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I'm at the very beginning of learning to play guitar, and I recently needed to buy some more picks. This was more complex than I was expecting, since there are apparently many different weights of picks available.

I've gotten the impression that people generally categorize picks into three types: thin (or light), medium, and thick (or heavy). However, sometimes they're classified by a specific thickness (0.60mm, etc). As an aside, is there a particular thickness threshold for each of these types?

I ended up buying a few picks of different thicknesses, just to see what I liked, but I'm curious if there's a particular reason to use a certain type. Do the different picks produce audibly different sounds, or are they useful for different styles of playing for some reason? Or is it just something that comes down to a personal preference for which feel you like?

  • 2
    You left out Jazz picks which can be up to 3.0 mm thick, then tapered. – Anonymous Jan 26 '11 at 17:25
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    Another thing to experiment with: the shape of the tip. You can cut or file the tips (I like 'em pointy) to change the feel and the sound (sharper angles have more "edge"). – luser droog Dec 13 '11 at 9:43
  • Shape is important, as luser droog said. I like less pointy though. I'm a fan of very round picks. – Dedwards Jul 5 '16 at 19:32

10 Answers 10

14

You are right that picks are generally thin, medium, heavy. Some picks are by mm, but it's really just a different measurement of the same thing. Some manufacturers will add super / extra thin or heavy.

You do get a different sound with different picks. There is a maximum amount of force you can apply with a pick, given it's thickness. This will affect the tone you are generating.

I think that heavier picks have a strong advantage, as you can make them "softer" by not gripping them as tightly. They get more "give" although, it's really in your fingers, the effect is the same. You cannot make a thin pick stronger though. When I was learning, I liked thin picks though as they were easier to play fast with. However, technique solves that problem.

It is largely personal though. I suggest you try a couple out and see what works for you.

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  • 3
    You can make a thin pick stronger: By bending it perpendicular to the strum direction (i.e. around your thumb/finger). I find when I try to soften my grip on the thicker picks I end up shaking my guitar over my head trying to get it back out of the body, which really breaks up the song. Your technique solution sounds interesting. I may have to give that a try some day... – Anonymous Jan 19 '11 at 22:29
  • @Kendrick, that's interesting. I had never thought of that. I'll have to give that a go. In order to stop losing your picks, try an electric guitar! ;o) Really though, it's all in the technique. With some practice, you'll find you don't lose it so much. – yossarian Jan 19 '11 at 22:47
  • +1 Kendrick, I've just realised that's what I often do with medium picks (curling them so they go stiff). Also some electric guitars have f-holes and they are even worse for retrieving small objects from. :) – Anonymous Jan 20 '11 at 23:58
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They definitely produce different sounds. A harder pick will give you a harsher sound, and a softer pick will give you a more mellow sound.

It's generally easier to play softly or slowly with a soft pick, because it will bend and allow you to move smoothly across the strings. Likewise a hard pick allows you to play more loudly because less energy will be absorbed by the pick bending.

Beyond the rigidity of the pick, there's also its thickness. Again, the thicker the pick the louder you can play, and it's easier to play softly with a thin pick. I find the thickness is much more about your personal preference than the sound, however; the material controls the sound more.

I prefer a medium-weight, fairly elastic pick for most of my playing.

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2

Generally, for lead playing, people use 0.7 - 1mm picks. If the picks flex too much, it's harder to play faster picking runs.

If you're an acoustic player who strums a lot, you might go with a light to medium thickness.

I personally only ever use heavy picks, around the 1mm mark.

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1

This answer has already been comprehensively answered, and I would like to say that, for me at least, it is down to a degree of preference, and the way you want to play will reflect in your preference. I like jangly warm sounds, hence I go for very light picks. May I also note that if you are beginning to play a twelve string, then it is easier (because it is easier to move between strings), and makes a brighter sound using a lighter pick. Hope this helps.

