluloid guitar pick. There aren’t really any flaws to note with the model, especially when the price is considered.
Dunlop Tortex Standard .60mm Orange Guitar Pick
Founded in 1965 by Jim Dunlop, Dunlop Manufacturing Inc. (generally just referred to as Dunlop for the sake of brevity) is arguably one of the leading manufacturers of instrument accessories currently in operation. The company, though now a juggernaut in its field, actually grew from incredibly humble roots. Jim Dunlop was a Scottish immigrant who founded the Dunlop Company as a part time business while he was working as a chemical engineer at Barr and Stroud in Glasgow. A fun fact is that Dunlop was actually an apprentice of the creator of the first hip replacement.
While his closeness to an inventor who increased the quality of life for thousands of people is interesting, Dunlop’s experience in the field of chemical engineering is arguably what allowed him to form the company he did. His engineering background was utilized to great success with his first musical accessory, the Vibra-Tuner, which used sympathetic resonance with a reed to tell whether or not an instrument was in tune. His experience as an engineer also allowed him to formulate the nylon guitar pick.
Dunlop has produced a variety of incredibly influential pieces of equipment, not least of which are their guitar picks. Some great examples of the place that Dunlop has secured in modern music is the wide spread adoption of the Dunlop Cry Baby wah-wah pedal, the Uni-Vibe phaser, the Heil talk Box, and the MXR and Way Huge lines of pedals.
Though they may not be as notable as Dunlop’s other efforts, the Dunlop Tortex Standard .60mm Orange Guitar Picks have been proved to be just as quality of an addition to the market based on their widespread adoption by both hobbyists and professional musicians alike. To learn more about these picks, check out the specifications below.
As clearly stated on the picks, this model of pick is made from tortex. Tortex was the first in a series of attempts to replicate the properties of tortoiseshell, and while it doesn’t completely achieve this it does have strengths that tortoiseshell does not. The most important of these strengths is the fact that tortex is a quality material that’s available very widely and cheaply.
Tortex is also a clean sounding pick material which avoids imparting a significant amount of color onto your sound. This is in contrast with other materials, with more recent plastics or synthetic protein blends imparting a brighter tone and nylon resulting in a warmer one. It’s a very good middle ground between these two extremes, which means that you won’t have to compensate for any aspect of the pick with a change in your technique.
Lastly, these picks are available in thicknesses ranging from .50 to 1.14mm. This is a wide enough range that the vast majority of you are going to be able to find a pick that functions well with your playing style and rig. And while this review is for the orange Tortex Standard guitar picks the statements above hold true for the other five colors (red, yellow, green, blue, and purple) that these picks are available in.
As previously stated, these picks are so widespread that you can almost consider them the baseline against which other picks are measured. It would be pretty safe to say that the majority of you reading this either use a Dunlop tortex pick or have used one in the past, and because of their affordability they’re also widely used by beginners. With this being said, they do still offer a reasonable amount of volume and tonal response. They aren’t exceptional in either category, but they also don’t have any weaknesses, and they strike a very good balance.
Bottom Line: The Dunlop Tortex Standard .60mm Orange Guitar Pick is a quality option for any musician, and it’s cheap enough that you can experiment with a variety of different thicknesses. Because these picks are so widespread they aren’t the most unique option around, but there’s no flaws that are bringing them down either.
Fender 351 Shape Classic Pick
One of the most important manufacturers of musical instruments and accessories in the world, Fender has secured a place in music that isn’t likely to be erased within the lifetime of anyone currently alive. The company has maintained a presence in the market since its inception decades ago, offering a platform for the world’s most innovative and technical musicians to ever expand the limits of a variety of different instruments.
Though the company is known more for their guitars than anything, namely the Stratocaster and Telecaster, Fender actually has a pretty longstanding reputation of producing a variety of instruments and products to support them. They’ve made some of the most popular amplifiers the world has ever seen, and while they may not be as highly regarded as their Gibson counterparts they actually made some outstanding banjos during the 70s. They also pumped out a line of lap steel and pedal steel guitars that were very positively received, ensuring that while they’re always going to be a guitar-centric company they definitely aren’t a one trick pony.
A perfect example of Fender’s capability of producing a quality piece of gear, Fender’s 351 Shape Classic guitar pick is a great addition to any musician’s pick collection. To learn more about how this pick compares to similar options, be sure to check out the specifications below.
The key difference between these picks and tortex examples, which are arguably their main competition, is that these picks are made from celluloid. Celluloid is a highly flammable plastic that was widely used for film during its advent as well as being an early replacement for ivory.
Celluloid can essentially be used for just about anything that any other rigid plastic can be used for, but the acoustic properties of the material shouldn’t be understated. We’re going to get into this more in the following section, but suffice it to say for now that celluloid isn’t objectively worse than any other pick material.
The only true flaw with celluloid is that it can be a bit slippery, as opposed to the more powdery feel of tortex guitar picks. The level to which this is going to impact you is going to depend on a wide variety of different variable, chief among them being how badly your hands sweat and your grip while playing. But to be fair, you can also carve grooves into the pick using anything harder than celluloid which considerably alleviates the problem. Just remember that we’re not liable if you cut your fingers off during the process, so if you’re too young/clumsy to use something sharp on your own get someone older/more dexterous to help you.
Generally, the differences between celluloid and tortex is that tortex offers a brighter sound while celluloid is generally considered to be warmer. This is going to vary depending on your style, but it is something to take into account while trying to select the best guitar pick for your needs. These differences can also be accounted for by using a different gauge of pick, though it should be noted that thinner celluloid picks tend to be a bit more fragile than tortex.
