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Grisman pick in tortoiseshell celluloid, printing worn away
The way a pick works results from a combination of things:
  • material
  • thickness
  • shape (outline of the pick and the shape of the points)
  • profile of the edge itself

Materials range from cow horn to stainless steel to coconut shell, wood and agate and even hard felt. Oh yes, and plastic. Tortoiseshell (God's Own Plastic) has a long history as a pick material, and as a result, many synthetic materials have been tried as a substitute. Some, notably celluloid nitrate and celluloid acetate, have even been made to look like tortoiseshell. The early Grisman pick, above, is a good example. 

Most commercial picks come in a few thicknesses, and the range has improved tremendously over the last few years. A lot of new materials have been tried, such as carbon graphite, Delrin, polycarbonates of one sort or other, plus some older but less common materials like stainless steel, agate, and nylon. Each is different, each has its adherents.

The shape of the pick (and size) is another variable. Some folks (like me!) need a somewhat large one in order to keep a grip on it so they don't drop it. Others (like John Jorgenson) can't bear the encumbrance of anything larger than a pumpkinseed. 

Most important in any pick is how the edge is dressed. Unless that's right, it won't work well. To some extent it's only a matter of getting rid of rough edges that scrape a string, but the response of an edge can be nuanced by how that's done. 

Here's a lineup of edges of picks. The top brown one is simply cut to shape, without edge treatment. 

The next one down has the edge simply rounded off so it won't scrape on the strings. This is a fairly minimal rounding off. It's how most commercial picks are done, in the tumbling (polishing) process.

But you can do more, including thinning the edge more gradually. This really affects how the pick flexes and releases the string as you pick it. Also, a smaller edge has an effect on the quality of the snap or release.

Picks come in different thicknesses, and in different materials. The ratio of material to thickness is important. For example, the green Delrin (Tortex) pick is allegedly .88 mm thick. My micrometer tells me it's really .86, but I think that's because it's been polishedand has lost a wisp of thickness. In fact, almost every gauged pick measures slightly less that the stated thickness, probably because celluloid and other plastics gas off and shrink with age. My favorite clownbarf celluloid is 1.02mm thick, and feels very much like the thinner Tortex®. That's what I mean about difference in materials. I also think Tortex is very close to real tortoiseshell.

Furthermore, not all commercial picks are so consistent. I measured a lot of Fender picks, and found them quite different. These hundredths of a millimeter sound trivial, but in the hands of a player, it's an appreciable and significant difference. 

Here's a list of a few celluloid picks and their range of gauges:

. Fender Herco Grisman Mine
Thin .45 - .48 . . .
Medium .55 - .78 .68 - .71 . .
Heavy .85 - 1.06 .96 - .98 . .
Extra 1.15 - 1.25 . . 1.02
Serious . . 1.38 1.5 - 2.1

Again, celluloid shrinks as it ages, so a pick that was .7 when it was made could be only .55 ten years later. And it still says Fender® medium on it.

Herco, by the way, is now owned by Dunlop and no longer makes its good old celluloid flatpicks. They used to make Gibson and other picks under contract, much as D'Andrea made Fender and others. 

rare clownbarf Fender mediumabalone-type celluloid, Fender Custom Shopless rare Fender heavy in clownbarf

Lovely, no?


Here's a pick of another material: polycarbonate. And a little free advertising for my friend Paul Robinson. 

It's a transparent purple, and very hard, but not brittle. Like nylon and some other materials, it is cast into shape, rather than being die-punched and then polished. The notch at the top is where it is snapped off a casting sprue. It's the same size as a Fender medium, and despite being stamped 1.14mm, it is actually 1.22mm!

There are also picks made of Lexan®, like the Dunlop Stubbies. These are also clear polycarbonate. These are stamped 3mm, and they are. This image is much larger than normal size. It's John Jorgenson's pick of choice, or at least was some years back. 

You can buy some of this sort of stuff on the internet, check here.

More about making your own picks on the next page

Back to the first pick page | clownbarf page | some tips on making a pick

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