When I tell people that I’m into picks – never mind that I blog about them – the first question is always ‘why?’, so today, I thought I’d answer that question. Let’s first address why picks matter at all, nevermind what makes boutique ones better for your tone.
When your guitar is being assembled, the wood that it’s made from maked a difference. Mahogany sounds different to Ash, Swamp Ash sounds different to Alder. The wood in the fingerboard makes a difference, but even when you get down to the little stuff it’s important. If you’re not sure if this is the case, try a guitar with a brass nut against one with a plastic nut, and see if you can’t hear a change in the sound.
All the parts of your setup matter, from your strings (company, gauge), to the patch leads you use, how long they are, everything. This is because the end result of the sound is only what you put in, and even though the change in tone might be very slight, it still counts towards the final tone. I like using Elixir Optiweb strings, which are coated with a protective film. These go on duller than other companies, but they stay in the same tonal area for longer, and they feel slightly slimy. This does change the way they vibrate a bit, but again, I like this. If I were to use Ernie Ball Cobalts or Daddario NYXL’s my tone would change again – same guitar, same gauge, different strings.
As your pick is the first point of contact with the string, its material and thickness fundamentally changes how your notes come out, particularly on acoustic. That tone might be bright and raspy (matt finish Thermoset), warm and boomy (wood), blooming and defined (tagua) or super-sharp (steel), but that will be entirely up to you. If you want to hear the disparity between picks, try two of the same material in different thicknesses – .50mm vs 1mm. Everything is different, from the sound to the playing experience itself.
This, in many ways, is the biggest part of it. Handmade picks all feel different, and their grip, nuances and tone can, just like pedals, make you play a certain way. Blunt edges let you run chords with ease, and sharp tips encourage accuracy. As boutique materials all have their own EQ bands, they can influence the way you write a part, how you deliver a solo, all manner of things, but there’s two aspects that make a real difference to me.
Number one – they grip differently. Despite some drawbacks, acrylic grips my fingers like my own skin, and I know I’m not going to drop it. I don’t have to keep adjusting the pick because it stays where it is, and with that part of my performance being taken care of, I can get on with playing and not give a second thought to whether I’ll drop the pick or not. Number two – it feels like an event. When I get a new material or a new shape, I look forward to playing the guitar even more, because I know that I’m going to experience it in a unique way. This means that I make more time to play, to practice, and to understand the tones that my guitar is going to make. I spend a lot of time playing unplugged (if I can’t hit a run without the pedals I know I’d be lying if I did it with them), and being able to really deliver exactly how I want a song to sound before I even get the amp involved means I know that I can say what I want to say with the parts I’ve written.
Boutique picks cost more, but they sound better, last longer, feel special and are cheaper to collect than pedals. They get you more involved in your guitar, and make you look forward to playing more. Plus, if the really thick aspect scares you, there’s plenty of companies that make thinner picks, or make them out of materials you’ll be familiar with, like Delrin and Nylon. Why not take a chance though? You didn’t settle for one pedal, one amp or one guitar, so why should your picks be any different?
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