3

(I read like a batty child, so please understand that as you go through this message)

Sure, I've been playing acoustic and rhythm guitar for over 8 years. Yeah, I got strumming up and down mastered. But this very month I decided to join a venture with a friend of mine as an acoustic duo. And I'd have to be the one to play lead.

I'm not someone who plays lead guitar much; I'd learned how to play scales, and I have a generic idea of music theory. But, anyway, I can strum with the best of 'em, and I don't call myself a real guitarist because I'm just not a lead guy.

I hear lead players should play with thicker picks but I'm so used to thin and medium picks. One day I bought the orange Snarling Dogs (they happen to be my favourite brand right now) and I couldn't do a damn thing with them! I was thinking, "Well, I want a big sound, I should get big picks!" They're useless to me as a strummer.

I mean, what would you suggest for acoustic lead guitar playing? I'd have to do both lead and rhythm depending on the song and my skill level, so I'm looking for suggestions that would be, you know, a good balance. Like, right after playing that high part on "Ordinary World" I switch to strumming chords during the verse.

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Bowling, Richard, Tim, guidot, Dom Nov 7 '18 at 20:21

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

5

"... lead players should play with thicker picks ..." I believe it doesn't help to think of such statements as rules. From my experience it's true that many players prefer thicker picks for playing solo lines than for strumming, but that's not necessarily the case for you. Just to give you an example, I use two different picks for playing acoustic guitar: one for strumming, which is a bit bigger and thinner (between 0.6 and 0.7mm, I believe), and the other one for solos; the latter is a bit smaller and thicker (I think a bit more than 1mm). But this is a purely personal preference, and these things also change over time. I've used many different picks, and I might switch again if I find something that works even better than the ones I use now.

So don't worry too much what other people do and use, just try different pick sizes and thicknesses, and try to see what feels most natural. Your playing style will probably still change over time, and this will most likely also make you change your picks a few more times.

As for combining strumming and solo playing, you can of course try to find some compromise pick, as you suggested. But depending on the song you might also be able to switch picks. I do this quite often, you just need to have your picks readily available, e.g. taped to a microphone stand in front of you, or lying somewhere next to your chair if you play sitting. So if you think that you get the best result using two different picks for strumming and soloing, try to come up with a solution for switching picks. In many situations this should be feasible.

4

Thicker picks felt wrong to me when I was young until I sat down and played with one for a bit. I ended up hooked. For a decade or so now I've used 1mm large triangular Clayton Acetal picks for everything, electric and acoustic lead and rhythm. Then I took up mandolin and found that they make special "mandolin picks" with very rounded corners, which sound completely different.

Thick, heavily rounded mandolin picks tame the piercing bark of the chihuahua of the fretted stringed instrument family:

Mandolin Pick

1.5mm, you could drive nails with that thing.

Then recently I tried a .63mm Tortex pick and noticed that it had a distinctly brighter tone and snappier attack than the 1mm picks I've been using for so long. I compared it with a 1mm Tortex and it was the thickness that made the difference. This was a revelation, and I ran out and bought a selection of picks to experiment with. You may take that anecdote as an inspiration, or as a warning to give up music while you still have an ounce of common sense left. Your call.

You're already experimenting with different picks, but you asked the question 18 months ago so I'm speaking more for posterity than for the original poster.

The feel of the pick is one variable, and you have to figure out what works best for you. Like many guitarists, I'm convinced that stiffer picks give me more control. If you find that a stiff pick creates problems when you hit the strings as hard as you want to, then it may be that you've learned to hit the strings much too hard in order to compensate for a floppy pick, and it's time to switch picks and relearn your picking style. Turn up the master volume on your amplifier a bit and learn to moderate the volume by picking more softly. Then you can "turn up the volume" effortlessly at any time, merely by picking harder. Meanwhile, you'll stay in tune better and break fewer strings.

Then there's sound. Thinner is brighter, up to a point. And there's shape. And there's how you hold the thing.

With any pick, picking with the broad side rather than the point will get you a softer, mellower sound. I'll often change the angle of the pick in my hand while I'm playing. In the illustration below, the black line represents the string. On the left, I'm using the sharp angle to get a more louder, more trebly, more aggressive sound that cuts through better; on the right, a shallower angle for a sound that tends more to blend into the mix.

