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Just like any other community of artists, guitar players can be…opinionated. I should know. I'm one of them. No two guitars will sound exactly alike, and many things can affect how the guitar sounds. String types, guitar shape, and using a guitar pick all affect the tone of the music produced.
In general, using a guitar pick will affect the tone of your guitar by increasing how percussive the sound is, often making your guitar produce a louder sound. More percussive means that the pick increases how much the string will vibrate when strummed. The effect of a guitar pick will vary based on the material and thickness of the pick.
Read on to see how picks, other factors, and your technique can alter tone as well as how to find the right pick for your playing.
Table of Contents
How do Guitar Picks Change Tone?
Using a pick or not is a stylistic choice, and it can change from song to song. While I use a pick for most of my songs, there are a few in my repertoire that doesn't sound right to me unless I'm using my fingers to strum or pluck the strings instead of a pick. I also had to find the kind of guitar pick that worked best for me as I moved beyond just borrowing my dad's.
The tone of a guitar all comes down to resonance and how the sound moves. Resonance involves how long a sound will last based on it being reflected- like by the hollow in an acoustic guitar. All sound is vibration, and there are a huge number of ways to affect how a guitar makes those vibrations and how it sounds.
How guitar picks affect sound can be very nuanced and even complex. Material, thickness, stiffness, and other factors will all change the particular effect a pick will have. The one effect that most if not all picks will have in common is increasing how percussive the sound is.
Percussive refers to how much the strings of the guitar will vibrate. Since all sound is based on vibration, the more the strings vibrate, the louder the sound produced will be. Especially if you're playing acoustic guitar, using a pick to increase volume may be your only goal, but other effects on tone are possible.
Picks with different textures will differ in how they affect tone. Smoother picks that practically glide off the strings will produce a different tone than a textured pick that will move the string differently.
Picks with more texture often add an element of grit to a guitar's tone. Textured picks will also improve the grip of the guitar player.
The thickness of the pick will also affect tone. Thicker picks will usually take the overall tone of the guitar lower and allow the bass notes to really shine in your music. A thinner pick, on the other hand, will usually produce a brighter tone.
The material of a pick will also affect the tone. The most common material for picks these days is plastic, but you can also find picks made of metal, wood, or even felt! Plastic and metal are generally harder picks and cause the most vibration of the strings, so they'll generally produce a louder, more resonant tone. Metallic picks can also produce a metallic sound, which may fit your style.
Picks made from materials like wood tend to be softer, though this can vary based on the type of wood. Softer picks generally produce a softer tone, so they're less popular with lead guitarists or soloists. Other soft picks can be made of rubber, leather, or even felt!
Fun Fact: Queen guitarist, Brian May, prefers to use coins as a pick. Specifically, he likes to use pre-1956 British sixpences.
Even the shape of a pick will affect the tone produced by using it. Picks with sharper edges tend to produce a ‘sharper' sound that is often considered better for lead guitar or solo pieces. Rounded edge picks are better for simple strumming and background guitar playing.
Why Does Your Guitar Pick Matter?
Most modern picks are a basic rounded triangle or teardrop shape. In a music store or online, picks are often sorted by thickness and material. Most picks will be made of plastics like Celluloid, Nylon, or Acetal.
Many guitar picks used to be made out of the shells of hawksbill sea turtles, but this led to the animal being put on the endangered species list, and using their shell make anything is now banned.
Manufacturers these days often aim to mimic the stiff but flexible nature of the shell that made it such an ideal pick. When looking at the thickness of a pick, these are the general classifications:
|Thin Picks||.4-.6mm thick (Sometimes Less)|
The stiffness of a pick will also account for how they vary from one type to another and how your guitar's tone will change, but beware of a brittle pick since that might break easily and won't necessarily produce the best tone.
4 Tips for Choosing the Right Guitar Pick
Choosing the right guitar pick for your guitar and style is important and will ultimately change your guitar's tone. Here are some tips to help you choose the right one:
- Do your research
- Try a variety
- Check the size
- Plan on using multiple picks
If you know you want to play country music, search for what famous country musicians like to use for picks, what materials they like, and any tricks, they use with their pick to get their distinct sound. Different genres of guitar music will value different types of guitar picks.
You don't have to use the exact pick the original artist of the song you want to play or adhere strictly to pick styles for certain genres. Looking into what picks other people use should be solely for inspiration and a general guide.
Try a Variety
The only way to know if a guitar pick is truly right for you is to use it. Don't lock yourself into one pick just because it's the first one you used. You can buy a bag of picks of assorted shapes, materials, and thickness and work your way through the whole bag to end up with just one that you like.
Once you know generally what you like, it's much easier to find more of that type of pick and fine-tune what you want from your guitar picks. You can also start grabbing small items like coins from around your house and see if they make a good guitar pick- just make sure they won't damage the strings.
Check the Size
Your guitar pick should be comfortable for you to hold and easy to control. It's already easy enough to drop a pick into the body of your guitar, so set yourself up for success by choosing picks that are the right size for your hands.
Plan on Using Multiple Picks
Unless you want to restrict yourself to one style and one style of music only, you may find it better to have a small selection of picks that you rotate through based on what you're playing and what works best for a particular song.
Should I Get a Custom Pick?
If you want to get a custom pick, go for it! A good number of 'boutique' pick makers have emerged in recent years, and that they've stuck around and kept growing is a good sign that they have something to offer.
By customizing your pick, you can mix different needs like wanting a textured pick for grip with a sharper point for a sharper sound, and getting it custom made may be easier than trying to hunt down exactly what kind of pick you need on the internet.
