Gotta have a pick when you play guitar

Guitar Picks: What You Need to Know

The kind of guitar picks you use has a lot of influence on how you play guitar

There are as many choices as there are, well… choices! If you play guitar without a pick, like with classical music, then then you have one less guitar-oriented decision to make. But for the rest of us who love and play guitar, choosing the right pick is as essential to our sound as the guitar we choose.

When we first learn guitar, we usually aren’t thinking about what kind of pick to use

The salesperson from the store we bought the guitar from usually throws a few complimentary picks in the case for us, usually Classic-shaped Fender Mediums, and then we’re off!

And honesty, that does us good for awhile. But when we start getting some chops together, or we gravitate towards a certain style of music, it’s at that point the choice of pick (or plectrum) we use starts to take on more relevance.

So as a guitar player, what sort of picks do I have to choose from?

An excellent question of course. Picks are manufactured in various combinations based on three criteria:

  1. Shape
  2. Thickness
  3. Materials

First we’ll examine these different factors. Then we’ll discuss how they are combined by manufacturers to create a myriad of different picks used to play guitar. Lastly, we’ll talk about which pick is right for the music you play.


standard guitar pick
The shape that comes to mind when you think of “pick”

Classic Standard – This is the one that gets chucked in the case when you buy a guitar and in fact, it is the most commonly used shape.  It’s a medium size and has the kind of shape you think of when you think of a pick.

triangle guitar pick
Hard for this big bad boy to fly out of your hands!

Triangle – these picks are shaped just like what they’re called, usually large triangles. Personally I don’t know how anyone uses these things, but they are easily purchased so I have to assume they have a degree of popularity for people who play guitar. I wouldn’t advise using one to learn guitar, but to each their own.

I would note however that Carlos Santana uses one when he plays– and ain’t nobody gonna tell an iconic player like him that he’s doing it wrong!

teardrop pickTear Drop – small and sharp at one end, allowing for a closer proximity of fingers to strings. These plectrums are well-suited to guitarists who like to dazzle with a lot of speed and chops. The are also referred to as Jazz picks.

Sharp Edge – A hybrid of the Classic Standard and the Tear Drop. sharp edged guitar pickGets you closer to the string than the Standard, but gives you more surface area to hold onto than the tear drop.

Shark Fin – Here’s another one I don’t really get. The shape came out in the 80s. It looks cool. It’s supposed to give you the best of all worlds and help you play pinched harmonics. But i find it cumbersome and gimmicky. But it has been around for thirty years, so it obviously has some staying power
shark fin plectrum


Guitar Picks come in a few gauges of thickness
(see table below from from Wiki):

description Approximate thickness Other possible marks
mm inch
Extra light/thin 0.44  0.017 “Ex Lite” or “Extra Light”
Light/thin 0.45–
0.018–0.027 “T” or “Thin” / “L” or “Light”
Medium 0.70–0.84 0.028–0.033 “M” or “Medium”
Heavy/thick 0.85–1.20 0.035–0.047 “H” or “Heavy”
Extra heavy/thick  1.50  0.060 “XH” or “Extra Heavy”


Basically,  since the thicker guitar picks are harder, they tend to be used by players looking for more precision with their lead guitar playing– they want the pick to have less give. On the opposite side, the thinner, softer picks are used more for rhythm because they have more give, which is great when you’re strumming chords.

Most players use a medium gauge pick. This allows for a good spectrum between lead and rhythm.   Hard, stiff picks are used more by shredders and virtuoso types. Thin guitar picks are favored by the acoustic, singer songwriter strummers.


Plastic – Of these there are two types:

Oil Celluloid
Oil based plastic picks are by far the most popular.  They have a smooth surface, are inexpensive and create a bright click sound when coming into contact with the strings

The acrylic-based plastic pick is harder than the oil-based celluloid, so even the thin picks have less give than the oil ones. It has a slightly rougher surface and a darker sound when it makes contact with the strings.

Nylon –  These picks wear less with use than plastic picks and make a more pronounced “click” as well. Nylon guitar picks can get much thinner than any other material. Nice for acoustic strummers.

Other – This category includes shell, bone, wood, metal and just about anything else you can think of. Each has it’s own impact on the instrument’s sound. They are more expensive than plastic or nylon, so are used less often because… well, let’s face it, losing picks is a major problem with guitar players. I’ve probably lost several just writing this paragraph.

Which kind of pick is right for me when I play guitar?

Thin Classic Standard picks are great for  rhythm players, acoustic or electric. Nylon will also give a nice, percussion nuance to the sound as well.

Jazz players and shredders are best served with heavy gauge, teardrop-shaped picks. they offer the most control and the fastest response.

Slowhand Rock and Rollers should consider Classic Standard picks in a medium or heavy gauge. When your bashing out some rhythm, you really want a decent amount of surface area so it doesn’t go flying out of your hand. Also, a bit of flexibility so you’re not breaking strings constantly. Lastly, you want enough stability in the thickness so your lead playing doesn’t come off sloppy.  With all that to keep in mind, one can understand the popularity of a medium or heavy Classic Standard.

For beginners learning guitar, my advice is to stick with the Classic Standard shape. Use a medium gauge  unless you’re specifically looking to be primarily a lead player. Then go for the Heavy gauge.

Note: These are not hard and fast rules by any means. Eddie van Halen uses a Classic Standard medium pick. If anyone defines the shredder, it’s certainly Eddie.

The bottom line

Guitar picks are the unsung heroes of guitar gear. While everyone loves to talk endlessly about their rigs, effects and their guitar of choice, you hardly ever hear about a player’s philosophy regarding what they use to strike those strings. I hope this primer on the subject offers some enlightenment on this more obscure but important subject.

What kind of guitar pick do you use and why. I’d love to hear your thoughts in my comment section.

Rock On!

by Jonathan Schlackman