A guitar pick (or plectrum) is a small flat tool used to pluck or strum strings of a guitar.
Picks are made of one uniform material — such as plastic, rubber, felt, tortoiseshell, wood, metal, glass, tagua, or stone. They are often shaped in acute isosceles triangles with the two equal corners rounded and the third corner sharper. They are used to strum strings or to sound individual notes.
Various guitar picks (clockwise from top): a nylon pick; a tortoise-shell imitation pick; a plastic pick with rubbing coating; a stainless steel pick; a Reuleaux triangle pick; a Tortex "shark's fin" pick.
- 1 History
- 2 Sound
- 3 Thickness
- 4 Technique
- 5 Materials
- 5.1 Plastics
- 5.2 Metal
- 5.3 Wood
- 5.4 Glass
- 5.5 Other
- 6 Shapes
Plectrums have been used since the emergence of stringed instruments. Feather quill were the first standardized plectrums that became widely used since the late 19th century. Later, shell casing of an Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle, which would usually be referred to as tortoiseshell, has become the most popular material for plectrums. There were other alternatives, but tortoiseshell provided the best combination of tonal sound and mechanical flexibility for plucking a string. 
Using Hawksbill turtle shells would become illegal in 1973 as a provision of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), forcing musicians to find something else. 
Most guitar players used thumb and finger picks till the 1920s, but with the growth of Nick Lucas' popularity, a flat "plectrum style guitar pick" became common.
A guitar pick saw many improvements through its history. Most of these were caused by the problem of guitar picks slipping out of the hand of a player. The first viable solution to the problem was found in 1896 by Frederick Wahl, who attached two rubber disks to both sides of a mandolin pick. More innovations were made over the next two decades when gauffering the rounded surface of the pick and making a hole in the center of a pick to fit the pad of a player's thumb were applied. Adding the cork to the wide part of the pick was a very important improvement, this solution was patented by Richard Carpenter and Thomas Towner in 1917. Some of these designs and choice of material made picks unreasonably expensive. Finally, players understood that all they needed was something to prevent the pick from slipping away, such as a high relief imprinted logo. Celluloid was the best choice for that.
Tony D'Andrea is known as one of the first people, who used celluloid to produce guitar picks. In 1902 he came upon a sidewalk sale offering some sheets of tortoiseshell-colored cellulose nitrate plastic and dyes, and finally, he would discover that the small pieces of celluloid he punched out with the dies were ideal for picking. From the 1920s through the 1950s, D'Andrea Manufacturing would control the world's international pick market, providing to major businesses such as Gibson, Fender, and Martin.
One of the main reasons celluloid became popular was that it was very close to the sound and plasticity of a tortoise shell guitar pick. Celluloid granted a good alternative in many ways. Tortoise shell was rare, expensive, and had a tendency to break. Celluloid was made from cellulose, one of the most prevalent raw materials in the world. Celluloid is used for many things for its flexibility, durability, and relative cheapness, making it a reasonable candidate as a material for guitar picks.
Playing guitar with a pick generates a brighter sound compared to plucking with fingertips. Picks also offer a greater contrast in tone across different plucking locations; for example, the difference in brightness between plucking close to the bridge and close to the neck is much greater compared to a fingertip. Conversely, many playing techniques that involve fingers, such as those found in fingerstyle guitar, slapping, classical guitar, and flamenco guitar, can also yield an extremely broad variety of tones.
Usually, a heavier pick produces a darker sound than a lighter one, but the shape of its tip has the most influence on the sound. A pointed tip produces a brighter, more focused sound, while a rounded tip produces a rounder, less defined sound.
Pick manufacturers print the thickness in millimeters or thousandths of an inch on the pick. Some brands use a system of letters or text designations to indicate thickness. Approximate guidelines to thickness ranges:
- Extra light/thin are less than 0.44 mm (0.017 inches) and marked as "Ex Lite" or "Extra Light"
- Light/thin are 0.45–0.69 mm (0.018–0.027 inches) and marked as "T" or "Thin" / "L" or "Light"
- Medium are 0.70–0.84 mm (0.028–0.033 inches) and marked as "M" or "Medium"
- Heavy/thick are 0.85–1.20 mm (0.035–0.047 inches) and marked as "H" or "Heavy."
- Extra heavy/thick are thicker than 1.50 mm (0.060 inches) and marked as "XH" or "Extra Heavy."
Picks are usually gripped with two fingers (thumb and index) and are played with the pointed end facing the strings. However, it's a matter of personal preference and many notable musicians use different grips. E.g., Eddie Van Halen holds the pick between thumb and middle fingers and leaves his index finger free for tapping technique; James Hetfield, Jeff Hanneman, and Steve Morse hold a pick using 3 fingers; Pat Metheny and The Edge also hold their picks with three fingers but play using the rounded side of the plectrum, as well as George Lynch and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The movement of the pick is also a matter of personal choice. George Benson and Dave Mustaine hold the pick very tightly between the thumb and index finger, striking the surface of the pick almost parallel to the string, for a very positive, articulate, consistent tone. Other guitarists use a technique known as circle picking, where the thumb joint is bent on the downstroke, and straightened on the upstroke, causing the tip of the pick to move in a circular pattern, which can increase speed. The angle of the pick striking against the string is also very personal and has a wide range of impacts on tone and articulation. Many rock guitarists use a technique, called a pick slide, which involves scraping the pick along the length of a round-wound string.
