Guitar Picks: The Cheapest Way to Change Acoustic Guitar Tone
Acoustic guitarists have a secret weapon for changing their tone: the simple guitar pick. This relatively expensive piece of plastic can do more to change your tone and increase the precision of your playing than any other device or gadget you can buy.
If you play electric guitar there are lots of ways to change your tone, just the tone pot on the guitar plus various amp settings alone give lots of options and those are just the beginning. Descriptions of how to change an electric guitarist’s “signal chain” read like a cross between complex recipes and electrical engineering code, while acoustic guitar players are stuck with their guitar, their strings and not much else. To make matters worse, changing strings is a hassle so if you experiment with nickel-wound tone you can’t just flip a switch and be back to the familiar sparkle and overtones of phosphor bronze.
But switching to a different guitar pick is a quick way to affect your tone. The pick affects every note you play, and it allows you to make critical changes to your sound in just seconds. And compared to anything else you buy for your guitar these “tone components” are really cheap and last for months or even years. Of course picks of different shape and thickness are not a new idea, but in the last few years the range of picks offered has become much greater and a lot more interesting to explore.
Some pick-makers have come up with innovative materials and tweaks that make a big difference not just in the tone a pick produces but in how it affects your playing speed as well. Many of these differences are to the edge of the pick, and if you’ve been playing with a typical celluloid tear-drop shape pick, such as the venerable Fender in heavy or medium gauge, you may find that you’re a more versatile flatpicker than you thought once you start experimenting with heavier (thicker) picks with a beveled edge that contacts the strings. Maybe you won’t be able to tremolo as convincingly as Grady Martin on the opening fills of “El Paso” or keep pace with Django Reinhardt playing "Improvisation 1," but both your sound and the range of what you can play may dramatically expand. And best of all, your trusty celluloid or nylon pick can always be within reach, and no tools or time are needed to change back to what feels and sounds more familiar.
Several of the pick options discussed here are by Michel Wegen, who makes Wegenpicks by hand in his shop in the Netherlands. While a Wegenpick like the popular “Gypsyjazzpick,” one of Gryphon’s best sellers, isn’t cheap at $15 each, some other picks reviewed here are available from 30¢ to a few dollars. Twenty-five bucks will buy you a wide-ranging arsenal, and you’ll have a lot of fun doing your own tone tests. Lots of heavier-gauge plastic picks have nicely rounded edges, but this is often achieved by tumbling the picks in an abrasive material, while Wegen picks have a distinct bevel on only the leading edge of the tip, which makes a big difference. While the innovative bevels and molded grips in the thicker Wegenpicks are for right-handed players, versions for lefties are also available.
Wegen “Bluegrasspick”(pack of four, $15.00) is a 1.4mm thick teardrop-shape pick with nine small holes that provide an excellent grip and reduce the weight. The edge is beveled, but it’s not extreme. If you have trouble dropping picks or having them turn in your hand, you’ll love these!
Wegen "Gypsyjazzpick"($15 each) is a 3.5mm pick that doesn't feel nearly that thick thanks to a heavily beveled edge. The grip is indented with diagonal ridges, and if you want to experiment playing faster lines this may help you rethink the relationship between pick weight, or thickness, and speed. Wegen says it's "designed for loud and bright sound on acoustic guitars."
Wegen M100(pack of three, $15.00) is a 1.0mm thick triangular shape with very rounded points. Wegen describes it as designed for mandolin but popular with guitarists, too. No holes, no grip pattern, but not a slick surface. See other gauges »
Wegen Bigcitypick(pack of four, $20.00) is a small pick with seven grip-holes and a heavily beveled, rounded tip. Designed for acoustic jazz and blues, this small lightweight pick works for other styles as well and yields a nice bright tone. Looks a lot thicker than it feels when you’re playing with it. Great pick to start with if you want to get used to a thicker pick. Available in 1.4mm, 1.8mm, or 2.2mm.
Other picks to consider, available in our Palo Alto shop:
Primetone Sculpted Plectra “semi round”(pack of three, $6.95) is made by Dunlop. This hand-burnished pick is similar to the Wegen M100 with rounded points.
“Dawg” pick($1 each), is one of the first thicker picks with a heavily rounded tip, designed by David Grisman ages ago. Try this pick if you’re working on your tremolo on either mandolin or guitar.
Alex’s favorite flatpick is the bargain of the lot. He prefers the 30¢Dunlop “Gator-Grip” in the familiar tear-drop shape and a full 2.0mm thick (in black). The alligator-head logo imprinted on the matte surface provides plenty of grip, and you have the choice of playing with either the slightly rounded point or the very rounded shoulders. Available in a range of color-coded thicknesses.