Did you know your choice of guitar pick (aka plectrum) can make a big difference to the tone and feel of your guitar? After all, it’s the very thing coming into direct contact with your strings when you play. In today’s article, we’re going to take a closer look at the best guitar picks for acoustic guitar based on your playing style.
But if you’re in a hurry: The best guitar picks for acoustic guitar are usually light to medium gauge picks with enough flexibility to produce a balanced response from the guitar. Nylon and Celluloid make good starting points. If you play lead guitar a thicker less flexible pick made from Delrin or Acrylic can prove more efficient.
While that’s a basic summary, like all guitar accessories there’s a lot to mull over, including pick thickness and shape and the materials they are made from. But perhaps we should first ask, do you even need to use a pick?
Why Play with a Pick?
The truth is you don’t have to play guitar with a pick, and many guitarists choose not to.
Picks are never used on classical guitar (except Jerry Reed and Willie Nelson perhaps).
And on steel-string guitars, fingerstyle guitarists either play with the flesh of the thumb and fingers, grow their fingernails, or use a thumb pick, which is another type of pick we’ll discuss in more detail shortly.
Alternatively, guitarists such as John Mayer make use of both a traditional flat pick and fingers, by tucking the pick away between the middle and ring finger when not in use.
But, if you don’t fingerpick, or have the dexterity to switch between playing with the fingers and playing with a pick you’re probably playing acoustic guitar with a pick most of the time.
There are a few reasons for this:
- Greater volume
- Picks allow you to play faster and more accurately
- Playing with a pick produces a more focused sound from the guitar that just isn’t possible if playing with the fingers
So, where does one start? how do you go about choosing a guitar pick for acoustic guitar?
Picks can usually be selected based on the following three criteria:
- Materials (hardness & flexibility)
- Thickness (flexibility)
- Shape (including size & bevel)
We’ll take a closer look at each of these below and the impact they have on tone and playability.
What about Flexibility, Hardness, and Grip?
While flexibility, hardness, and grip are important, this is directly influenced by the thickness and material the pick is made from. For example, a nylon pick will be soft and can still be quite flexible even when a heavier gauge, whereas an acrylic pick will be inflexible and hard even if a thinner gauge.
Guitar Pick Thickness
The gauge of pick you play will affect the tone and playability more than anything else, so it’s the best place to start.
In most cases picks come in approximately the following gauges.
|Extra Thin||Under .40mm|
|Thin||.40 – .59mm|
|Medium||.60 – .79mm|
|Heavy||.80 – 1.49mm|
|Extra Heavy||1.50mm +|
Extra Thin and Thin
The lighter the pick the brighter the tone produced, and the more suited to a looser playing style e.g. strumming chords. Essentially, flexibility results in less friction between the pick and the strings.
Weight adds bass, this is the same for guitar strings and is also why bass guitar picks are usually a lot thicker.
Therefore thin picks (between .4 and .6mm) sound bright and are easier to strum a guitar with. Being lighter they are less likely to drag across the strings, and (in most cases) offer greater flexibility, allowing you to dig into the strings, which is great for rhythm playing, but not always ideal for lead.
Usually ranging between .6 and .8mm medium gauge picks are all-rounders, and unsurprisingly are popular due to their versatility. Tone-wise, as you might expect, they tend to accentuate more of the mid-range.
Heavy and Extra Heavy
Heavy gauge strings afford the guitarist greater control and accuracy making them ideal for lead guitar but not so great for strumming chords on the acoustic guitar.
A heavier gauge pick is less forgiving than a thinner gauge pick, but in some cases can help iron out a poor strumming technique or address technical flaws in your playing. Tone-wise they tend to sound darker, emphasizing bass frequencies.
Guitar Pick Materials
Up until 1973, the majority of guitar picks were manufactured from tortoiseshell, mostly from the Hawksbill sea turtle. Attractive, light yet strong, tortoiseshell was an ideal material for both picks and pickguards.
However, in 1973 the Hawksbill sea turtle was listed as critically endangered, forcing pick manufacturers to turn their attention to synthetics. Since then most picks have been made from plastic compounds such as Celluloid (most common), Nylon, Delrin, Acrylic, and Acetal (aka Delrin) along with natural products such as stone (agate), wood, ivory, and bone. You will also find picks made from more obscure materials such as steel, and felt.
I’ve listed the most common below and how each affects the sound and playability of the guitar:
Nylon is soft and smooth. To counter this it’s usually friction coated and the top half of the pick is textured to make the pick easier to grip.
