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How to choose your first pick?

Amongst the many email enquiries, we receive at GuitarHead (and not JUST requests for new books), there are quite a few that follow similar themes. Our Making Strings Last Longer article hopefully addressed the numerous questions you guys asked about reducing the frequency of your string changes - which we totally understand. It's one of the biggest pains in our lives too!


However, a great many new players have recently been contacting us with a quite different issue - for example...


Dear GuitarHead,


I bought my first guitar a few weeks ago. I lost all my picks that they gave me with the guitar. Now I have come to Guitar Center to buy a new pick. But there are so many of them - how do I find the suitable one?


Pete H, Stratford, CT


Don't worry Pete (and every other reader in the same situation) - we're feeling your pain, and we’re here for you!


Take Your Pick

The topic of picks/plectrums (the names are basically interchangeable) has always fascinated us; certainly enough to delve deeper into their history and purpose within this blog. In Take Your Pick - Part 1 we examined their development and construction, followed by a look at certain shapes and brands in Take Your Pick - Part 2. These pieces should hopefully act as a good all-round plectrum bootcamp, giving you a reasonable idea of what to expect from certain styles and designs.


But we'd understand a beginner searching for a good starter pick still feeling pretty overwhelmed with the choice available, even in a small guitar shop - never mind the bewildering range offered in Guitar Center. So here's a few things for newbies to consider.


Quantity matters!

We’ve said this before many times, and we’ll say it again. Car keys, reading glasses, small children in toy stores; NONE of these things are more easily lost than a guitar plectrum, and that's a fact. Not one member of the GuitarHead team has managed to retain an individual pick for more than eight months, and I personally know one guitarist who went through a 12-pack of the things in less than a week.


It's not just simply dropping plectrums on stage, in studios, or down the back of your couch either - we guitarists are uncannily good at stealing these things from each other, usually by accident. I've got a Dunlop Jazz II in my pocket as I type this, which I'm pretty confident was loaned to me by our content manager last week. And no, he's not getting it back, since I'll have probably misplaced it by the time he reads this...


So the first and most important rule with plectrum shopping is to bulk buy. Most picks are available in multipacks, and this usually works out cheaper than choosing a selection from the browsing rack in your local guitar store.


Thick or thin?

Unquestionably the most important factor when considering plectrum choice, and particularly so for a beginner. Someone embarking on their guitar journey will most likely be strumming chords well before delving into any focussed picking of individual strings, but either way you’ll still be learning the physical nuances of how hard/soft to actually play the instrument in the first place.


With this in mind, it’s usually better to start off with a lighter pick at first. This means the actual material of the plectrum can flex more, allowing more subtle playing whilst still gripping the thing firmly. As your technique develops, your fingers will learn how to relax or have more give when playing chords or notes, and it’s at this point that a heavier plectrum makes sense.


Budget plectrums are commonly labelled light, medium, or heavy, and in this instance, you should probably start with the light option. If you’d prefer a higher-quality branded item then we’d suggest aiming for a .46mm gauge pick as a good starting point for strumming chords – advancing to .55mm or .73mm either as your confidence improves, or if you’re more interested in picking out arpeggios.


What shape is right?

Possibly one of the most loaded questions for guitarists, and one that no-one in this office can agree upon!


There’s definitely more options for plectrum shape than plectrum thickness, but the classic ‘teardrop’ design has remained historically and universally the most popular – and with good reason. Having a dedicated larger section of material to grip between index finger and thumb, allowing a simple rounded point to protrude for clean and accurate picking or strumming, is by far the simplest and most elegant solution for most players in most circumstances. Dunlop certainly thinks so, and their Nylon, Tortex, Stubby, and Jazz ranges (all of which follow this formula to various degrees) remain the world's biggest sellers.


But we certainly wouldn’t suggest that a beginner limit themselves to one shape of pick. Many students I’ve encountered have also found larger, more triangular plectrum designs (such as the Fender 335) to be extremely user-friendly during their early playing experiences. And not one rookie I know has ever managed to see a SharkFin plectrum and NOT buy one, purely due to how cool they look. I can’t possibly caution against this, since I did the exact same thing less than a week after getting my first guitar!


Material choice?