Mass-manufactured picks are commonly made of different types of plastic:
- Celluloid was the first plastic used for picks, and it is still in use today, especially by guitarists, who want to achieve a vintage tone.
- Nylon is a material with a smooth surface, so most companies apply a high-friction coating to such picks to make them more convenient. Nylon has high flexibility and can be produced in very thin sheets, that's why most of thin and extra-thin picks are made of nylon. Nevertheless, nylon loses its flexibility after 1–2 months of extensive use.
- Acetal is a very hard, glossy and durable type of plastic. Such picks literally glide across the string and therefore have a fast release, while making very little pick noise. Matte finish on acetal picks generates a bit more pick noise and requires a more aggressive attack, but the additional friction of its surface prevents pick from slipping away.
- Ultem has the highest density of all plastic picks, creates a bright tone and especially popular among mandolin players.
- Lexan is a glass-like plastic, which is very hard, but not durable. This material is used for thick and extra-thick picks. Such picks are usually covered with a high-friction grip coating.
- Acrylic is solid, light, bright polymer that provides great resistance. Acrylic isn't fragile and resistant to cracks. It can be formed and cut to almost any shape and thickness. Some classes of acrylic have a unique gripping feature: when it warmed by the touch, it gets the feeling of a sticky material, forcing the pick to adhere to your fingers.
- Delrex is a plastic that replaced tortoiseshell since its trade was forbidden in 1973.
Picks made from various metals produce a harmonically richer sound than plastic and change the sound of the acoustic and electric guitars. Some metal picks are even made from coins, which give players a unique tone as the alloys used in various coinage from around the world vary greatly. Playing guitar with a silver pick provides an individual, deep and bright sound, very different from traditional plectrums. Some pick manufacturers such as Master Artisan Guitar Picks are widely known for handcrafting guitar picks from coins and various metals.
Guitar picks made of wood have their individual properties and signature sound, because of differences in density, weight, and structure. Most wood picks create a warmer tone than plastics or metals. To face the rigidity of picking and strumming only the toughest woods are used for picks, such as African Blackwood, Bocote, Cocobolo, Lignum vitae, Rosewood, and Zebrawood. While the thick and sometimes rough edge of a wooden pick may create a fair amount of drag at first, wooden picks are easy to break in and do it quicker than plastic picks. Guitar strings outwear the edge of wooden pick and create a softer pass over the strings.
Glass is moderately hard and heavy comparing with metal or plastic and produces a wider spectrum of tone than other materials. Glass can be polished to a smooth or rough texture. Different factors such as size, form, and mass have a great effect on the whole tone making every glass pick sound and feel unique.
- Agate is used for thick picks varying from 1mm up to 5mm. This material is very inflexible and as such picks are harder than the metal guitar strings, they resonate the strings more completely.
- Carbon fiber picks are notably durable and have a greatly high stiffness-to-weight ratio. The thinnest guitar pick is made from this material (0.2 mm).
- Felt picks are commonly used with the ukulele.
- New Tortis picks are made of polymerized animal protein and are known as one of the best options to a natural tortoiseshell. They are hard, smooth, thick, and has only slight tip flexibility.
- Tagua is a nut from South America. This material has similar characteristics to animal ivory so it's also called "Vegetable Ivory." Tagua creates a very flat clear tone as the material slides off the strings easily. Because of the origin of material such picks are usually hand-made.
- Polyamide-imide is a material often used in aerospace industry as a replacement for metal. Such picks are very durable and have low friction on the strings.
Some picks have small extensions to make them easier to hold in sweaty hands, which is very important for public performers due to the hot stage lights. Various picks have a high-friction coating or the small perforations for the same reason. Players often have additional picks attached to a microphone stand or slotted in the pick holder.
The equilateral pick can be convenient for beginners to hold since each corner may be used as a playing edge.
The shark's fin pick can be used in two ways: ordinarily, employing the rough end; or the small perturbations can be scraped across the strings producing a much fuller chord, or used to apply a pick slide producing a rasping noise.
The sharp-edged pick is used to create an easier movement of picking across the strings.
A fingerpick is a type of plectrum used generally for playing bluegrass music. Most fingerpicks are made of metal or plastic. Unlike the common flat guitar picks, which are held between fingers, fingerpicks clip onto or wrap around the end of the fingers and thumb, so one hand can pick several strings at once. Usually, three fingers are used: one for the thumb, and one for the middle and index fingers. Fingerpicks worn on the thumb are called "thumb picks." Most players use a plastic thumb pick while using metal ones for other fingers. Fingerpicks are used for playing acoustic guitar, Hawaiian guitar, lap steel, autoharp, pedal steel guitar and Dobro. It takes some time to adapt to fingerpicks, even for people who play fingerstyle. Tonewise, they are most similar to standard guitar picks. Classical guitar players, who use their fingernails to pluck strings, may consider using fingerpicks instead.
Different types of finger picks.