Nylon picks can be made from very thin sheets of material and due to nylon’s flexibility, absorbs more of the energy imparted on the strings than some materials, resulting in a warmer sound.
On the acoustic guitar, they sound great, especially lighter gauges when strumming (aside from the clicking sound you may hear if playing a very light gauge). Heavier gauge nylon picks have a ‘slippery’ feel that makes them appealing for playing lead guitar also.
Similar in appearance to tortoiseshell. Celluloid is stiffer than nylon, although quite flexible in light and medium gauges, just in a snappier way.
Due to its lightness and stiffness, celluloid picks produce a brighter, more lively tone, although they can also result in more string noise compared to nylon.
They are a little more difficult to grip, especially if you have sweaty hands, and in my experience, don’t last as long as nylon picks.
Acetal is a low-friction, highly durable engineering plastic, well known for its strength and wear resistance. Also going under the trademark of Delrin it was first developed by Jim Dunlop in 1981 as an alternative to tortoiseshell.
Acetal/Delrin is a good option if just starting. Its matte finish enhances grip and is stiff, contributing brightness and a rapid attack on the strings.
Delrin also returns to its original shape quickly, even if deformed while playing.
Acrylic and Lexan
Acrylic and Lexin are very similar in that they are often translucent, looking more like they are made from glass. Being a harder material they are more durable than most.
I’ve never been a massive fan as they tend to be more difficult to grip, especially if your hands sweat, although they are often textured or include grip holes to address this issue.
Due to the inherent hardness of both materials, they tend to produce a brighter tone and more responsive feel than softer more absorptive materials.
Ultem is a high-strength plastic. Regardless of the thickness of the pick, you choose Ultem picks are usually very stiff contributing a bright, clear tone to the acoustic guitar.
Many guitarists prefer this material for banjo and mandolin as it’s one of the strongest materials used for manufacturing picks.
You may also notice the name ‘Ultex‘, which is the proprietary name for Dunlop’s picks manufactured from Ultem.
Tortex is essentially the same material as Delrin, although perhaps even ‘grippier’ than Delrin.
The Dunlop Tortex series is one of the most popular picks in the world. They are affordable, durable, and produce a crisp, snappy tone.
Caron Fibre guitar picks are lightweight and typically offer a textured grip. As you might expect they are also highly durable.
They are more expensive than most as they are harder to produce but offer a little more variation tonally based on the dynamics of your playing.
They are quite stiff even at a relatively thin gauge, so the thickness isn’t really comparable to the other materials in this list.
They can be abrasive but tend to smooth out after a small amount of time playing. They also may leave some black residue on your fingers, which is easily removed.
I haven’t mentioned some of the more ‘gimmicky’ natural materials sometimes used in guitar pick manufacturing such as stone or wood as I’d recommend against using them unless looking for a particular sound. I’ve experimented with a wooden pick and found they sounded lifeless, although they do produce very little string noise.
Otherwise, stone picks, much like playing with a coin, can be abrasive, and as a result noisy.
Another option is a hybrid pick, usually made from cellulose or Delrin with the top half coated in rubber to assist with grip. They can feel a little unusual but are worth a look if you sweat a lot and find your pick constantly slipping.
Why are some picks more expensive than others?
The cost of picks is based on ease of manufacturing. For example, picks that can be manufactured in sheets e.g. synthetic materials are usually far less expensive than picks made from natural materials as they are simply more difficult to work with. As discussed above, carbon fiber picks are also usually more expensive as they are also harder to produce.
Pick Shape and Size
While pick thickness and the material the pick is made from are perhaps more important, pick shape and size can also play a fairly large role, mostly in terms of comfort but also the attack on the strings from the tip of the pick.
We’ll discuss each in more detail below.
Your ideal pick size will mostly come down to how comfortable you are gripping the pick and how much surface area you prefer coming into contact with the strings.
Smaller picks definitely offer more control and as a result, are favored by some lead guitarists. Smaller jazz picks, for example, are ideal for faster playing where more control and less flexibility are required. But, in my experience, they also demand a firmer grip which can contribute to fatigue.
They’re a good option if hybrid picking (playing with both fingers and picking at the same time) as they are more compact and less likely to get in the way of your fingers.
A larger pick on the other hand can offer more tonal variation simply because you can do more with the pick in terms of how much additional surface area you can expose to the strings.
Due to simply being larger, they are also easier to grip making them ideal for guitarists who mostly focus on strumming the guitar with a loose picking hand. This can be useful for guitarists who struggle with playing more delicately while maintaining control of the pick.
The shape of the pick plays a bigger role than most anticipate also. For example, traditional flat picks with more rounded edges or tri-tip picks with a more rounded tip typically produce a warmer tone on the acoustic guitar.
