Picks have existed from the earliest days of string instruments. There’s evidence that ancient Egyptians used picks made of stone or bone, similar to picks found today. Modern picks come in a huge variety of materials, both natural and man-made, even recycled, and in many shapes and sizes.
Most common today are the rounded triangular-shaped picks made of plastic. They come in a variety of thicknesses for different applications.
The first plastic picks were made by Luigi D’Andrea, a vacuum salesman who punched out a few hundred heart-shaped trinkets from tortoise-shell colored cellulose nitrate and sold them to a music store as picks. Eventually, plastic picks became popular, enabling mass production. Picks are made of similar synthetic materials today under a variety of proprietary names: celluloid, nylon, duralin, etc.
The thicknesses of picks vary from extremely thin (.017-millimeters) to very heavy (3.5-millimeters). Lighter designs provide more flexibility and a wider range of sounds. Thick picks give more control and are designed for heavy gauge strings.
Rhythm guitarists tend to prefer light-to-medium picks with enough “give” to allow fast strumming patterns. Lead guitarists and jazz players often lean toward thicker picks for greater clarity. Bassists who use picks require thicker ones. Banjo players and fingerstyle guitarists use specialized finger picks (and thumb picks) that slip onto the ends of their fingers.
Dropping a pick is a common concern. Some innovative pick makers have added ridges, holes, or friction coating to make their picks easier to grip.
Aside from the traditional vaguely triangular shape many other innovative shapes have been developed. Equilateral picks are triangular. Because they are the same on every side, proper positioning is never an issue. Shark’s fin picks have one sharp protrusion for fuller chords and guitar slides, plus a blunt end for normal sound. Some musicians even choose to make their own picks out of discarded credit cards or coins.
Pick choice is a very personal decision, but there are some picks more applicable to certain types of strings, instruments, or genres of music. You may want to keep a selection of picks on-hand for different playing styles.
Synthetic picks go by a variety of names, but most of them are proprietary names for plastic. They are the most common picks available and come in a multitude of shapes and thicknesses. Most of them are light and inexpensive.
Some picks have an innovative added grip—grooves molded into the material, added cork, or holes—so they won’t slip out of your hands. They are especially beneficial for musicians whose hands sweat, or those who have arthritis or other conditions that make gripping a challenge.
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With the popularity of “green” movements picks of natural and recycled materials have been popular in the past decade. Clayton USA makes Eco-Picks from a compostable, agricultural based polymer. Timber Tones makes picks from a variety of natural materials, from stone to wood, even wool felt.
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Finger picks are often used in bluegrass, and other fingerstyle music. They come in a wide variety of shapes and materials—plastic, metal, stone—just as flat guitar picks do.