A tool can be defined as "a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function." One of these functions is frequently to act as the primary point of interaction between a human and another object. When we interact with our food, we use cutlery. When we interact with a nail, we use a hammer. And when we interact with our guitar strings, most of us use a guitar plectrum.
The guitar pick is almost certainly the first accessory that most of you first encountered when embarking on your 6-string journey, and probably the first one you had to replace - the damn things get lost/borrowed/stolen so incredibly easily! And they're so ubiquitous that you probably don't think about plectrums any more than you think about which spoon you use to finish your ice-cream. We think this is a real shame, so let's examine these utensils more closely...
Pick or Plectrum? What are they called?
To be completely grammatically correct, we refer to these devices as a plectrum. But let’s look at things from an etymological perspective.
The word "plectrum" comes from the Latin plectrum, which itself is derived from Greek plēktron, meaning "anything to strike with, an instrument for striking the lyre, a spear point". The term ‘pick’ is simply the most common synonym when they're used in the context of playing guitars.
When used for guitars? Striking the lyre? What the hell?!?
Ok, ok, a little history is needed here. Because guitars certainly aren't the first instruments that humans have played using plectrums.
Greek lyres and Mesopotamian lutes were picked with such devices even before the birth of Jesus, as were Chinese pipas back in the Qin Dynasty. A staggering variety of plectra (yes, that IS the correct formal plural for plectrum), made from a bewildering variety of materials, have been employed to strum or pick guitar or harp style instruments throughout the world for thousands of years.
Plectrums have also been an essential built-in component for many keyboard instruments over the centuries. The harpsichord and virginal are two examples dating back to the late middle ages that used quill plectrums, one attached to the mechanism for each key, to pluck single or multiple strings. It wasn’t until the piano came along somewhere around the year 1700 that Bartolomeo Cristofori introduced the idea of hitting strings with little hammers...
Wow! So not all picks are made from plastic?
Absolutely not. Materials that have been frequently used over the years include bone, ivory, shell (marine, tortoise and others), stone, glass, tagua, metal, rubber, wood and felt.
Many of these materials are still popular with guitarists even now. You're clearly unlikely to find ivory or tortoise-shell plectrums in your local guitar shop, but specialist picks made from the bones/horns of less endangered animals or exotic hardwoods are still enormously popular for certain styles of playing, particularly jazz. Metal picks also have a great many fans amongst certain hard rock and country/bluegrass fraternities, although some musicians don't even bother procuring purpose-built items (Queen guitarist Brian May has always used an old English sixpence). And whilst felt might seem like an odd choice, there are plenty of bassists out there who would disagree.
So when did plastic picks start being used?
The initial idea is generally credited to a man called Tony D'Andrea, who found some tortoiseshell coloured cellulose in a 1902 sidewalk sale, and subsequently tried cutting out a few pick-shaped pieces...
Despite the well-known flammability of cellulose (old celluloid film stock was well-known to occasionally explode in cinema projectors), the low cost and high durability of this pleasingly familiar-looking material made it an obvious alternative to actual tortoiseshell, which was expensive and prone to fracturing. D'Andrea Manufacturing subsequently become THE pick brand of choice from the 1920s to 1960s, with custom printed items supplied to companies such as Fender and Gibson.
Since the mid-20th century, plastic has absolutely reigned supreme as the material of choice for guitar plectrum manufacture. And we’ve come a long way since D’Andrea’s early experiments in terms of raw material – present popular polymer pick production (try saying THAT quickly!) includes, but certainly isn’t limited to, the following options;
- Celluloid: Still popular, particularly for those players seeking a ‘vintage’ sound. Produced by most of the big pick companies – Fenders 351 and 551 Classic Shape plectrums remain amongst the most popular choices.
- Nylon: Probably the next greatest development in pick technology after celluloid, not least of all due to ease of manufacture in a variety of thicknesses. Naturally very smooth, so many models are moulded with textured/grooved surfaces or have a high-friction coating added for extra grip. Fairly durable, although prolonged use can cause these picks to become brittle. Dunlop’s Nylon standard and legendary Jazz III shapes are two classic examples.
- Acrylic: The material of choice for clear plectrums, and particularly suited to thicker gauges or ‘stubby’ style picks. Inherently very tough and resistant to cracking, and can be heat-tempered to improve these characteristics. Acrylic can also gain a ‘tacky’ feel when warmed through human touch, improving grip for players but still gliding seamlessly over strings. The Gravity Classic Standard range of picks are definitely worth checking out.
- Acetal: Originally developed to replace tortoiseshell, the trade of which was banned in 1973. Massively durable and very easy to produce with a variety of finishes, notably either smooth or matte which can alter attack when picking guitar strings. The matte finish can be found on Dunlop Tortex picks (launched in 1981) which use Dunlops color-coding system for thickness gauge, and which remain the world’s most popular guitar plectrum.
Wrapping it up
Who knew there was this much to talk about guitar picks?!? Well us, obviously. And we’re not done with this fascinating topic – stay tuned for a deeper look at the most popular brands, styles and shapes of plectrum in the near future. Until then...