One of the very first companies that drew me into the world of boutique, handmade plectrums is the one and only V-Picks.
Started by Vinnie Smith in 1980, V-Picks was the result of Vinnie’s dissatisfaction with his own guitar pick. He discovered that Brian May and Billy Gibbons were using shaved-down coins, and he started trying all sorts of materials in order to improve his picking experience. The plectrum is, after all, an essential part of any player’s toolbox.
As Vinnie tells it – “One day I was walking through a store and I saw it. It was a type of acrylic. Clear guitar picks! Immediately I was drawn like a mosquito to a bug lamp because I was also into marine saltwater aquariums and I had a plexiglass tank that I just adored. This material looked so inviting that I bought a sheet of it. So, the next day I cut out some shapes with a hack saw. Then took it to a grind wheel and created the bevel and point. Every gig for the next few weeks sported a different size and shape of pick until I finally found the right one. A friend and fellow employee that was still in high school would take them to shop class and buff them. Until then, I just buffed them on my Levi jeans. It has been said, “Poor people have poor ways.””. This why-the-hell-not approach produced a number of sizes, shapes and models until Vinnie got sick of playing the guitar, and took up the saxophone for 5 years.
At the end of what he describes as ‘that sax nonsense’, a loft clearout led to the discovery of one of the original plectrums Vinnie had made, which turned out to be serendipitous in the extreme. The members of the forums where Vinnie ended up circulating his creations refused to accept free models because the picks were so damn good, so he started selling them, initially using the money to fund his daughter’s medical bills.
Fast forward to the present day and V-Picks is in Nashville (they moved in 2010), with players like Carlos Santana, Billy Gibbons, Vernon Reid, Brad Whitford and Orianthi on their books. Oh, and they’ve got Johnny Hiland, a player so terrifying I can barely watch him. This also means that the circle of plectrums you see above isn’t even my whole collection, as I’ve got a few out on loan (the Mummy amongst others).
So what are they like to play? Well, as they’re all made from the acrylic that Vinnie fell in love with that day, they stick to my hands like little else. There’s an open, slightly brazen quality to the thicker models like the Snake or one of my personal favourites, the Smokey Mountain Dimension, with the thinner models like the Tradition Lite presenting a more reserved, considered front. Fans of latter-day Matt Pike might want to give the ultra-sharp Stiletto, Venom or total cracker the Black Hole a spin, but for absolute all-roundedness and a relatively soft edge, I’ve been digging the Medium Pointed for ages.
They do make some daft stuff too. Picks like the Insanity, Psycho and ludicrous Nexus are open statements that when it comes to plectra there’s few rules if any, and the fact that the range now offers over a hundred models, shipping to over a hundred countries, means that Vinnie was onto something.
A little bit of science now: although these are generally cut with a laser and some are poured into molds, each one is ground down by hand. Vinnie even polishes them using a hydrogen blowtorch, a result of electrically charging water, which produces a clean-burning flame at 1500 degrees. Yeah (see it here).
This is where I’m supposed to add a disclaimer saying these obviously aren’t for everyone and indeed, the biggest that I’ve personally gone with V-Picks is the Dimension, with the ludicrous 1980 having the widest surface area. The tone is fabulously consistent though, and as I’ve got a number of acrylic picks from other companies, I can tell you that this material is far from a one-tone pony.
Go and check V-Picks out: they’ve got a fair few stockists in the UK, and their shipping is both very reasonable and held in solid regard. There’s a forum for V-Picks owners on Facebook – there’s a forum for everything on Facebook – if you want to see some mad discontinued models. My advice would be to start with something like the Tradition and go from there – let your curiosity get the better of you and order some wild stuff. I’d never have thought a 4.1mm pick would be good for anything other than building the pyramids, but I am very, very happy to be wrong.
Centre: Smokey Mountain Dimension
Outer Ring clockwise from bottom: 1980, Medium Pointed Ruby Red, Snake, Tradition Lite, Screamer, Black Hole, Jalapeno, Large Pointed Clear, Tradition.