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Guitar Picks: How to Use and Choose a Guitar Pick

Posted on August 15, 2021

You can play the guitar by strumming the strings just with your bare hands and fingers. However, you can only get so far without a certain tool many guitarists probably couldn’t live without — that, of course, is the guitar pick.

In case you’re not familiar with guitar picks (or if the pick you got from your local music store is still waiting to be put to good use), don’t worry. We’ll tell you how to use a guitar pick the right way and how to choose the right guitar pick for you. You also need to know how to hold a guitar pick properly to use it. Although learning to use the pick may not seem that important to beginner guitar players, you’ll thank yourself later for adding this tool to 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 and pick manufacturers. For example, thinner picks might be better for certain uses than thicker ones. Because of all the available options, choosing the right pick for you might seem like 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 you start out on 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 and fancy 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 fingerpicking 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 that can’t be accomplished without a pick.

Just listen to how your playing sounds when using a pick instead of your fingers to strum a chord or play an individual string. You can also play individual notes much faster using a pick rather than just your thumb.

Even if holding and playing with a guitar pick feels uncomfortable and clumsy at first, don’t get discouraged. 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 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 kind of pick feels best for you. Let’s discuss some buying advice as well as a few factors to consider when shopping for guitar picks either online or in your local music store. Factors to consider include the instrument you use (i.e., an electric guitar or an acoustic one) and the thickness, size, and material of the guitar pick.

Thickness

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. Many beginners also tend to use a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar when they start out. You can look for a thin guitar pick made specifically for this purpose and type of classical guitar.

The thickness of guitar picks is measured in millimeters (mm). Generally, the thickness of guitar picks varies between thin (or light) 0.4 mm picks and thick 1.5 mm picks. If you prefer strumming and want to play riffs or rhythm guitar, 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, you may notice they are usually labeled 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 aren’t set in stone, and there is no industry standard for the thickness of a guitar pick. Make sure to check the exact thickness in millimeters of the 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 the pick 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 on the pick itself, are a reminder of the guitar pick’s history. In the past, guitar picks were often made out of turtle shell. Another unique design is the Jazz III which provides great precision and control, making it a favorite among jazz players.

Different guitar players 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, in addition to thin and thick ones.

What are guitar picks made of?

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 matters to you when making your choice.

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 they also allow you to do some picking when your playing 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 a medium pick (around 0.60 mm and 0.80 mm in thickness).

Picks for electric guitar

Generally, you might want to go with a thicker pick for an electric guitar, at least when compared to the 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 really fast, like when tremolo picking. However, we once again recommend a medium pick as a good middle ground for the electric guitar.

You can use the same pick for both an electric and acoustic guitar if you play both. Just take into consideration the material of your instrument’s strings. For instance, maybe your acoustic guitar has strings made of nylon and your electric guitar has strings made of steel.

What is the best guitar pick?

Sadly, there isn’t one answer to the question. “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 the type of guitar you use. 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 properly

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 to play with a pick and incorporate it into your playing style? How do you hold a guitar pick in the first place? Here are a few tips to get you started, so grab your guitar pick, and let’s start practicing.

How to hold a guitar pick?

There are almost as many different ways to hold a guitar pick as there are different guitar players. However, there’s certainly a “wrong” way to hold a guitar pick as well, if you want to make playing with a pick work for you.

Here’s one way to hold a guitar pick correctly.

To hold your guitar pick, make sure that the nail on the thumb of your picking hand is facing toward you. Use the thumb of your picking hand to grab the pick firmly by placing your thumb on top of the pick. The other side of the pick should be pressed against the topmost joint of your index finger.

With your 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 sticking 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 aren’t pressing against the strings so that you don’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’re familiar with. Once strumming down starts to feel comfortable and you’re able to play different chords and strum only the correct strings, try adding a few upstrokes as well. However, instead of just strumming all of the strings but just in reverse order, in an upstroke, focus on strumming only the two or three highest strings. So for example, 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.

Alternate picking

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 down with a small movement. After the first downward stroke, instead of coming back up over the string and picking down again, pick the string upwards. 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 accidentally bumps 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 more than just a single string.

To practice alternate picking, you can try anchoring your palm on top of the strings near the bridge of the guitar. This mutes the strings and creates a thumping sound when you pick the string. Now you’re able to comfortably use smaller movements when using your guitar pick to pick up and down a string.

Troubleshooting your pick-playing

Sometimes playing with a guitar pick may feel more difficult than using just your fingers if that’s what you’re used to. If playing with a pick feels awkward despite your best efforts to learn, you might be holding or using your pick the wrong way. When facing problems with your pick-playing, make sure you’re not making the following mistakes:

  • The pick feels floppy. If the pick doesn’t feel firm between your fingers, it could be that you’re gripping the pick too far away from the tip. Try adjusting your grip so that only the very tip of the pick is exposed and the rest is covered by your thumb.
  • Your arm gets tired. This can be up to practice, but if your arm gets fatigued when picking and strumming with a guitar pick, check which parts of your arm are moving. You’ll lose a lot of accuracy and end up hitting unwanted strings if your arm moves too much while picking.
  • The pick drops from your hand. Sometimes the issue may not be your playing but the tools you’re using. If the pick is difficult to hold, it could be that it has worn out in use. Try changing to a brand-new pick and see if you can get a better grip.
  • Lost your pick inside your guitar. Your guitar ate the pick! This last one may be familiar to those who play an acoustic guitar. Keep a firm grip on your pick, or it might drop into the guitar’s sound hole.

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 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 even offer packs that contain multiple picks in a variety of sizes and gauges so you can easily test a great variety of picks.

To further level up your guitar-playing skills, try Yousician, your personal guitar teacher. Yousician’s interactive guitar lessons are perfect for all skill levels. You can also learn to play your favorite songs on the guitar from Yousician’s impressive song library. Try Yousician for free today and download the app on your computer or Android and iOS devices.

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