Playing the guitar and strumming the strings works well just with your bare hands and fingers. However, you’ll only get so far without a certain tool many guitarists probably couldn’t live without. That’s of course the guitar pick.
In case you’re not familiar with guitar picks or the pick you got from your local music store is still waiting to be put in good use, don’t worry. We’ll walk you through how to start playing with a guitar pick as well as how to pick the right pick for you. Although learning to use the pick may not seem that important to beginner guitar players, you’ll thank yourself later for adding this tool in your arsenal of guitar playing skills.
What is a guitar pick?
So what exactly is a guitar pick and why should you bother learning to play with one? A guitar pick (also known as a plectrum) is most often a triangular tool used to ‘pick’ the strings of the guitar – hence the name. Even though we’re talking of modern guitar picks used to play an electric or acoustic guitar, picks or pick-like tools have been used to play various stringed instruments for centuries.
Today a number of different materials are used to make guitar picks (more on that later). There are also different sizes, gauges, colors and types of guitar picks sold by all the most famous guitar manufacturers. This is why choosing the right pick for you might be an overwhelming task at first.
Although there are good reasons to choose one guitar pick over the other, the most important factor is your own personal preference. So when starting out your guitar playing journey you might want to try as many different guitar picks as possible to find your pick (pun intended). Luckily guitar picks are usually quite inexpensive, so you can easily buy more than one to test different materials, gauges and sizes, although there are more expensive ones on the market as well.
Why you should use a guitar pick
Now you know what a guitar pick is, but why exactly should you be using a guitar pick in the first place? Of course you could just pick with your thumb and use various finger picking techniques to play, but by using a pick you can learn many more new guitar playing techniques. In addition, when playing the guitar with a pick, you’ll be able to create a brighter sound and a warm tone. Just listen to how your playing sounds when using a pick instead of your fingers to strum or pick the strings. Picking will also be much faster when using a pick rather than just your thumb.
Even if holding and playing with a guitar pick might feel uncomfortable and clumsy at first, don’t get discouraged, because with some practice you’ll find that playing with a pick will give you much more control over your playing.
Picking the right guitar pick: Different types of guitar picks
Let’s pick you the right guitar pick to play with. As we already mentioned, it’s a good idea to begin with more than a single pick, so you can test what pick feels the best for you. Here’s some buying advice for you as well as a few factors to consider when shopping for guitar picks either online or in your local music store. These are: the instrument you use (i.e. are you playing with an electronic guitar or an acoustic one) and the thickness, size and material of the guitar pick.
Let’s start with the thickness or gauge of a pick. In case you’re a beginner guitar player, a good option is a thinner guitar pick. As a beginner you’re more likely to practice strumming and learning to play the basic chords. Because of this a thinner pick might fit your needs and playing style better.
The thickness of guitar picks is measured in millimeters (mm). Generally the thickness of guitar picks varies between thin (or light) 0.4mm picks and thick 1.5mm picks. If you prefer strumming and playing rhythm, go with a thinner guitar pick. A thicker pick on the other hand works well when you require more control. Consider also the thickness of your strings. For example, when playing the bass or guitar with thicker strings, you might want to choose a thicker pick as well. There are also bass picks in case you’re a bass player.
When selecting a guitar pick they often may be labelled according to their thickness. Here are the most common guitar pick sizes you might come across when shopping for the best pick for you.
- ‘Extra thin’ (also known as ‘extra light’) guitar picks tend to be under 0.45 mm in thickness.
- ‘Thin’ (also known as ‘light’) guitar picks are between 0.45 mm and 0.70 mm.
- ‘Medium’ picks can vary somewhere between 0.60 and 0.80 mm in thickness.
- ‘Heavy’ guitar picks are usually between 0.80 and 1.2 mm in thickness.
- ‘Extra heavy’ guitar picks would be anything above the 1.2 mm thickness.
Just remember that these numbers are not set in stone and there is no industry standard for the thickness of a guitar pick, so check the exact thickness in millimetres of a pick you’re choosing.
Size and shape
Guitar picks also come in different shapes and sizes. A good go-to choice is a standard or classic guitar pick that has one sharp point with a pointed top. There are also guitar picks where all three sides are similarly shaped (also known as ‘tri-tip’ picks), so you can hold it any way you want.
Different pick manufacturers may have their own signature shapes, materials and sizes, so once again, testing different picks is the key here. For example, Dunlop is known for their Dunlop Tortex Standard guitar pick. The material used in the Dunlop Tortex Standard, as well as the image of a turtle pictured in the pick itself, act as a reminder of the history of guitar picks, when they used to be made of turtle shell. Another unique design would be the Jazz III which provides great precision and control, making it a favorite among jazz players.
