I occasionally get emails asking for advice on what gear to buy and recently I was asked which guitar picks I recommend. When I started Musicademy I vowed never to get into the “What picks/strings do you use?” debate as it seems dangerously close to some kind of weird train spotting competition contested by oddball girlfriendless men with big beards who talk about Fender serial numbers through their adenoids.
That said there are some useful pick technique ideas about so here goes. (For the record I’ve never train spotted but I do know something about Strat serials).
Firstly if you are playing acoustic or strumming you need a softer pick with a bit of flex in it. Too hard a pick here can sound metallic against the strings. Thinner ones have too much flex and then you loose volume when you hit the guitar hard. Slightly fatter picks produce more volume but don’t flex as much as I like. They do soften up if your hands get hot which can be a good or bad thing so experiment to see what best works for you. I’ve always been a fan of the grey .60 Dunlop picks which have a textured surface and are made of nylon so they don’t splinter like harder plastic and are easier to grip especially if your hands sweat. Generally I find anything beyond 1mm is too thick for acoustic unless you are picking individual strings.
Conversely for electric guitar you need to work with more rigid picks particularly if you are playing lead. When executing fast runs the last thing you need is pick flex which slows down the attack of your notes and hinders accuracy. I’ve experimented with all sorts of picks up to 3mm bass picks which are great for lead but not so good if you are playing a combination of lead and rhythm guitar so I’ve tend to stick to something just over 1mm. Also try roughening up the tip with fine sandpaper or a nail file to sharpen the attack.
That said if you are playing both single notes and rhythm which many of us do it’s really important to develop a pick technique that makes the best of both situations. You can achieve that by working on where and how hard you grip the pick itself.
Firstly I’ve seen people grip picks in so many different ways but a classic technique is to place the large part of the pick under your thumb with the tip facing 90 degrees to the left (assuming you are right handed). Then place the left hand side of your index finger directly under the pick to grip it but don’t let the pick touch your finger above the first knuckle.
Now if you are working with a softer pick and playing lead you can get over the flex by gripping it hard and keeping most of the pick under your thumb, so just exposing the tip will help. (photo) Conversely for strumming expose much more of the pick area to the strings to allow it to flex and work on varying your volume levels purely by gripping the pick harder or softer.
Also when strumming try to relax your forearm, splay out your middle, ring and little fingers and loosen your wrist to let your hand act like a pendulum as it moves over the strings. (Photo) Again the opposite is true for lead guitar. So if you are playing faster collections of notes tighten your wrist, push your middle finger tight against your index to restrict lateral movement and pick notes in almost a circular movement rather than just up and down which will help you gain speed and accuracy. (Photo)
Don’t forget to think about where you hit the strings either so utilise the dynamics and bright zingy tones available by strumming right up close to the bridge or the woody tones from playing forward on the strings directly over the neck.
Finally you can make the biggest difference to your tone by learning to deaden any open strings that aren’t supposed to be in the chord. So for instance for a C chord practice pushing your index finger into the low E string to mute its sound or for a D again use your index to mute the A string and then hook your thumb over the top of the neck onto the low E to mute that too. Its not strictly orthodox technique but it does mean you can hit all the strings hard and not worry about extraneous notes ringing out.