An Essential Guide To Guitar Pick Size

Learning about guitar pick size can be difficult if we don’t know what we’re looking for – Let us break it down for you!

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In this free lesson you will learn:

  • Which guitar picks are best for different styles
  • How to find the right guitar pick size for you
  • Tips for making the right decision on the perfect guitar pick
  • The wide variety of shapes and sizes of guitar picks

How Much Does Guitar Pick Size Matter, Really?

A guy walks into a music store… and asks for some guitar picks.

Outcome trays upon trays of different picks of different sizes, shapes, widths, and materials.

  • Pointy or rounded?
  • How many sides does a pick need to have?
  • What’s the issue with thickness?

Asking the music store clerk is going to lead either to a series of questions you may not be prepared to answer or to a list of opinions you may not be equipped to evaluate.

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For a beginning guitarist, it can be baffling to compare guitar pick sizes.

  • At first, it’s not even clear that there’s any difference at all!
  • There is no set of instructions for which guitar pick sizes to use with which guitars, genres, strings, or styles of playing.
  • What there is, however, is a range of opinions so vast and contradictory that the holders of those opinions might as well be talking about sports.

So in this lesson, we’ll talk about how you can begin to arm yourself with your own opinions and select the best guitar pick sizes for what you want to play!

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Guitar Pick Size: A Personal Journey

Guitar picks have never been mandatory elements of playing the guitar.

  • Picks (specifically flatpicks) are used to increase the dynamic range of the guitar. That means you can get louder and softer on the guitar with a flatpick than you can with your fingers.
  • Flatpicks also sharpen the attack on the strings, making a brighter sound than what you can usually get with your fingers.
  • Deciding to use a pick at all is deciding that those two aspects of your guitar tone are important to you. Your tone will be different no matter which guitar pick size you use.

The guitar pick size variations we’re going to discuss, are all different variations of those two features: dynamics and brightness.

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It wasn’t very long ago that guitar pick sizes had three categories:

Thin

Medium

Heavy

Guitar pick size is measured in millimeters and fractions of millimeters.

It can be difficult to imagine that a fraction of a millimeter makes that much difference, but it absolutely does.

There are also flatpicks like the Jellyfish, made of tiny metal prongs, and Dunlop felt picks which change the game entirely, but this discussion is about guitar pick size.

We’ll discuss different materials elsewhere.

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String Gauge & Guitar Pick Size

The thickness of the string gauge you use and the thickness of your guitar pick are definitely related.

There are plenty of helpful and informative articles out there that neatly match up guitar pick size and string gauge with the confidence of someone who knows what they’re talking about

For a while, it can be that simple. Try out anyone’s advice to see what you like!

Better yet, spend two dollars at the store and pick up a half dozen picks of different thicknesses. Then just strum your guitar the way you strum your guitar and notice the differences.

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As a general rule, two things predictably change with guitar pick size: the heaviness of the sound and the amount of pick noise.

  • Consider what gauge strings you’re using. The lighter your strings are, the less your pick has to fight them to produce noise.
  • With a thin pick (between about .38 and .73 millimeters) it’s easy to navigate light gauge strings, and you can strum an acoustic guitar with lighter gauge strings with a light brushy sound.
  • If you’re a more aggressive strummer, however, those thin picks are going to do two things: produce a lot of flapping pick noise and break constantly.

With a heavy pick (1 millimeter and up) you can control your sound on any gauge strings and you can create a lovely warm, full, and heavy sound.

If you are a more aggressive strummer, thicker picks can also create a consistently aggressive tone and break your strings.

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Pro-Tip: There’s more at work here than just strings and picks! Especially on an acoustic guitar, the wood of your guitar affects your tone.

A brighter-sounding wood like Ash or Koa is affected differently than a warmer-sounding wood like mahogany or rosewood.

Different Picks For Different Guitars

If you’re playing mainly electric guitars, you may notice a tendency among your fellow electric players to use thinner picks.

  • This is mostly for the reason cited above: the strings are of a thinner gauge than those on acoustic guitars, and the pick does not have to fight the string so much to produce a good tone.
  • Due to the fact that the volume on an electric guitar is modulated electronically, you can use very little effort with a very thin pick and get a lovely full sound out of your guitar.
  • There is also a bit of a speed component, because light things move faster.

Thin picks are easy to manipulate and you can go pretty quickly either strumming or picking without getting your pick caught up in the strings.

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On acoustic guitars, the same principles do not necessarily apply.

  • If you’re playing a nylon-stringed guitar, it takes some finessing to get a great tone out of the guitar with a flatpick.
  • In that case, trying different variants of a middle-thickness pick – about .6 to .8 millimeters – will help you avoid overwhelming your strings.

Different variants of a thicker pick (over 1 millimeter) will give you some richness of tone, provided you’re not strumming so hard that you break the strings.

With steel-string guitars, thin strings are very easy to overwhelm with a thicker pick, although using a thicker pick on lighter gauge strings will give you a bit more volume.

If you are using medium gauge strings on your acoustic guitar, the heavier picks will help you to maximize the fullness of the sound.

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Style Of Playing & Guitar Pick Size

It’s very much worth considering the style of your playing when you consider guitar pick size.