Custom picks might be right for some people, but it's not a requirement to have fun, sound good, and find the right pick for you. It might give you a nice confidence boost or be a cool item to have, but it's not necessary.
Another problem with custom picks is that guitar picks are like the music world's bobby pins, meaning that they're extremely easy to lose. I've bought a pack of 50 or so picks and only know where just one from that package is now. If you lose things often, it may not be worth it to get a custom pick.
Where Does Fingerpicking Fit In?
Fingerpicking is a method of playing where you strum or pick the strings with your fingernails, the pads of your fingers, or even your whole hand. Most classical guitarists will use fingerpicking for most of their pieces.
Fingerpicking may give finer control over tone since you can easily change how hard you strum from one finger to the next, but it can be a less crisp sound than using a guitar pick.
Fingerpicking is most often used in Blues, Country-Jazz, Folk, and Classical guitar music. The softer tone of fingerpicking is good for these genres, and the ability to quickly stum strings that are further apart lends itself well to melodic playing.
There are plenty of songs where you can choose between fingerpicking and using a guitar pick without it making a huge amount of difference. If you're just learning to play guitar, you can look up fingerpicking exercises to practice this method or focus on mastering a pick first.
In the end, fingerpicking is simply another stylistic choice that you can make when trying to find the tone you like best for your guitar- and if you have more than one, you may find that fingerpicking may sound better on one than the other.
Using Your Pick the Right Way for the Best Sound
Unless you start solely with fingerpicking, a guitar pick is probably the tool you'll pick up most, second only to the guitar itself. Once you've moved on from simply playing individual notes in your scales or strumming single chords, it can be easy to feel like you don't need to learn anything more about using your pick, but that's not quite true.
Learning strum patterns for the guitar is just as important as learning where your fingers go on the fretboard and the order of the chords. Not many songs involve playing a chord once and then changing to the next chord a few beats later.
It's important to practice using your pick in multiple ways because it will move differently in your hand as you strum- an upstroke will feel different than a downstroke, for instance.
Learning to adjust how you hold the pick or allow your fingers to move in response to your strum is one of those things that only comes with experience.
If you're looking to improve how you use a pick, look up dexterity exercises for guitar players and watch videos that teach you different strum patterns. Practice strumming only two or three strings at a time while avoiding the others and learn to do that without thinking about it in the middle of a song.
Give it some time and effort, and you'll soon find yourself a master of guitar picks, and your songs will sound all the better for it.
Other Factors to Keep in Mind that Change the Tone
All this information can make choosing the right pick seem like the single most important choice when playing the guitar, but that's not the case. The tone of your guitar is made up of many factors, most of which take up a bigger share of the outcome than what pick you are using.
The most important takeaway is to find the pick that's right for you and produces the sound that you find most pleasant from your guitar. You can still produce beautiful music with the cheapest pick you can find at the music store or a spare coin in your pocket. You can even forgo the pick entirely and just use your fingers.
But, guitar picks are the only responsible party for changing the tone of your guitar. There are several other factors to consider, each one being a different piece of the puzzle, working together to produce the sound you want from your guitar.
- Guitar shape and types
Guitar Shape and Type
The shape of your guitar affects tone, especially in hollow-body guitars, because of how they produce sound. With hollow-body guitars, the hollow allows the sound to resonate around the chamber. Because of this, the shape of the chamber affects tone because the sound will move around the hollow in different ways.
In solid body guitars, the effect of shape is more on the player than the instrument itself. The way a solid-body guitar is held is different from its hollow-bodied brother, and the result is that how the player will press down on the frets and their angle of strumming will change, altering the tone.
Solid-body guitars also focus on using pickups for resonance instead of the sound echoing through a chamber like a hollow body guitar, which also changes the overall tone of these guitars.
There are, of course, differences in how a guitar made of wood and a guitar made of metal will sound, but the effect on tone goes deeper than that. Two guitars can have the exact same shape and be strung with identical strings and sound very different if they're made of two different types of wood.
Any material you can make a guitar out of will have a different level of motion resistance than any other substance, and that will alter the tone. The way the sound will bounce around the hollow of a metal guitar is decidedly different from how it resonates in a wood guitar.
In my personal experience, a metal body guitar will have more of a “twang” than one made of wood, and the overall sound is a bit sharper as it resonates in the metal hollow.
Strings can alter the tone of your guitar in two ways- their material and their thickness. Nylon strings are softer and easier on the hands, and many are thicker than their steel counterparts. Because nylon strings are a type of plastic, the sound produced may be softer due to how the strings resonate.
Steel strings and those that are thinner will produce a brighter sound, while thicker strings will make the lower notes more robust. Paired with picks that also favor lower, sharper, or brighter tones can produce a stunning effect on the sound of your guitar.
How Guitar Picks Change the Tone of Your Guitar, Final Thoughts
Whether you stick to one type of pick for everything you do, change it for every song, or skip the pick entirely in favor of your fingers, it's easy to change the tone of your guitar with this simple choice. As long as you're happy with what you're doing, there's no wrong answer to the question of what type of pick to get. When playing the guitar, using a pick is a small but powerful choice in your instrument's tone. By increasing how percussive the sound is, a pick can change the tone to make it brighter, darker, sharper, softer, or any number of subtle changes. Experimenting to find the perfect pick can be hugely fun, and with the huge variety out there, the perfect pick for everybody exists somewhere.
Side note, do you want to learn to play guitar songs the easy way? Learn how here – results are guaranteed!