Do I call it a Plectrum or Pick, this is a question passed from generation to generation of guitarist and to their siblings, I have found so far that what you call the trusty guitar pick could come down to where you live, the age of your guitar teacher, your parents or the books you are reading to learn about guitar.
A simple answer for plectrum or pick is a guitar pick is that both are correct and guitar pick is just a specific name for a sub group of the trusty plectrum, the guitar picks are plectrums for guitars, there are plectrums for other stringed instruments.
This brief look into the plectrum/guitar pick follows on from my writings on the guitar so far, types, parts, brands, history and more are covered in what I have already written about in the guitar music section.
Guitar picks come in many different sizes, shapes and thickness, there is many different types of materials used also, these may include, plastic, nylon, rubber, tortoise shell, wood, metal, glass, stone and aluminum to name a few.
The shape of the guitar pick can vary from company to company but most retain the standard isosceles triangle shape with two rounded corners at the top and varying roundness at the string contact end depending on personal taste and the brand of pick.
In the early days, the plectrum was used to play stringed instruments, the plectrum has been around for many thousands of years in a wide variety of forms starting with feather quills being the main material used.
Then came the shift to find more suitable materials for the plectrum, one of these next used was the shell of a turtle which provided the best of both worlds when it comes to tone and flexibility for plucking and string attack.
The guitar pick only came into existence after guitars come into existence so there is no surprise there.
Most early guitar players up until the 1920’s were finger pickers and so the plectrum/guitar pick took a while to get into mainstream use.
The changes in design of the pick throughout history have come from a need to hold onto the pick more efficiently while playing, slipping and dropping are a regular occurrence and you would know this if you are a modern day guitarist playing live under lights, it’s hard enough to hold onto a pick normally let alone adding hot lights, windmill arms, scissor kicks and sweat to the equation.
There has been a few attempts to rectify pick drop over the centuries, 2 rubber discs attached to either side of a pick, drilling a hole through the middle of the pick, corrugating the rounded edges of the pick, attaching cork to the wider end of the pick, in the end the easiest solution and the most cost effective was a imprinted logo in the middle of the pick and so the modern day, as we know now guitar pick was born and players all over the world rejoiced as they could now finish their solos with the one pick.
In 1902 Tony D’Andrea was the one of the first people to start to use celluloid to produce guitar picks, he found out by chance when purchasing tortoise shell coloured nitrate plastic and dies, he later found out that the small pieces of celluloid after he had punched them out with the dies were perfect for picking and strumming stringed instruments, I still have a few of these types pick that my father use to use, very rigid and the multi coloured plastic certainly stands out, old school guitar picks.
Then from the 1920’s and continuing through to the 1950’s his company D’Andrea Manufacturing controlled the world’s pick market with his design and manufacturing materials, they provided guitar picks to all the major businesses such as Fender, Gibson and Martin to name a few, this popularity of the guitar pick and the manufacturing material was due to the fact it could mimic the same tone and flexibility of the turtle shell sound, another point here to mention too would be that you don’t have to keep stealing turtles homes for the manufacturing of guitar picks either as this became a problem after the most used shells of the Hawksbill turtle became illegal to use as they were added to the endangered species list.
The D’Andrea Company continued to supply most of the world’s guitar picks and was the guitar pick of choice through the 1960’s, then later other manufacturers come to the market with different materials being used, nylon, wood, aluminum, metal, bone, stone and glass to name a few, each of these have different tonal qualities, but still the most used guitar pick worldwide would be the plastic guitar pick.
Generally when you start asking yourself, what guitar pick should I use there are a few things to consider, you should find something that you feel comfortable playing and that suits the style of music you are playing, from personal experience as I generally strum and little and pick a little I had to find a happy medium between thickness and size, you may only be a Joe Strummer so need a slightly thinner pick to get a different tone and sound, the heavier gauge the pick the better it is for riffing and ripping out guitar solo’s, during my metal years the picks were very thick, but as I’ve mellowed over time so has the thickness of my guitar pick, so similar to when playing football, you start off in the forwards or on the wing, quick and fast and then as you mature, get slower and train a little less you end up in the backs, your pick choice over the years tends to follow this pattern too, fast, quick and thick at the beginning of your career and slowly as the years mature you, your style changes, you listen to slower music with more feeling, you mellow out and your guitar pick gets thinner and thinner like your hair.
When buying picks you will find so many different colours, materials, sizes and measurements too, there are light, medium, heavy and some are measured in mm thickness too, you can get your own personalized guitar picks too, so your name or logo on them, I have an old “Darren Guitar Watson” guitar pick from back in New Zealand during 1993 I picked this up in Wellington, this was my first personalized guitar pick I had seen, he is a great player and was playing in “Chicago Smokeshop” back then (I ended up buying their tape cassette, showing my age) from memory , I have found him and have a plan to take a picture of the guitar pick and post it on facebook and ask him if he remembers getting them done.
So there you have a brief insight into the guitar pick / plectrum, like I have said, pick a pick that suits your style of playing, try a few different ones, you will be amazed how different they feel and especially if you have been using the same pick for a while and change, it feels so much different, no matter what you end up with, enjoy playing.