Welcome to our second instalment of exploration around the fascinating subject of guitar plectrums! In "Take your pick - Part 1" we had a look at what guitar picks are, where they came from, how they developed and what materials have been used for their production. This time round, let's take a closer look at a few specific models, designs and features.
There is a fantastic choice of plectrums available throughout the world today, with something suitable for every player and every style of music. Companies such as Fender, D'Addario, and particularly Dunlop (a name that you're gonna see crop up more than once in this article) have been instrumental in developing a truly bewildering variety of products that cover just about any requirement a guitarist might have.
There's every likelihood that you already have a personal favourite model of plectrum, much like you've already decided which brand and gauge of strings suit you the best - aren't we musicians creatures of habit! But always remember, variety is the spice of life. So let's expand our horizons by looking at six very different picks...
Dunlop Tortex Standard
First and foremost on our list is the legendary Dunlop Tortex, originally unleashed in 1981, and quickly becoming the most popular guitar plectrum worldwide - which is still the case today.
Jim Dunlop is something of a legend in the world of guitar accessories, releasing his own design of tuners and capos even before entering the pick market in 1972 with his earliest nylon designs. Other products we can thank him for include the original Cry Baby wah-wah pedal, without which Hendrix's Voodoo Chile would have sounded much more boring...
But the Tortex pick was a game changer in terms of material choice. It's made from a type of acetal called delrin, a durable plastic that can be produced with a matte finish which is used on Tortex picks to enhance grip. This quality, along with the traditional 'teardrop' shape (familiar to all guitarists) and a simple colour-coding system representing 'gauge' or 'thickness' (standard across many Dunlop picks and subsequently adopted by later manufacturers) has helped make Dunlop Tortex Standard plectrums the industry standard.
Moving much further back in terms of plectrum material history, we come to celluloid - basically the genesis of modern plastic pick construction. Tony D'Andrea showed us the way with his earliest designs, and many manufacturers follow in his footsteps to this day.
Celluloid picks remain hugely popular with guitarists seeking a more 'vintage' tone, and one of Fenders best selling designs is their 335 shape. Completely triangular, with slightly rounded points on all three corners, the popularity of this plectrum proves that not every player is wedded to a classic teardrop design. And on that subject...
...we come neatly to one of the most enduringly peculiar plectrum varieties of all time!
Swedish musician Stig Landström was a man of many talents, running his own guitar workshop and being in great demand as a player in the Gothenburg area. One of his greatest legacies remains the design and production of the Sharkfin plectrum, which found favour with the Beatles and Beach Boys amongst many other artists.
Rather than following the traditional teardrop or other triangular shapes, the nylon Sharkfin pick (which has its logo either printed in gold or embossed as a relief) basically follows the contours of its namesake. This provides three different corners to play with - the rounded leading edge, a much sharper 'tip', and a bumpy bottom side - giving the guitarist various tonal options in one magnificently mad package.
Returning our focus to the creations of Jim Dunlop, the Stubby range of picks deserves a mention due to its long-running popularity, particularly with the soloists amongst us.
Whilst the classic Stubby range of picks mostly follow a fairly 'traditional' design and shape, albeit with a very pointy playing tip, the clue to this plectrums standout feature lies in the name. It's very, VERY thick. And made from a polycarbonate called Lexan - not the most durable of plastics, but that hardly matters when you form it into a pick that's this fat! Currently available in 2mm or 3mm thicknesses, and in 'Big', 'Jazz' or 'Tri' forms. Any of which could also be used to prise open a particularly resilient pistachio nut with ease...
Guitarists were quick to notice the wonderful properties of acrylic as a material for plectrum construction, and not just because a clear plastic pick looks so damn cool. It’s tough, not brittle, very slippery against the strings, and becomes a little tacky in feel when warmed by the fingers – which does wonders for grip.
Gravity are one of the most recent and celebrated new manufacturers of guitar plectrums, and their Sunrise shape remains their most popular design. Available with polished or master finish bevels in 4 different sizes and a variety of colours, so there’s truly something to suit everyone in their range.
Any player insisting on using a plectrum made from as uncompromising a material as metal is probably also going to need their personal touch stamped across the thing as well. So whilst there are plenty of fairly generic brands and models of metal pick available, it’s fairly simple to commision something a little more special...
Enter master picksmiths Duston and Stephanie Headrick, of Nashville Picks, Tenessee. These guys, located in one of the spiritual homes of guitar music, will turn out a handcrafted bespoke work of art designed to your exact requirements, whether in nickel, copper, silver, brass - the list of material choices is formidable. Try not to lose it though. And make sure your scratchplate is well secured, ‘cause it’s gonna take a serious pounding...
Wrapping it up
A look at just six different plectrum models clearly doesn’t even scratch the surface of the choice available to guitarists today. But it does illustrate just how many potential things there are to consider when trying out a new pick, particularly when it comes to use and style. And since most good guitar shops will have so many different choices on offer, there’s really no excuse not to try them all!
I’m off to see how much a solid gold stubby might cost me, so until next time...