Clayton, Side View

Here's another image, showing how the pick can be angled across the string (rotated around what I'll call the Z axis, perpendicular to the plane of the top of the guitar) for greater roundness or mellowness.

Clayton, Z Axis

Normally, only the tip would be visible, but I had to hold it farther back to get a clear picture. I can cover all my rhythm guitar needs by playing with how I hold the pick on those two axes, plus muting, pickup selection, where I strike the strings, and which strings I use. But my rhythm style is more Lou Reed and Keith Richards than Duran Duran.

You can get another very different sound by playing with the shallowest side curve of the pick, angled sharply so it slides across the strings rather than plucking them. Try everything. Any parameter you can change is likely to affect the sound, because the guitar is a primitive, bronze-age mechanical system that requires you to keep your fingers directly on the parameters at all times. Words like "expressivity" sell the idea better, but it's the same thing.

These days I mostly play a Gibson SG with a rhythm guitarist who plays a Strat through a bright amplifier (Fender Blues Deluxe), so he stakes out out the treble while I infest the midrange. The 1mm pick works well for that sound, but I've always got options.

This week I've been playing mandolin with sharp-cornered picks. While I don't like what it does for the tone, I'm learning an Irish traditional tune that requires me to alternate-pick long runs of eighth notes accurately, and the narrower corner makes it easier for my clumsy right paw to hit only the string I want. This lets me devote more attention to aiming my left hoof at the tiny gaps between the frets.

The pick you use, and how you use it, can make a difference in your playing and a big difference in your sound. There's no absolute "right" or "wrong" choice for everybody, but as you've found you can very cheaply experiment with a variety of options and find what works best for you.

The most important thing is to put an asterisk next to everything anybody tells you: That's what he thinks. He may be repeating nonsense he heard or mis-heard from somebody uninformed and/or intoxicated, or his instrument or gear or playing style or experience may differ so drastically from yours that you get completely different results. Take no one's word for anything. Always prefer experience to theory. "Big pick for big sound" is a theory. Test it and forget it -- remember the results of the test instead.

I tried a steel pick as a youngster and didn't like it. It felt weird and was noisy on the wound strings. Try one, it may be just what you've been searching for. Glass or quartz are a mystery to me, but somebody out there loves them. I seem to be in the minority preferring Clayton Acetals to Dunlop Tortex.

One thing that's relatively objective is that celluloid doesn't wear well. High-tech materials like Delrin/Tortex/Acetal or Delrex are very tough.

UPDATE:

I've gone to back to thinner picks. For electric lead guitar I'm now using .73mm or sometimes even .60mm Dunlop Ultex. They're nice and crisp. I go as .50 Tortext or .60 Tortext Flex for chords on the acoustic. I've got a mess of picks where I play. For recording a given part, I try a few until it sounds right for that guitar playing that part on that track. They all sound very different.

When you buy a bag of 50 picks of any particular type, that's your subconscious telling you you're about to switch to something different. For a while.

3

I play a 1mm+ ultex pick for all my playing, acoustic or electric, lead or rhythm. I've made my pick, so to speak. I found that I hated the flop of thin picks, because I was never sure where it was in relation to the string. It'd bend instead of picking, so I always used a Fender Medium or higher.

I was told that ultex picks like Clayton Golds or the Dunlop Ultex were about as close to a tortoiseshell pick as you can get on acoustic guitar without being cruel to endangered animals, so I started picking them, and I liked the hardness of them. I've been consistent, so the pick feels and grips the same no matter what kind of music I'm playing.

I have a couple metal picks, which I stopped playing with over a decade ago, because I found that, as hard as I was playing on my acoustic, I was carving the winding off the G string. There is a brighter and more percussive sound, good in some circumstances, and unlike thin plastic picks, they do not bend.

Steve Kaufman is a champion acoustic guitar flatpicker, and he's known for playing with very thin picks. I just do not get how he does it.

Other players have different needs and play different things. You should always listen for why a player plays with this pick or those strings. Sometimes it's because it's for a good reason the player can explain. If the explanation makes sense, most picks are cheap, so give them a try. If they don't work, they're what? 50 cents each? You're not out anything much.

2

I tend to use a Dunlop 1mm pick for everything including acoustic strumming and electric lead. I just adjust my grip to suit the style of playing. Plus trying to manage what pick to use for what guitar and song seems too much of a faff to me when Iv got more things to worry about. My opinion only of course.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.