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  1. This is not only about thickness of pick. Generally thick, will produce louder more accented sound, softer will be more mellow and easier for strumming across the strings.
  2. But this also relation between pick thickness and You strings gauge. Thicker strings need thicker picks to produce decent sound.
  3. As mentioned before direction is also important perpendicular or parallel to strings
  4. Picks comes in different shapes too. Oval endings vs. pointed endings
  5. Moreover i have noticed that material used affects tone - but i cannot give any general rules here (different kinds of plastic and it's finish, different materials - bone, wood)

I myself use:

  • 1.14 plastic pick with oval endings parallel on .12 gauge strings for jazz (semi-hollow guitar)
  • 0.9 plastic pick with pointed ending perpendicular on .11 gauge strings for rock/blues (i.e. pointed ending for me is must have for artificial harmonics)
  • sometimes 0.6 oval plastic pick for nylon stringed guitar (but most of time i play with my fingernails)

Generally i experiment with picks and this is my advice to You. Pick is important part of producing Your sound - so take some experimentations and have fun :)

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I once saw a guy in Acoustic Guitar suggest that beginners all start with medium strings and medium picks, saying that they shouldn't bother to move to heavy or lighter strings or picks until you can explain why you need to go that way.

I like a 1mm ultex pick (Dunlop or Clayton) because I like the feel of them and, especially on acoustic, they bring out more high end. I hate hate hate hate the feel of thin picks flopping around on me, and the lag between when I was expecting the note to sound and when the bend of the thin pick snaps and the note actually comes. But honestly, especially on electric, it's much more about how it feels in my hand and much less about how it sounds.

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I have used many picks of different gauge (thickness) and materials but once I tried V-Picks (stiff acrylic) I couldn't go back to any other pick. Although available in various gauges the many shapes along with special edging define these picks and the sound you can obtain. I had been using what I thought was heavy to extra heavy (around .96mm - 1.20mm). After getting a sample order of about 15 picks immediately switched to 2.75 - 3.0mm (for electric as you might want to try something lighter to acoustic) and have never looked back. The sizes, shapes, and ghost (similar to a sand blasted edge) are what I focus on for different sounds. These picks are actually available in heavier gauges but I'm pretty much stuck on different shapes and edges from the 2.75 - 3.0 range. When I try using picks of lighter gauges which I had been using for years it's no contest for me whether playing jazz, blues, rock, etc etc etc. The material is the key as I do have a few 1.50mm but 95% of the time am using various 2.75 - 3.0mm V-Picks. I have no personal or business affiliation with the manufacturer.

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  • This doesn't actually answer the question at all, and just reads like a promo. – Doktor Mayhem Jul 5 '16 at 12:11
  • @DrMayhem - it does from the 'just personal preference?' part !! – Tim Jul 5 '16 at 12:58
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Different weight and material picks will produce different results in playing. In my experience not so much in tone for an electric guitar since that is really mostly a function of the amp, pickups, and other effects. You can shape the sound electronically.

For me the real issue are related to tactile sensation of the pick attacking the string. And for this the thickness is only one of several dimensions related to pick performance.

All other things being equal, thinner picks will typically flex more and this is not very good for playing fast lead, or shredding, in any genre. On the other hand you would not get a great result using a super heavy or thick pick on an acoustic playing folk guitar, or Tommy from the Who. For that a thinner pick tat flexes would be better. The difference is in your arm, hand, and your attack of the strings with the pick. When playing fast leads you typically want to move the hand a little as possible, keeping the pick very close to the string(s). For this technique a floppy pick might actually bend and never "pick" through the string! Like wet spaghetti. However, that also depends on the gauge string you are using. For example a Jazz player using gauge 13s, a thin pick, and a loose gentile touch will not likely every be able to pick a note. But a metal player using a thin pick on gauge 8s with a heavy hand will manage to push through.

In short, to some extent your question is not fair. "The Pick" and its action should be judged relative to the guitar, string gauge, and style of playing. Different techniques, e.g. strumming vs. tremolo picking require different picks.

That being said there are some other variables missed in the discussion. The thickness is only one factor in flexion. Material is another. The make picks out of stone, metal, various types plastic or other synthetic material. I typically use Jazz III by dunlop but there are different types. One made of plastic is very thick but will start to flex when heated up. The warmth of my hand after and hour of playing is enough to cause enough flex that I can feel it. The other type is make of a more rigid material (don't recall the exact name) and it is as rigid as steel for as long as I use it. Never flexes.

Other variables are the tapering of the pick and that comes in two directions. There is the tapering to a point in the plane of the pick, which gives it its shape. Then there is a tapering of the "thickness" out to the edge of the pick. Both are important. It doesn't matter if your pick is thin or thick if it's so round you can't get it to hit the strings, or so pointed that it hooks the strings and you get stuck. For my the second type of taper is critical for a good pick. Thicker is not better without the tapering. Dunlop makes a purple tortex that is... as thick as a brick. More to the point these types of pick have equal thickness all the way out to the very edge. It's like trying to pick a string with a dinner plate. It feels horrible. Not sure who uses them. Having the center of the pick be fat will ensure it does not flex but you want some tapering so the part that actually hist the string is thin. That will cause the pick to slip right off the string, or the string to slide right off the pick depending on how you look at it. And this makes for easy, clean, very fast picking.