Picks with sharper tips however produce a stronger attack, which results in a higher degree of accuracy and control and a brighter tone.
The amount of bevel or contour on the edge of the pick also affects the attack on the strings. Usually, this is dependent on the pick’s thickness. Lighter picks for example don’t usually feature contouring.
Bevels are usually seen on less flexible picks as they contribute to playing fast as the bevel prevents the pick from gripping the strings.
While you might be familiar with traditional flat picks, next time you visit your local music store take a closer look and you will no doubt come across thumb picks and finger picks although the latter is a little less common.
As the name suggests, thumb picks are worn on the thumb, wrapping around the thumb as can be seen from the image below.
As the pick is joined to the thumb in this way, this frees up the index finger that would otherwise, in conjunction with the thumb, be used to hold the pick.
As a result, thumb picks are particularly useful for fingerstyle guitar and have been especially popular with guitarists such as Tommy Emmanuel, Merle Travis, and Chet Atkins to name but a few. Unlike flat picks, you’re also unlikely to drop them when playing.
Using a thumb pick is key to achieving that ‘boom-chick’ sound associated with Travis picking. As the hand rests across the bridge when playing in this style, the attack from the pick can help provide a more focused, tone despite the strings being dampened by the picking hand.
That doesn’t mean they are essential for fingerstyle guitar. Plenty of guitarists prefer not to use them, due to differences in tone and dynamics between the bass and treble strings which are still played with the fingers.
Some guitarists also prefer the feel and tone provided by growing their nails, but, if you’ve never used a thumb pick before they can be fun to experiment with, but make sure you are prepared to take the time to get used to using it.
Types of Thumb Picks
While your options compared to flat picks are more limited there is still a range of different thumb picks acoustic guitarists can experiment with, from well-established brands such as Dunlop, D’addario, and Fred Kelly.
Thumb pics also come in a variety of materials from Nylon and Cellulose to Steel, which is more commonly used by Dobro and banjo players.
In other cases, thumb picks resemble flat picks joined to a band, while others such as black mountain thumb picks utilize a spring and promise a more versatile playing experience, blurring the lines somewhat between a flat pick and a thumb pick.
Left Handed Thumbpicks?
If your boss asks you to go out and get a left-handed thumb pick, they’re not playing a trick on you. Left-handed thumb picks are ‘a thing’. I use one myself, but finding them can be tricky. While you can dig around the pick container in your music store hoping to find one, save yourself some time and order online.
Summary – What Makes a Great Pick for Acoustic Guitar?
So with all this newfound knowledge of guitar picks, how does one decide what’s the best guitar pick for playing the acoustic guitar? Sure, there’s a lot to consider but in simple terms, the best pick for you will be what feels most comfortable to you based on how you play the guitar. Below are some recommendations to get you started.
If you mostly strum the acoustic guitar then light, flexible picks are an ideal starting point as they produce a more balanced sound from the guitar. The pick feels easier to push across the strings evenly.
The material and gauge of the pick affect how flexible the pick is, so experimenting with different combinations and finding what sounds best to you is key. If unsure, start with a light to medium gauge pick and try out both nylon (softer) and celluloid.
If you play a lot of lead guitar a smaller, harder pick will usually be best as the pick itself won’t flex, affording you greater accuracy and control. If this is the case try a Delrin or medium Tortext pick, to begin with.
Jazz picks are also a good option, due to their smaller size they take less effort to push or drag across the strings allowing even greater control and efficiency.
You might also prefer a smaller pick if you hybrid pick (playing with a pick and your fingers at the same time) but experimenting with different materials to match the tone produced by your fingers may also be a consideration.
If you mostly play fingerstyle guitar, a thumb pick is what you will need (if using a pick at all). Thumb picks come in different gauges and materials also, but in most cases, I’d recommend a stiff thumb pick if trying to emulate that ‘boom-chick’ sound synonymous with Chat Atkins and Merle Travis.
Get a Grip
Your choice of pick may also come down to how much your hands sweat. For example, if you have trouble holding on to your picks, you will favor grip and texture, and size over many other factors.
You might also love the tonal variety on offer by using a larger pick with a greater surface area to interact with the strings, or you might also prefer a beveled-edged pick if finding the pick you currently use grips the strings too much.
So as you can see there really isn’t a one size fits all answer to what makes a great acoustic guitar pick, it mostly comes down to your approach and personal preferences, and that will mostly rely on experimentation. But when in doubt, choose comfort, this will ultimately provide the best result and allow you to play for longer.