Interested in the tonal differences between guitar picks, and the reasons behind it? Well, first of all, if you’re a guitar player (or any other plucked string instrument), you have probably met some of the snobby guys. They are extremely anal about what picks they use. Especially those jazz players (who else, really). All those thick mammoth cock bone plectrums, or the wooden ones (that are extremely pricey and don’t last too long). Do you really need these to get certain kind of tone variations? Of course not. Why? Let’s look into picking just a little bit scientifically.
It’s all about the attack
Believe it or not, whatever you pick the strings with has only control over the attack of the notes. Once the string’s launched into vibration, it has a life on its own. The sustain and decay characteristics of the string and the whole instrument will come into play. So all that fuss about the guitar pick is really about the picking transient, i.e. the attack.
Let’s take a look at all the possibilities that can shape our string attack. Let’s also assume that the strings are plucked by the same force. How does the attack envelope and thus, the tone change when different plectrum materials are used?
Does material matter? Pick wisely
Soft, round material: You have guessed right, it’s the case of bare fingers. The finger pulls out the string sideways, then releases it. The latter happens the following way. The string has to slide across part of the finger’s surface before it starts to vibrate freely. Even if you have callouses, the skin of the fingertip is still a rather soft surface that provides a certain grip on the string. That means there’s a certain amount of dampening as well. It also slows down the velocity of that sliding motion (which means a somewhat lower efficiency). The results are a softer, longer and more subtle attack transient. If you have some fingernails (fake or real), you’ll fall into one of the other categories below, depending on your nail thickness and the angle of attack.
Soft, flexible material: Felt and rubber picks fall into this category. After you pull the string sideways, it will have to either slide down on the edge of the soft material, or only move past the tip of it, before getting into free vibration. As you can see, playing with these, the angle also comes into play. If you pick at an angle or use a larger surface of the pick, you’ll get a somewhat softer and longer attack. If you use a smaller part towards the tip, there wont be as much dampening, and the attack transient will be sharper.
Hard, thin, flexible material: It’s the usual case of a thin plastic plectrum. While you pull the string sideways, the guitar pick has some give and bends under the tension. Thus, the efficiency gets reduced and the amplitude of the attack will be low. The attack transient itself will happen rather quickly because there’s not much dampening due to the hard material, but the string has to roll down on the arched, flexed surface of the pick. So, medium to high velocity but quiet attack (“plink, plink”). Thin nails will result in a similar attack sound as well.
Hard, round material: This is the case of those big gypsy jazz guitar picks. In the release phase of the string, it has to slide across quite an amount of slick, hard surface. This will make the attack just a little bit slower, which is of course quite noticeable. If the pick surface is not perfectly flawless (and why would it be after some time of usage), you’ll also get some slurring sound incorporated in your tone. The attack itself will be rather loud, but the velocity won’t be the highest because of the round surface. The same or at least very similar thing happens when you use the round part of a regular heavy pick and play with it at an angle.
Hard, non-flexible material: While most plastic picks have some “give”, the heavy gauge ones are quite hard and non-flexible, compared to the thin ones. And if that’s not enough, you can always go to metal picks. With these, you can pull the strings as far as you can, and release them at the highest efficiency. Sharp, high velocity, loud attacks. Unless you choose to use the rounder part of the plectrum or play at an angle. In that case, you can get a transient closer to the above category.