Again, as for tone I think this is mainly the amp talking but you will hear differences on an acoustic. However I would not trust a simple mapping of pick thickness to tone since an equally important factor is how the pick is held. If you play flat pick then thick will create a heavier sound and thin will be weak and nasally. But many players, especially electric shredders, hold their picks sideways so the edge strikes the string rather than the flatter part. Mike Batio is an extreme example of this. In this case the thickness is not as big a factor.

I think the most important take away is that pick type has to adjust to string gauge. In my 40+ years of playing these two always go together. I use Gauge 11 round and a Jazz III pick for lead and rhythm playing of all genres of music and that has worked for me.

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For 40 years I've heard people go back and forth on this one.

I remember way, way back in the day, a "cool kid" I knew got an Ibanez Roadster. One of the first "modern" electric guitars I ever saw. He did this thing I'd never seen a guitar player do before; he played FAST. It sounded so cool.

He used a thin pick. Said you had to. So, as I was just starting to learn, that was religion to me. Thin picks = fast.

Goes to show how misleading "advice" can be. Years later I came to understand what he had done was "tremolo pick" a heavily distorted guitar, which is something that a thin pick can indeed facilitate. But it's not really alternate picking.

In my formative guitar years, I was a devoted student of the Randy Rhoads school of guitar, and later, Yngwie Malmsteen (and to lesser degrees Tony Iommi, Buck Dharma, Angus Young and Alex Lifeson). I was still very young, but found out that for the most part, the players I gravitated towards preferred heavy picks. Malmsteen claimed it was because "when I move the pick, I want it to do what I want it to do. If it bends, it will not be instant." He was adamant, and of course nobody in the world was delivering what he was, so I simply took it as gospel. Strangely, at the time, many of my guitar playing friends, even the older ones (they being 16) still insisted on thin picks. They just said Yngwie was wrong. Some of the early metal guys were using the thin ones I think, one of the early players from Venom for example.

Over the years, I standardized on heavy picks for the same reason; if the pick flexes, it gets in the way of the extremely fine and precise commands I'm issuing from my brain to my fingers.

But, for some reason on an acoustic guitar, when I strum, I gravitated to medium picks. For some reason a heavy pick (like a purple tortex) just doesn't feel quite right when I play a big dreadnought strummer. Not to mention, the thinner pick creates a different tone when moved across the strings, and I prefer it when banging around some Zeppelin acoustic songs and whatnot.

Light picks, I find them useless. I know there's a reason they exist and I know a lot of people like them, but for me, they do nothing. (I can't stand that in guitar center, if you ask for a pick, they hand you one of the GC branded ones and it's usually lighter-than-medium).

So to me, there is an absolute difference in attack, decay, and overall tone, between picks, and for me, the playable range is towards the heavy side (again, purple tortex is my standard), moving to the green tortex for acoustic if I'm feeling inclined that way at the time.

I know a guy, he's the lead guitar player for a band called Toxik. Grew up one town over from him. He uses very heavy jazz picks, purple tortex weight, but they're short. I don't like them at all (I have a couple of them in my studio). But that's preference. Josh is a guitar player that was way ahead of his time when Toxik was big. Nobody sounded like him, he was an innovator. Maybe one of the reasons for his distinct tone was that he was a heavy metal guy, really a predecessor of progressive thrash, that used a jazz pick.

Something else I found along the way, after experimenting with Herco picks (which Jimmy Page used), Fender picks (which are a kind of slippery plastic), and Tortex picks (and many, many others), the material is also relevant. For me, the Tortex pick is the absolute winner for tone, grip, attack, and feel. So that might be something else to keep in mind.

Lots of options out there, try 'em all. Picks are for the most part cheap, can't hurt to pick up a bag of a variety of weights, sizes and materials (they make metal ones etc) and give 'em all a run. They bring out different characteristics and can even incline you to play differently, which can help you discover something you may not have known about your playing self.

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I've found that when playing different styles, particularly "heavier" music, that the heavier picks hold up better. For instance, I've broken light pics by galloping with them.

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