Pro Tip: Style and genre are not the same.

  • There is conventional wisdom that metal players should use thick picks, like Kerry King from Slayer who uses 1.14 millimeter picks, and Yngwie Malmsteen, who uses a 2-millimeter pick.
  • But then there are players in the same genre like Joe Satriani, who has a .46-millimeter pick, and Paul Gilbert, who uses a .5-millimeter pick.

Gear Gods has a pretty interesting article on guitar picks by genre.

Examining how you play the guitar can give you some insight as to which guitar pick size might be the best fit for you.

  • Are you strumming your guitar with a windshield wiper motion, using the big muscles in your upper arm and back to propel the pick?
  • Are you strumming with your wrist loose to try to get the most cohesive, brushy sound possible?

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With single-note playing, where you are on the speed spectrum can also inform your choice of guitar pick size.

  • The same principles apply: the more aggressive you are, the less pick thickness you need.
  • Using a thin pick will give you the brightness you want without slowing you down, but you will have to control the pick with your fingers to keep it from flapping.
  • The thicker pick will cut through without a lot of effort because it does most of the work to control the strings.

With a little experimentation, you will be able to tell which guitar pick size you need, because it will feel as good as it will sound.

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Guitar Pick Size: When Genre Matters

The overall principle of guitar pick size is that as your pick gets thicker, the sound it will produce on your guitar gets heavier and warmer.

  • As it gets thinner, the sound it will produce on your guitar gets thinner and brighter.
  • Certain genres of music gravitate toward using a particular guitar pick size to emphasize features of the genre.

There are picks specifically designed for gypsy jazz, the type popularized by Django Reinhardt, that accompany the petit-bouche and grand-bouche guitars as well as the strumming and picking style of gypsy jazz.

The picks commonly used in this style are 3-millimeter or 5-millimeter, and at first they feel like trying to strum a guitar with a rock.

When properly deployed however, they perfectly capture the sound of gypsy jazz!

plec-thickness

Another genre of guitar music that tends to use a specific range of thickness is folk.

Thinner picks and the brighter tone they produce are an ideal combination for people who are accompanying themselves singing.

Because it is easy to glide the pick across the strings, folk players can strum with rhythmic precision without much effort.

This clears up brain space for expressing lyrics, engaging in stage banter, or getting everyone to sing along.

Having said that, all sorts of players have all sorts of picks, and there is no set of instructions or expectations about which pick size to use for which genre.

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Pro-Tip: Playing through a sound system? You can help to optimize the sound in the room through the pick you choose. Some rooms “fill with sound” quickly and require the brighter tone of a thinner pick.

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Guitar Pick Size: Dimensions!

Guitar picks come not only in different thicknesses but also in different dimensions!

  • When we think of a guitar pick, we tend to think of a rounded triangle, but there are many other shapes of picks!
  • One popular guitar pick is a bit smaller than a standard-looking pick, and the business end of the pick is a bit more pointy. This is for picking, not so much for strumming.

Other picks are quite a bit larger than a standard-looking pick, sometimes triangular, sometimes with even more sides.

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The different guitar pick size also involves a different “business end” of the pick itself, and the different sides can be used for different purposes.

Generally speaking, attacking the strings with the pointiest side of the pick gives you the sharpest and brightest sound.

This stragey is useful for playing lead, where you want your sound to cut through whatever else is happening so people can hear what you have to say on the guitar.

Preferences for different pick shapes is strictly comfort-based. The smaller picks help you play with smaller motion and more precision, and the larger picks put more pick area into your fingers so you can better grip and control the pick.

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The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Pick Size

At some point, every guitar player on earth was once a beginning guitarist trying to figure out which of this dazzling array of guitar pick sizes and dimensions would fit best.

Having that pick tray come out from under the music shop counter can be a bit intimidating, but it does not have to be!

Fortunately, of all the guitar accessories we are pressured into purchasing and trying out, picks are the cheapest.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with sampling a variety of different pick shapes and sizes to see which one suits you the best.

BEST-GUITAR-PICK-THICKNESS

Consider the Dunlop Tortex line of picks.

Tortoiseshell picks waned in popularity after enough people finally decided it was a bad idea to kill tortoises just to play the guitar that they were outlawed in the early 1970s.

These are not the only wonderful brand of guitar picks, but they are conveniently color-coded for thickness, so you can open your container of guitar picks or rifle around in your pocket and instantly pull out the one you want.

As the numbers go up, the thickness increases, so the red pick is the thinnest in this assortment and the purple is the thickest.

The red pick will therefore “give” more against the strings.

If you are a beginner, it’s as easy as waiting until tomorrow to have a bag of assorted picks delivered to your door.

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Guitar Pick Size and the Interdependence of All Things

There really is no “wrong” guitar pick size.

  • You have the guitar or guitars that you have, the strings that you have, the style that you have or are trying to develop, and that’s all good!
  • The main consideration in selecting guitar pick size is whether it makes the job you are trying to do easier or harder.

After a while, you may find yourself adapting your strumming or picking style to the different picks you have, and that is just as much a part of developing as a musician as the practice exercises you do.

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