The first time I approached the pick wall at my local music store, I was completely overwhelmed by the options. With hundreds of choices – endless combinations of shapes, textures, colours, thicknesses – I was quickly sent into a state of analysis paralysis. I ended up leaving the store empty-handed. I’m an over-thinker by nature (as many artists seem to be) and resolved to spare myself the decision and just play fingerstyle. In retrospect, that was pretty goofy…
I’ve since learned – from experience, teachers, other musicians, and of course, countless Google searches – the factors to consider when choosing a pick for playing guitar or ukulele. But before I get into some technical stuff, I can’t stress this one point enough: it is all about personal preference. I believe this is especially important for beginners to understand. Just like your decision to start playing an instrument (congrats BTW!), choosing the right pick is comes down to:
- YOUR sound
- YOUR style, and
- YOUR comfort
You’re going to come across “experts” with very specific tastes, but tastes are subjective, and you’re an artist! While teachers, musicians, and bloggers can offer some great tips on where to start, you ultimately need to experiment with a variety of picks and picking styles to find what best fits your style.
There are a few reasons why you may consider using a pick, whether you’re playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, ukulele, or another stringed instrument. These include, but are not limited to:
- Achieving a tone that best complements your style and instrument
- Playing more efficiently
- Protecting your hands and fingers
When working towards these ends, there are a few characteristics you can consider when choosing a pick. As I mentioned earlier, there are endless combinations of shapes, textures, thicknesses, and colours to choose from. Here’s how.
When it comes to shape, you’ll find the standard rounded-triangle shape is the most commonly used (hence “standard”). Your preference will evolve with your style, and you might be inclined to experiment with smaller jazz picks as your playing grows more articulate and precision becomes more important to you. Alternatively, you may choose to stick with the standard shape, as this shape is fairly versatile. The other factor to consider when looking at the shape is round tip vs. sharp tip. Rounded tips are best suited for strumming and rhythm, while sharp tips are more useful when playing lead lines and single notes.
In my experience, texture is the most subjective element of pick selection. There are limitless tones that can be produced using different materials, and it can be quite fun to experiment with both store-bought picks and homemade materials to create interesting new sounds. That said, you also want to protect your instrument. Felt picks have long been used for playing ukulele, both to produce a mellow tone and to protect the uke’s body and strings from picking. Ukuleles have nylon strings, so it is best to use a softer material when picking than a plastic, wood, or metal material. The softer the felt, the more mellow the tone…. A sound also sought by many-a-bass-player! Maybe it’s a 4-string thing? If you’re looking at other textures to experiment with, try: nylon, celluloid, synthetic turtle shell (real turtle shell is not legal!), wood, felt, metal, rubber, and/or leather.
Thickness arguably has the most significant impact on tone, and is probably the best/easiest place to start experimenting. Most picks fall into three thickness categories: thin (.40 to .60mm), medium (.60 to .80mm), and heavy (.80mm and up). While experimenting is the best way to determine the right pick for you, there are a few ways to guess which thickness may be best suited to your style.
Acoustic vs. Electric
Thin picks are best suited to acoustic strumming, while medium picks are better for acoustic picking. Medium picks are generally best for electric strumming, while heavy picks are better for articulation on single-note electric lines.
Rhythm vs. Lead (aka Picking vs. Strumming)
When strumming chords, light-to-medium picks are the most appropriate selection, depending on whether you want more high or low end tones (see below). Heavier picks are best for single-note and lead lines, when clear, articulate notes are most important.
Highs vs. Lows vs. Mids
Thin picks will generally produce more high-end tones.
Medium picks will produce
a good range of lows, highs, and mids.
Heavy picks are best for low-end, heavy sound.
Colours really don’t mean anything, but how cool would it be if there were a universal color-coding system that indicated thickness or something?! I don’t expect it to become the “standard”, but Freshly Picked does have a starter pack with 5 fruits, each in a different thickness.
This guide is intended to serve as a tool to simplify the process of choosing your first picks, but is by no means a finite resource. While there are some general rules of thumb that I’ve outlined, be creative, keep an open mind, and never stop experimenting – that’s how the best art comes to be! Try out as many picks as you can until you reach desired tone, comfort, and playability for your style of music.