Bone, shell, stone, glass, tagua, metal, rubber, wood and felt; you can get plectrums constructed from any of these materials. None of which we’d recommend for a newbie!


Plastic has reigned supreme for pick construction since the early 20th century, on the simple rationale that it’s such a superb choice for this purpose. Polymers are cheap, incredibly easy to produce in a huge variety of weights, colours and finishes, and offer a weirdly wide variety in terms of raw material – remember there’s more than one type of plastic.


Celluloid picks remain popular with many players after a ‘vintage’ sound, and acrylic plectrums reign supreme for anyone after something fatter/transparent/both. But nylon and acetal are still the most popular choices, in terms of user-friendliness, sheer range of weights/designs, and simple suitability for just about any playing style you could imagine. Dunlop’s Tortex picks – coloured acetal with a non-slip matte finish – remain the most popular plectrums throughout the world, and we’d strongly recommend giving them a try. 


Wrapping it up

And that hopefully covers everything a rookie could possibly want to know about guitar plectrum shopping. In a nutshell; when it comes to choosing your first picks, keep them simple, keep them light, keep them plastic, and definitely keep an eye on them!

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4 comments

  • Brian mccutcheon

    I am using a beginner book. As I cannot read music. . I’m 77 yr old. Used to play til I got severe arthritis in hands and feet but is under control with medications for past 20 years. I was wondering if I should move onto what guitar learning books next. Frets. Tabs or chords demystified or which way thank toy brian

  • Bert Dohmen

    Great topic. I learned a lot from this topic.
    I missed “Take your pick 1 and 2”. Think that they came out in a time in which I didnt already recieve your newsletter. Is it possible to send it to me? Thanks a lot, and kind regards.

  • Thomas Contrino

    Great Topic, I’ve always loved a thin Fender Triangle for strumming my acoustic. Especially on more up tempo songs. I loved the way Richie Havens strummed and the thinness and size of the triangle allowed for it to also function as a percussion instrument. Haven’s said he was a percussionist playing a guitar…..he truly was. The triangle size also allows you to choke up on it for more precise picking of individual notes, it becomes a bit more like a Medium pick when holding it like that.
    For finger picking I like the fitted plastic thumb pick and depending on the song finger, finger nail, hard plastic individual finger picks, but sometimes for certain songs metal Dunlap fingers with a plastic thumb.
    That’s the configuration Roger Mcguinn of the Byrds uses playing his 12 string Rickenbacker on songs like Turn, Turn, Turn…
    Fun topic, really more to it than I realized, I just kinda over the years experimented and applied different picks for different purposes, genres and songs. I carry them all in quantity in each case in the storage area, gets crowded in there with 3 sets of strings, a capo, a long Allen wrench for neck adjustments and a multi string changing tool….oh and button batteries for the tuner and a couple 12 bolts on the acoustic electric with built in tuner, a glass and brass slide tube, nail clipper and finally a needle nose…lol….I’m a hoarder or a Boy Scout I guess…lol

  • Thomas Contrino

    Great Topic, I’ve always loved a thin Fender Triangle for strumming my acoustic. Especially on more up tempo songs. I loved the way Richie Havens strummed and the thinness and size of the triangle allowed for it to also function as a percussion instrument. Haven’s said he was a percussionist playing a guitar…..he truly was. The triangle size also allows you to choke up on it for more precise picking of individual notes, it becomes a bit more like a Medium pick when holding it like that.
    For finger picking I like the fitted plastic thumb pick and depending on the song finger, finger nail, hard plastic individual finger picks, but sometimes for certain songs metal Dunlap fingers with a plastic thumb.
    That’s the configuration Roger Mcguinn of the Byrds uses playing his 12 string Rickenbacker on songs like Turn, Turn, Turn…
    Fun topic, really more to it than I realized, I just kinda over the years experimented and applied different picks for different purposes, genres and songs. I carry them all in quantity in each case in the storage area, gets crowded in there with 3 sets of strings, a capo, a long Allen wrench for neck adjustments and a multi string changing tool….oh and button batteries for the tuner and a couple 12 bolts on the acoustic electric with built in tuner, a glass and brass slide tube, nail clipper and finally a needle nose…lol….I’m a hoarder or a Boy Scout I guess…lol

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