As different guitar players will have different sized hands, remember to take this into consideration when selecting a pick to play with. If your hands are large, you might want to go with a larger pick as well. Luckily there are both smaller and larger guitar picks to choose from.
Before the materials used to create guitar picks today became commonplace, one of the most common materials used to make guitar picks was tortoise shell. Luckily for the tortoise, today nylon and other plastics are the most commonly used materials in guitar picks, although metal, wood and glass are also used.
Nylon picks are a good place to start. They’re quite light and flexible, which makes them a good choice for beginners as well as for strumming and when you don’t require a great deal of precision and control. Nylon guitar picks also come in a number of different gauges as well as colors, in case the way your guitar pick looks is the most important factor for you.
Picks for acoustic guitar
As a good starting point when choosing a pick for an acoustic guitar, you might want to go for a thinner nylon guitar pick. These are great for strumming, but also allow you to do some picking that requires a bit more control. However, if you like playing more intricate melodies and solos with an acoustic guitar, you can choose a thicker guitar pick as well. A good all-purpose option would be medium pick around 0.60 mm and 0.80 mm.
Picks for electric guitar
Generally you might want to go with a thicker pick for an electric guitar, at least when compared to ones used with an acoustic guitar. Playing lead guitar with a thin pick can be more difficult than playing with a thick or medium pick, especially when playing fast. However, once again we can recommend a medium pick as a good middle ground for the electric guitar.
What is the best guitar pick?
Sadly we can’t tell you what is the best guitar pick of all time. What you might consider the best guitar pick to use depends on your personal preference, playing style and type of guitar you’re using as well. This is why it takes some testing to find out the best guitar pick just for you and your needs.
How to use a guitar pick
You’ve gone through the effort of comparing different picks, materials, sizes and gauges, and you’re eager to start playing. But what’s the right way of playing with a pick and incorporating it to your playing style? Here are a few tips to get you started, so take a good grip of your guitar pick and let’s start practicing.
Holding the pick
To hold your guitar pick, make sure that the nail on the thumb of your picking hand is facing towards you. Use the thumb of your picking hand to grab the pick firmly by placing it on top of the pick. The other side of the pick should be pressed against the top-most joint of your index finger.
With the pick between the two fingers, next you should have the pick pointing out of the side of your thumb. In other words, don’t align the tip of the pick with your thumb but rotate it 90 degrees instead. With a steady grip on your guitar pick, leave around a centimeter of the pick’s sharp tip to stick out from between your thumb and index finger. Use this part of the pick to do the actual picking or strumming against the strings.
When you’re holding the pick with a steady good grip (but not too hard), leave the other three fingers free. Think of it like doing the ‘OK’ sign with your hand: your thumb and index finger pressed together (with the guitar pick in between) and the three other fingers extended. Just make sure that your palm and wrist are not pressing against the strings, so that you won’t accidentally mute the strings as you play.
Picking the strings and strumming
When strumming guitar chords, try to angle the guitar pick in a way that you don’t have to bend your wrist in order to play. Instead, you want to have your wrist straight and the pick perpendicular to the strings and the body of your guitar. To strum the strings, focus on moving your elbow rather than your wrist.
Try strumming down a few times and play any of the chords you might know. Once strumming down starts to feel comfortable and you’re able to play different chords and strumming the correct strings, try adding a few upstrokes as well. However, instead of just strumming all of the strings but just in a reverse order, in an upstroke you should focus on strumming only the two or three highest strings. So for example, you first strum down a couple of times and play all six strings. Then add a single upstroke where you play only the highest B and E strings.
One technique the guitar pick is especially good for is alternate picking. Alternate picking refers to picking individual strings both up and down, not just simply picking strings with a downward motion. A good way to practice this is by choosing a string and picking it first down with a small movement. After the first downward stroke, instead of coming over the string and picking down again, pick the string upwards on your way back up. Do this first slowly and then start incorporating more speed.
The key here is to use small movements, unlike the big ones you use when strumming. You might find that your guitar pick can accidentally bump into other strings you didn’t intend to play. Just make sure that you’re using small enough movements and soon you’ll gain enough accuracy to use alternate picking on different strings instead of just one.
To practice alternate picking, you can also try anchoring your palm on top of the strings near the bridge of the guitar. This mutes the strings, but you’ll be able to comfortably use smaller movements when using your guitar pick to pick up and down a string.
Learn to play guitar with a pick
The guitar pick, or plectrum, is a fantastic tool that can help you advance as a guitarist, so learning how to use one is worth the effort. As we mentioned, test different picks and try to find the ones that fit your playing style–after all, the best pick for you is up to your personal preference. Some guitar and pick manufacturers may even offer packs that contain multiple different picks in a variety of sizes and gauges, so you can easily test a great variety of picks.