What a question this is, eh? The eternal struggle as a guitar player trying to find their way as a lead guitar machine! "Is this pick slowing me down?", "Do I need a smaller pick?", "Do I need a pointier pick" etc etc… You are not alone in asking these questions! I've done it (still do it), as does every single guitar player / student I've ever met. So, let me get real with you, and tell you the real aim of this blog post and video…
We will give you all the information you need to make your own choice, drawing from our experience and the million picks we have tried in the past!
A massive thank you to Myke and the team at Bonners Music down in Eastbourne UK. Check out their wonderful shop here.
There is no doubt, however, that as well as this being a very subjective aspect of guitar playing, there are some golden rules that you may want to follow, especially when it comes to lead guitar playing. As well as that, something that absolutely should not be overlooked is how you actually hold and use the pick. At the end of the day, if you are not holding the pick correctly for the style you are aiming for, you can have the most expensive plectrum in the world, made of carbon fibre & originally owned by Clapton, Beck, EVH… But it still won't make much difference (Pick of Destiny, anyone?).
More on how we hold the pick later. For now, let's dive into the world of guitar picks, and consider breaking down the perfect pick by ticking certain boxes. We'll start with the most important, which is pick weight.
We must remember the title of this video when talking about pick weight: "The best pick for lead guitar". When it comes to lead guitar playing, we are looking for a pick that does not bend too much. Let's assume that you would like to be able to play pretty swiftly? Maybe you're not aiming to shred like Yngwie Malmsteen, but I'm sure that you would love to be able to play at a similar speed to John Mayer, or Eric Clapton? This is very doable, and a medium to heavy weighted pick will very much help with that! Have a look at this diagram:
Now then, this is a very rough guide, as different manufacturers of picks have different guidelines for the 4 sizes. What we can say for sure is that there are these 4 sizes, and although the actual millimetre might vary, we can use it as a great guide! So, which one? Which thickness for lead guitar? In my opinion, and I think most would agree (I haven't found anyone yet that says otherwise), we would want to be in the "HEAVY" to "EXTRA" category. If anything, I'd even go as far to say that we want to be in the "EXTRA" category!
So, what does "bounce back" mean? Well, this is literally how much you can bend the pick. If you can bend it very easily, from "LIGHT" picks, that's exactly what will happen when you play your solos. By the time you've made the downstroke, we're going to be waiting micro seconds for the pick to bounce back to neutral position, which slows down how quickly we can do our alternative picking. With heavier picks, we don't have any (or very little) bend to the plastic, which means we can perform alternate picking much faster. So, once again, I know we're not talking about epic shred speeds, but this can really help with any speed of lead playing, and all adds to the control over your lead parts.
Next up, we're talking size of the pick. This is where we start to get more into personal preference, so if we stick to the idea that we will use a Heavy or Extra thickness pick, we can look at pro's and cons of different size of picks. Let's put this on a sliding scale, like this:
If medium is the base, let's talk about why you might prefer large or small. There is definitely a group of players who like to have a bit more pick to hold. Wether that's medium or large, it gives you more surface area to grip on, and is easier to hold than a smaller pick. However, on the negative side, it can be harder to get a good feel for where the strings are as there is so much pick between you and the strings. As for the smaller pick, well, many people use it as they feel it can be more precise. There is just a little nub of pick between your finger flesh and the string, allowing for more control (as well as some cool pinched harmonics if you are so inclined!).
On the negative side of the smaller picks, it does limit you a little when it comes to strumming, as it's very easy to keep grazing your fingers against the strings. So again, your specific goal must always be in mind. If you play very technical metal, prog or rock, you may not care about this as you so rarely strum. If you're doing a lot of funk groove, with lead intertwined, you may want to avoid a smaller pick.
So, what's the verdict?
For me, I would choose a medium sized pick. If I want to, I can make it "smaller" by only showing a little of the tip to the strings, but otherwise I don't feel I need to play such speed technical playing that the small would be totally necessary. I do, however, like to add rhythmical elements to my lead and therefore a medium size suits me. There are of course ranges of medium pick, so I would choose to go on the smaller end of medium. This leads us to the final aspect… Shape.
Once again, we're very much in the world of opinion with this section. As before, I will go through the potential pros and cons to each shape, summarising them and then choosing which I would like to use and why. So, here are some of the most common pick shapes:
The key thing to look at, in my opinion, is the point at the end of the triangle (if you like!). What kind of point do you want, and why? The rounder the point, the more mellow the sound and less attack on the strings. This might be great if you are playing jazz, for example, and want to stay fairly chilled in your dynamics, whilst still playing pretty quickly. Equally, if you get a pointier plectrum you will get more of an attack on the strings, and you'll likely get a more consistent, slightly more aggressive, tone when you pick.
Regarding the overall shape of the pick, well, that's simply what feel best in your hands. I would recommend not letting too much of the pick see the strings (more on that later) and therefore choose a pick shape that sits comfortably in your fingers whilst considering the amount of pick on show. As always, it's a personal preference, and the best thing for it is trial and error. See what feels good for you! Personally, I love the Jazz III shapes, as they are a perfect balance for me!
I'm not suggesting for one second that you will choose a pick now and commit to that exact make and model for life. No way! In fact, exactly the opposite! You will very likely chop and change, always looking for that perfect feel and response, and something that suits you exactly. With that in mind, it is important to end this article with 4 tips for how to actually hold the plectrum. Put simply, you can buy the most expensive pick in the world, but if you're not using it correctly, it ain't gonna help!
So, the first point is not to hold too hard. Over gripping will actually add extra tension to the muscles in the hand, wrist and arm, which in turn will slow down your picking and lead to a very quick burn out. We're looking to find a nice balance where the pick is well gripped, so it won't fall out or "flap around", whilst not gripping so tightly that all movements become very hard work.
The final points really demonstrate the way the pick should be held, in relation to the strings. Use the grip shown in the second image, with the small amount of pick showing from the 3rd image. From there you would need to slightly angle your picking angle so that the pinky side of the hand is leaning towards to the strings. This is pretty hard to type out, but a quick look at the end of the video will sort you out here!
So, there we have it! Much like any guitar gear, you have now willingly entered into a lifetime obsession to find the best for you and the current stage of your guitar journey. Accept it for what it is, and remember that it's all a lot of fun at the end of the day!