There’s more to this pick malarkey than Tortex and Celluloid, but it can indeed be difficult knowing where to start when you’re trying to get into higher-end plectra. To this end, The Lifted Chalice presents a rough guide to the materials you’ll have access to when it comes to your plectrum choices.
Known variously as acetal, polyacetal and polyformaldehyde, polyoxymethylene or POM is a thermoplastic with a high thermal stability that’s easy to shape and mold, hence it’s application in the world of plectra. The Tortex material that millions of players the world over have used is derived from an acetal resin developed by DuPont in 1960 named Delrin, which was subsequently altered by Dunlop in order to make Tortex. This was designed to recreate the sound and feel of tortoiseshell, which is what traditional picks were made from. The sound can vary from the flekity-flik of a .5mm Red to the chonk of a 1.14mm Purple, and although other companies like Mathas and Daw Man make Delrin picks, they will forever be associated with Dunlop.
The material on which companies like V-Picks and Gravity hang their hats, acrylic comes to the pick world as Poly(methyl methacrylate (or Lucite/Plexiglass). A transparent thermoplastic used for shatter-resistant glass and fishtanks, it’s the synthetic polymer of methyl methacrylate, and was developed in 1928. It makes for a tremendous plectrum material owing to its extreme toughness, ability to be polished, and the fact that as it heats up, its surface becomes partially adhesive, making it very difficult to drop. Thick plectrums made from this material have both a significant bass and clear top end, though the ultra-polished nature of most acrylics results in what’s known as ‘chirping’. This is a high-pitched squeak resulting from the typically deep bevels of these sorts of picks making contact with your plain strings, though it must be said that it’s more noticeable when you’re playing slowly.
A foundation term for a lot of the materials on this list, thermoset is a polymer which hardens when it’s cured (the application of heat or radiation). Once hardened, thermoset cannot then be re-heated and shaped into something else, and is stuck in whatever form it has taken. Tough as hell and a brilliant all-round material for plectra, it crops up in its matt form with Chicken Picks, and in its polished variant with Dragon’s Heart Faux series and Gravity’s Gold Series. Tonally less treble-orientated than acrylic with a more pronounced lower-mid punch, polished thermoset can behave like its transparent cousin, though the grip is less extreme, and this depends on the player’s skin type. There’s much less string noise than acrylic and little chirping if your pick has a master-polished edge (ie it’s deliberately rough).
Also known as ‘vegetable ivory’, Tagua is a nut from Ecuador, and is used by companies like Howling Monkey. The nut of the Phytelephas or “plant elephant”, Tagua is extremely hard wearing, and is used for beads, buttons, jewerly, and as a replacement for real ivory in bagpipes. As a pick material it’s ace for a number of reasons: there’s virtually zero string noise, it feels wonderful in the hand, and is easily carved into whatever shape you fancy. Unlike the other materials on this list, Tagua molds itself to your fingers as it heats up, only to reform into its original shape once it cools down. Sound-wise, it yields a significant increase in volume in an acoustic setting, and depending on the sharpness of the point, produces both a fabulous bloom and an organic depth absent from most other materials.
The one you’d rarely think to try, there’s plenty of companies making stone picks. Agate, Jasper, Obsidian, Petrified Wood and Coral have been variously used by the likes of Stone Age Picks and the insane StoneWorks, who can offer you ridiculously expensive plectrums made of dinosaur bone and meteorite. Yes. My experience in this field is relatively limited, but the Spider Web Jasper Jazz III I got sounded impossibly good on acoustic, and the Agate gave each and every one of my notes – even with dense chords and plenty of gain – impossible clarity. Some stone has a tendency to chip however, and I’d recommend getting a polished version of whatever it is you fancied.
Widely recognised as the first thermoplastic, Celluloid is a compound created from Nitrocellulose and Camphor, and was initially known as Parkesin in 1856 and Xylonite in 1869 before being renamed Celluloid in 1870. Originally used as an ivory replacement, it was used exclusively in the film industry until the 1950s, when it was replaced by acetate safety film. It’s most commonly used nowadays for accordions, ping-pong balls and guitar picks, and although tonally it doesn’t produce a life-changing sound, it is good and tough, and the grip is excellent. As long as it’s a relatively high thickness, you could be losing and rediscovering your Celluloid picks for years to come.
The first commecially successful synthetic thermoplastic polymer, Nylon wove into life thanks (again) to DuPont on February 28th, 1935. Used for everything from toothbrush bristles to parachute cord and stockings, Nylon is still widely used in everything you can think of from clothing fibre to car parts, food packaging and flooring reinforcement. The least potent material here, a 1mm Nylon plectrum has an equivalent stiffness to a .73mm Tortex plectrum, and although they can be great for constant chord work, it currently stands at number 2 on The Lifted Chalice’s least favourite pick material list (number 1 is Fender Gels as they are rubbish). Certain companies like D3 make extremely thick Nylon picks that I haven’t tried yet, so this information might be updated once I’ve got my hands on some of those.
The bread and butter of Dragon’s Heart, Polyamide-imides are an insanely tough member of the thermoset plastic family, used extensively as wire coatings. Possessed of a significantly higher heat threshold than conventional thermoset plastics, Polyamide-imides are daft hard, with an extremely high tensile strength, making them ideal for picks. Capable of having other materials woven into them (like glass and carbon fibre), these are some of the hardest wearing picks you’ll ever try, but the amount of time and effort (not to mention heat!) required to make them means that few companies offer Polyamide-imide as standard in their plectrums outside of the Dragon.
A slight misnomer in the sense that what we commonly refer to as carbon fibre is technically Carbon Fibre Reinforced Polymer, completely Carbon Fibre picks are not that common in the everyday, chiefly because of their sheer expense. As hard-wearing as you would expect, it’s an extremely tough epoxy-bound fibre-based material with a very high strength-to-weight ratio used in aerospace, superstructure and civil engineering, not to mention performance motoring. As a plectrum material it’s mostly found living in shredtown because of it’s highly aggressive tonal nature and pronounced attack, and can be found in some of the Maxi-Grip Jazz III’s as well as the entire range by Worf Shop. Not neccessarily the grippiest, but boy is it hard.
Used in the manufacture of skate wheels, spectacle frames and so on, Ultem is a polyetherimide resin, often blended with glass to improve its top end response. Mad hard and with a physical resistance to heat up to 200 degrees celcius, Ultem is most widely known as being the material that the gateway-to-boutique-land Ultex Jazz XL is made out of. Grippy and with an unforgiving edge to its sound, it was recently adapted into a slightly less hardcore form in the PrimeTone and Flow series of Dunlop Picks, not to mention its insane deployment through the Shuriken/Longsword/Fountainhead series for Winspear Instrumental. Not the most subtle pick you’ll ever use, but if you want rigid muscularity there are few materials more appropriate.
Links to the companies mentioned are in the text. I hope this helps in your decision making. Remember, there are a few other types of pick material like wood, horn and so on, but as I haven’t got my hands on those enough to be confident in their description I didn’t want to misinform you. Happy hunting and remember, it’s always worth a try!