As tone aficionados, we try to make sure that we have the right guitars, amps and stompboxes. But we often overlook some of the less sexy ingredients in the signal chain that can make just as much of an improvement as the right guitar.
It’s all in the Pick
The first order of business is to pay attention to what kind of pick you’re using. I have been the player who collects picks right and left, and just wants to have to the ones with the cool pictures on them and I have been the player who can ONLY use his ONE tried and true “lucky” pick. These days, I find myself in the middle of those two. I have found a company that makes a pick that I love, and I make sure that I keep extras with me everywhere I play.
A few years ago, I assumed that the secret to Eric Johnson’s playing was his Dunlop Jazz III picks, and so I swore off every pick in my collection in favor of those little red magic guitar picks.
Then I was on Long Island in NY for a gig and I discovered these great picks made by Cool Picks with a kind of grip tape on them so that they wouldn’t slip out of my hand. Those were roughly the same shape as the Jazz III, but they were slightly larger and felt more sturdy.
After that, my friend, Bryan Kehoe from Dunlop sent me a grip load of these pointy little wonders called the Ultex Sharp. Those were awesome, and made me feel like I was Lincoln Brewster (who surprisingly uses a thinner guitar pick).
Finally, I’ve landed on a pick that really feels and sounds great, thanks to my friend, Kenny, who uses the same ones. If you haven’t ever tried one, you owe it to yourself to contact V-Picks in Nashville and order a sample pack. These are made of rigid plastic that looks like plexiglass and they come in a TON of different shapes and sizes.
Keep in mind, what works for one person may not work for another. I’d encourage you to look for your own favorite kinds of picks.
How to Find YOUR Pick
For starters, I always drop the guitar picks on the glass counter of the music store when I’m looking at new ones. These days, picks come in so many different materials, and each one contributes its own personality as it strikes the guitar string. You can get a hint at how it sounds when it strikes the string by how it sounds when it lands on the music store counter. For instance, I’ve found some carbon fiber picks and when you drop those on the counter, they sound like little pieces of glass. Because of that, they chirp a little when they meet the string while you’re playing. By contrast, there are also picks made of nylon and when I drop those on the counter, they make almost no sound at all. Because of that lack of “chirp”, they meet the string with more of a “foop” or a “thud” sound.
It seems like we are splitting hairs here, but if you’re playing a strat through a Fender blackface-voiced amp, a pick that adds “chirp” to the string attach can add too much strident top end. But if you are playing a Les Paul through a Marshall, adding a little bit of chirp on the attack can bring out some of the articulation and clarity of your single note lines.
If you’re serious about sounding better, every link in the chain matters. But don’t forget to have fun with this part of the tone quest. Finding the right pick can unlock new techniques and playing styles in your playing.