Bottom Line: The Fender 351 Shape Classic Pick is just a quality option for a versatile no-frills guitar pick. They offer a pleasing amount of warmth and volume, and so long as you’re willing to accept that they may be more slippery than a similarly priced tortex pick you’re likely to have a positive experience.
Dunlop Max Grip Jazz III Pick
Dunlop has been one of the premier names in music for decades, and for good reason. While the company generally focuses on producing accessories for musicians they’ve also produced a variety of incredibly influential products. One of the most notable of Dunlop’s contributions to modern music was the Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal, a piece of gear so influential that it’s hard to imagine where the electric guitar would be without it. While the Cry Baby may be Dunlop’s biggest claim to fame may be the wah pedal, they also produced the Uni-Vibe phaser and currently handle both the Way Huge and MXR line of pedals.
Dunlop owes their success to their founder, Jim Dunlop. Jim Dunlop was a chemical engineer, and he used his background in engineering to great success when developing the products that went on to make Dunlop the success they’ve become. He started the company as a side business, but through his stunning work ethic and vibrant imagination he managed to create one of the largest manufacturers of musical accessories currently in operation.
No exception to the legacy that Dunlop has already established, the Dunlop Max Grip Jazz III Pick is a great option for any musician on the hunt for a unique and durable guitar pick. The first thing to note about Dunlop’s Max Grip Jazz III lineup is that it’s available in both carbon fiber and nylon, two materials which while similar do have their differences. You can tell them apart because the carbon fiber picks are black with noticeable fibers, where the nylon line is red.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Jazz III shape is very small, much smaller than what is generally considered the standard size for a guitar pick. This is neither a good nor bad thing, but there is a reason why a variety of highly technical players have been drawn to this pick size in particular. The combination of a small size as well as what is generally a thicker pick (Jazz III generally come in heavier gauges) creates a pick that easily glides from string to string when performing legato picking or other techniques which necessitate fast and intricate pick work.
These picks are also designed with a bevel, which increases the release of the pick at the expense of some attack. Thankfully, the lack of attack is compensated for with the thickness of the pick.
These picks have the potential to work very well for music that requires fast and intricate pick work. All they need to perform well is a change in technique, which while this will take some time it will come about naturally as a result of your body’s natural inclination to play in a position that is more comfortable. Your positioning and movements will gradually change to compensate for the change in pick size, and while it may feel a bit odd at first there’s a lot to be said about the benefit a smaller pick can have on your technique. Namely, because the pick is so much smaller it actually has a pretty good chance of making your picking more precise as because the pick requires a higher awareness due to its diminutive size your brain will start to pay more attention to the positioning of your pick and hand in order to compensate for the change.
As far as sound is concerned, there isn’t too much of a difference between these picks and any other nylon guitar pick. The carbon fiber seems to be a similar case, where the differences observed aren’t consistent enough to observe a definite change between nylon and carbon fiber.
Bottom Line: The Dunlop Max Grip Jazz III Pick offers a great value to any musician looking to clean up their picking technique, just be aware of the fact that this pick is significantly smaller than a more standard size.
National NP-2 Finger Pick
While the company may not be a household name, National has had a profound impact on music history. To understand National, you first have to understand the resonator guitar. The resonator guitar is kind of like the ugly step-child of acoustic guitars, because they came about in a time where electric instruments were just over the horizon.
Resonator guitars were originally intended to be one of the few guitars loud enough to play over brass and woodwind sections, filling a similar role to that the archtop would later fulfill. Where the archtop was loud yet warm the resonator was lively and brash. It definitely had volume and a unique tone, but just like the archtop it was soon made largely irrelevant by electric instruments.
While National’s original idea may not have played out, the company found success when its instruments were later adopted by blues musicians. Blues musicians were wanderers by nature in the early days of the genre, and because of this (and their generally poor financial situation) they couldn’t afford to lug around expensive amps and electric guitars. So they adopted resonator instruments in order to be heard in noisy bars and on the street corners they commonly frequented.
While National may have faded from the public’s consciousness they do still cater to a market that many others don’t, which is traditional American music. While the brand may be most notable for their guitars and reso-phonic instruments (ukuleles and mandolins) they also provide a variety of other great products, a great example of which is the National NP-2 model fingerpick.
The key thing to note about these fingerpicks is that they’re made from metal. While this is pretty obvious when looking at a picture of the picks many musicians don’t know what that entails. The main difference between metal and plastic fingerpicks is that metal delivers a sharper and more focused tone, while plastic produces a warmer tone more similar to that of a nail.
This makes metal fingerpicks a good fit for banjo players or guitarists who primarily play blues and roots guitar because the metal produces a very brash and nasal tone reminiscent of the early records they likely draw inspiration from. Plastic picks may be the better choice for those of you who are looking for a more modern and well-rounded tone.
While we did get into the general tone of metal fingerpicks in the section above, it should be noted that these fingerpicks have been the choice of banjo players for decades. There is a reason for this, besides just clinging to tradition. National picks occupy the sweet spot in regards to the gauge of the metal, remaining easily malleable while still producing a full (for a metal fingerpick) tone and reasonable volume.
These fingerpicks are a quality addition so long as you’re aware of what you’re getting yourself into. The only possible concern is that they may be a bit too small if you happen to have wider than average fingers, though of course this is going to vary based on personal preference.
Bottom Line: National has been a brand that caters to a very specific market for decades, and during their time doing so they’ve gotten very good at it. So long as you’re aware that metal fingerpicks may be a bit more difficult to comfortably place on your fingers than plastic fingerpicks there’s nothing to suggest that the majority of you won’t be happy with this purchase.