About Those Expensive Picks…
Have you ever been curious about those high-priced picks, especially those ultra-hard ones made from organic materials? I was. I once bought a $25 mammoth ivory pick and enjoyed the way it sounded — for an hour, till I lost it.
But when I saw the box of spiffy-looking John Pearse picks at a local guitar shop, I couldn’t help myself — I bought one of everything, and recorded the results, together with comparison recordings made using some humbler, more common picks.
The organic picks vary in cost from a between five and ten dollars each for the Pearse models to $24.95 for the StoneWorks stone pick. The GraphTech picks are a comparative bargain at about a buck each. They’re made of the same simulated ivory used in Tusq guitar parts.
Before I get to the demo recordings, a few general comments: This isn’t snake oil. These exotic picks really do sound different, and different from each other.
Whether that difference will be meaningful to you depends on your style and needs. Some players have one pick type they love, and can’t bear to play anything else. Others always keep an assortment handy, varying the pick according to the part. And then there are some weirdos like me who usually play fingerstyle, but sometimes switch to picks to vary tone, or just save their nails.
The high-priced picks are generally dense, stiff, and inflexible. That usually means a stronger fundamental to each note, and less of the clicky, “thwaking” attack you get from plastics. On the other hand, they often introduce a skittering scrape as the ultra-smooth pick glides against the string. For some players, that high-pitched noise is an instant deal-breaker, especially on acoustic guitar, where differences in pickup composition are much more obvious than on electric. But I had an interesting experience a few hours after I bought these picks.
I was playing a session for Matthew Jaffe, a talented young singer/songwriter who’s all of 16. The producer was Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads fame, and the engineer was Eric “ET” Thorngren, who has recorded a stupefying number of great records. I was adding parts to a fairly thick rhythm track consisting of Matthew’s bright-toned Jazzmaster and expert performances by bassist Nathan East and drummer Steve Ferrone. You know — basically trying not to suck in the context of all that talent.
I tried using some of my new picks, and ET started screaming: “What are you doing? That’s great! I love that high end!” (To be honest, ET pretty much always screams — he’s a very passionate guy.) But to his expert ear, the super-hard picks were adding definition and punch needed to sit with a thick rhythm track. And mind you, I was playing a direct-recorded Telecaster at the time! (Actually, it was Jerry’s Tele, a guitar used on countless great Talking Heads tracks. It’s a heavily modified pre-CBS instrument whose original rhythm pickup was long ago swapped for two Seymour Duncan Strat-style single-coils, wired for both in- and out-of-phase performance. But that’s another story . . .)
Anyway, the same pick that sounded a bit nasty on an acoustic guitar in a shop sounded great in the context of a mix.
Here’s what the 11 picks shown above sound like playing the same phrase on acoustic guitar:
I don’t know about you, but I hear some dramatic differences! Some observations:
- Once I start tuning into it, the clacky sound of the regular plastic pick starts getting on my nerves.
- The physically thickest picks — the Dunlop Tortex and thick Pearse Casein — have the darkest tones. (BTW, casein is a product made from milk and phosphoric acid! Pearse calls this line “Fast Turtles,” in honor of the creatures spared from a pick factory.
- The GraphTech “Harmonically Rich” Tusq picks have the feel of a regular plastic pick, but with greater stiffness relative to density, making them feel and sound close to real tortoise shell. (I used to have a couple of old tortoise shell picks, but couldn’t find them the day I made these recordings. Did I mention that I lose a lot of picks?) The Pearse horn picks and casein picks also provided a convincing tortoise-shell sound.
- The Pearse rosewood and coconut shell picks sound the brightest and feel the stiffest — more so than stone or bone! I find their tone a bit harsh and thin in this naked solo context (especially with my 000-sized Lowden acoustic, which is screamingly bright), but they might be perfect for adding snap to a dark-sounding guitar.
- My personal favorites are the Pearse thin casein and horn picks, and the StoneWorks stone pick. The Tusq picks are my bargain choice.
- The ones that are my favorites also tend to be the ones that sound a lot like tortoise shell. Old as I am, I’m not old enough to have played during the tortoise shell era — picks of that type were a rarity even when I was a little kid. (Which is a good thing, IMHO.) The thin Pearse casein pick in particular is a fab shell-like substitute.
Now let’s hear some electric examples. For these I used a ’63 Strat with the bridge pickup through a bright amp to best reveal the high-end properties.
What I hear is . . . well, not that much of a difference between picks, at least compared to the acoustic examples. Which makes sense when you consider that pickups, amps, and speakers all filter out highs, obscuring the treble details that most strongly differentiate the pick types. (Though as previously mentioned, I certainly heard a difference when tracking in the studio with a direct recorded, clean-toned Tele.)
Anyway, I now plan to keep a mixed bag of picks on hand at home, in my gig gadget box, and at sessions, and just choose whatever feels best in context. Until I lose them all, that is.
Speaking of which: I also bought a Pearse ebony pick for this post, but lost it before I got around to making the recordings. I’m going to either a) learn to be a lot more careful with my picks, or b) waste a lot more money on them.
Just remember: It’s probably not a good idea to hurl handfuls of $24.95 StoneWorks picks at your adoring fans, no matter how adoring they are!
How about you? Any experiences with unconventional picks? Anyone use coins, like Brian May and Billy Gibbons are alleged to do? Your thoughts?
UPDATE: Not long after writing this, several players wrote recommending Vinnie Smith’s V-Picks, another high-end alternative. I bought a bunch and posted more audio examples here. (Spoiler alert: They’re cool.)
This article was originally posted at Joe’s website, www.tonefiend.com. Check it out!