June 7, 2011

Be the Pick

Caddyshack

“Be the ball.”

Ty Webb knew a thing or two about golf. His sage advice to Danny Noonan in Caddyshack has stood the test of time.

Ty understood that in order to be a great golfer, you have to engage the forces of the universe, relax, and let things happen.

As it turns out, the same thing happens in guitar. Sort of.

Just as golf begins with the strike of the ball, guitar playing begins with the strike of the pick to the string. So the type of pick you choose, the way you grip it, and the way you attack the strings with it are critical to your success. 

You must “be the pick”.

If you’re a beginner, then choosing the correct pick makes a huge difference in your sound and your “feel” for the guitar.  Learning how to wield that little sucker will help out a bunch too, of course. 

If you’re an intermediate-level player, you may find that experimenting with different pick shapes, weights and grips uncovers new possibilities. 

So follow along as I channel my inner Ty Webb and lay down some of my own sage advice regarding the humble plectrum.

Grip It, Grip It Good

Pick up your pick, between your thumb and index finger.  The grip that you have right now is, IMHO, the best one.

Hold it in a natural way and with medium-strength – not so light that it falls out of your hand but no death grip either.  In order to stay as relaxed as possible, I’ll also suggest that you let your fingers open naturally

Some very well respected guitarists hold a closed fist – and some of them happen to be friends of mine – but I think it encourages tension, especially in beginners.  Remember, we want to keep tension to a minimum, so open your hand and don’t grip the pick too tightly. 

Bottom line: Although some players may hold the pick in uncommon ways and make it work, the vast majority of guitarists hold the pick naturally between the thumb and 1st finger, because it’s all-purpose – it works well for everything, whether picking single notes or strumming chords.  I suggest you do the same.

Too Much Pick

Using a traditional “teardrop”-shaped pick as our reference point, let’s get one thing out of the way from the start: There is no rule written anywhere that says you must use the pointed tip of the pick.  

I personally use the rounded edge of the pick, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.  But regardless of whether you pluck the string with the pointed tip or the rounded edge, you must be conscious of one critical element:

Do not show too much pick.

The more the pick sticks out from your fingers, the more likely it is to dip down into the strings and get caught.  This forces you to “fight” through the strings, which has a very unpleasant, harsh sound. 

This is why I favor the rounded edge; the less severe angle virtually eliminates the possibility of getting too much pick caught in the strings. 

As an added bonus, it creates more contact area between my thumb and the pick than the traditional “tip” approach. This helps me to grip the pick more securely.  Food for thought, especially for you intermediate guys and gals!

Dunlop Is My Type

The type of pick we use can be broken down into shape, weight/thickness (often called “gauge”) and, for me, color.  

I know what you’re thinking: “JB, I can understand that shape and weight might be important, but color?  C’mon, man…” 

Yes, grasshopper, even color can have practical implications.

SHAPE

Dunlop Jazz III

In terms of shape, the traditional “teardrop” is by far the most popular.  However, there are many variations on this shape available to you, including what I feel is probably the second most popular pick, certainly among pro guitarists: the Dunlop Jazz III

The Jazz III is a very small and stiff teardrop with a sharp point.  It takes some getting used to, but many guitarists have great loyalty to their Jazz III’s once they become accustomed to the feel and attack.  And you don’t even have to play jazz to use one!

GAUGE/WEIGHT/THICKNESS

Regarding weight/thickness, I encourage my beginners to start with a medium gauge pick.  This is a good, all-around pick and works well for chords or single notes. 

Light picks are not usually preferred by professionals except for strumming chords, and then usually on acoustic guitar only.  A light pick bends a little on the strings, creating a percussive “snap” and adding some sparkle to your strummed chords.  Strum a few G chords with a light pick and then a heavy pick – you’ll be amazed at the difference the pick thickness makes! 

Heavy picks are almost always used by pros on electric guitar and by bluegrass players on acoustic.  The thicker pick will drive through the strings for more accurate lead guitar playing and chunkier chords, but it tends to darken the sound of acoustics. 

Most beginners will find heavy picks “clunky” to use, so this is why I recommend starting with a medium.  You can graduate to a heavy when you’re ready.  If your main thing is going to be strumming an acoustic guitar, then light or medium picks would be fine.

COLOR

Dunlop Gels

As for color, I could be cute and say you’ll play much better with a neon green pick than a boring, brown tortoiseshell number (and you will). But there is a practical application: brown or black picks are much harder to find once they hit the floor.

If you’re playing a gig with your band and the lighting is dim, you’ll be glad you bought some brightly-colored picks.  Especially when you realize you only brought one with you to the gig.  And you have to resort to playing with a quarter you borrowed from your buddy, Larry.  Or your mom.  Ugh.

Sorry, but life is too short to use a brown pick.

My personal fave picks are Dunlop Gels, which come in standard gauges like light, medium, and heavy, but also in-betweens and extremes, such as medium–light and x-heavy.  I like the glossy look, the durability, and the grip of the etched logo.  Plus the colors make me happy.  And not a brown pick among ‘em! 

Green medium-lights for acoustic and red heavies for electric are my “go to” picks for a couple of years now. Sometimes when I’m feelin’ frisky, I’ll use a purple medium.  The Dunlop website is a great resource for all things pick-y – check it out!

It’s Time to Pick

This final tip might be the best of all: Store a pick in every guitar you have by wedging it into the strings at fret 1 and it will always be ready for action.

Now go to the music store and try out a bunch of picks.  But whatever you do, buy a dozen or more because they are easy to lose!

And be the pick.







QUESTION: Do you have a go-to pick brand, style or gauge? Do you feel that certain picks influence your playing technique? Leave me a comment below!

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

© 2012 Jim Bowley All rights reserved.
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