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Tone Tip: Pick A Winner

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

There’s a little tidbit of tonal tweakage that is entirely

within every player’s power to modify at will, without risk to guitar, amp or effects, without voiding any warrantees, and at very little expense. Simultaneously, this item is one of the most underappreciated tools in the tone arsenal. I’m talking about the humble pick, brothers and sisters, that little triangle of semi-rigid material that sets your strings a-humming.

Picks—or plectrums—of different sizes, shapes, and thicknesses, and which are made of different materials, all exhibit different sounds. Gibson Gear offers a wide selection of Gibson picks, all of which are available through your authorized dealer, and of course you can experiment with a myriad of other makes and styles of picks to alter the tone of your Gibson guitar. And flesh—bare fingertips—offers a different sound alternative still. Since the pick or fingertip’s contact with the string or strings is where it all begins, this is really the first ingredient in the sonic stew.

As a basic rule of thumb, if you will, thinner and more flexible picks yield a lighter, softer sound, but one that can also be effectively percussive for rhythm playing. The heavier and more rigid a pick’s material, the less it gives when attacking the string, and the more energy it transfers into the string rather than into itself as it bends. All of this, naturally, translates to a heavier sound and a more aggressive attack. (See, this is heavy science here: we’re talking Newton’s Third Law—“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”) Go at a set of heavy strings with a thin gauge pick and you’ll mostly end up with a choked sound and a grooved, gnarled pick. Hit them with a heavy or extra-heavy gauge plectrum and you can really start moving some steel. Old tortoiseshell picks are the epitome of this: the rigid material has negligible give, and yields a firm attack with sparkling harmonics. Being made from an endangered material, they aren’t available any more, but if you come across an old one give it a try; the difference will probably startle you. Many man-made alternatives offer similar performance. 

The shape of the attacking edge or corner of a pick also greatly affects the resultant sound. A triangular or pointed tip digs into the string sharply, inducing sparkling highs and good harmonic content thanks to its narrow but firm point of contact. A rounded edge blurs the attack slightly, yielding a warmer, “rounder” sound. You can use this knowledge to your advantage when seeking to alter the tone of your guitar, whether it’s an acoustic or an electric, and don’t feel you need to have just one type of pick that’s “your pick”—mix it up, and find what works for different styles of playing. To give more bite and brightness to your Les Paul’s fat, warm neck-pickup, use a firmer pick with a more sharply pointed playing tip. On the flipside, warm up the cutting tone of the bridge P-90 on your SG Special by using a more rounded pick, or take some of the aggression out of the high-gain pickups of your V-Factor X by using a thinner pick for a smoother, more compressed rhythm tone. Many jazz players have for years used the very rounded back edge of a standard-shaped pick to elicit an even smoother, plummier tone from classic jazz boxes such as the ES-175. In contrast to all of this, bare thumb or fingertips yield a slightly muted, thick, warm sound, but one that can vary greatly depending upon technique. Many fingerstyle players are also capable of producing sudden bright, attacking riffs by snapping or plucking the strings heavily, and many add fingernail tips to the attack, which brightens up the sound.

Try out the effects of pick attack for yourself—the expense is negligible, and it’s a lot easier than swapping pickups, speakers, or even strings. Procure a range of picks in different shapes, sizes, and gauges, and experiment at will to see what works for different playing requirements you might have. After all, the more tools you have in your arsenal, the more versatile a player you’re likely to be.