Hello everyone – I’ve come to a decision. I think it’s time to take this whatever-it-is, professional blog more seriously and start posting on a regular basis, if not at least to provide some content in between posting scheduled gigs. In any case, I was going through some old emails and I found something I shared with my friend Sam Salazar a couple of years ago, and thought it would bear repeating here, so here goes. This is just my opinion based on experience and proven results for me. Your mileage may vary.
As far as the tone goes, there are a few things that you can do. First thing, ensure that you have the pickups properly balanced. Usually the manufacturer sets them up pretty good from the factory, so if you haven’t messed with them they should be set and all you’ll need is a decent setup by your friendly neighborhood guitar shop, which can improve the instrument significantly from its out-of-the-box state. But if you want to do some cheap and easy experimentation, start with changing the type of pick you use.
Choose Your Profile
The pick is one of those things that most players take for granted. Guitarists pick their picks (hyar, hyar) because the shape feels comfortable, maybe they retain their edge for a long time, or maybe because they don’t break at an inopportune moment. Once you select a shape you like, in most cases you’ll stay with it for the rest of your playing experience. My personal favorite is the ubiquitous 351. However, changing the material the pick is made out of and its gauge (or thickness), will change your tone significantly. I’ve always had excellent results with the premium celluloid Fender 351 medium. For acoustic, I like a .060 Dunlop Ultex or Clayton – the Ultex is reminiscent of using a really thin tortoiseshell pick.
What’s it made of?
The synthetic materials available today come in a dizzying array of textures and colors. Solid colors, confetti, lozenge-like clear colors, tortoiseshell, etc. Common materials are nylon, celluloid, Delrin, acetal, Lexan, even stone and stainless steel. Each one has it’s own tone signature, feel and weight, so you’ll have to experiment to get something you like.
Get a grip
Pay attention to how you hold the pick. You shouldn’t be squeezing it so hard that you have no control, or so loose that you have no control. Essentially, get control of that pick! Hold it just hard enough to maneuver it around the strings. The more relaxed you are, the better you’ll play, and since most of the tone is in your hands, you will get better results. I usually hold the pick in between the thumb and the crook of my index finger. Typically, for single note playing, I tend to grip the pick fairly firm to ensure that I get a good attack on the string. However, when strumming an acoustic where I really want to draw out the sound, I’ll actually grip it fairly softly and rake the pick across the strings to get a harp-like sound. Experiment with different intensities to get the string resonating at optimum level. Of course, your playing dynamic will depend on the situation, so play softer or harder accordingly. More on this on later posts.
Also, don’t have so much pick sticking out of your fingers that you have to maneuver the pick in and out of the strings – usually about 1/8″ is enough. Try skipping on the strings with as much economy of motion as you can. Also, you don’t need to hit them hard, experiment with different intensities to get that string resonating at an optimum level. Too hard and you’ll find that the string stops vibrating, so soften it up to get a nice even sound. A quick note: Keep an eye on that pick edge. Once the edge is worn on either side, chipped, or split, throw it away and buy a new one. Buy two, they’re cheap. You get a better deal at most places if you buy a dozen.
Pick gauge experimentation is another way to change the tone. The heavier the pick, the smoother the sound will be, but it will also cut more. For example, the Dunlop 216 is one of the heaviest picks I’ve ever seen (a little thicker than a quarter) but it’s perfect for single note jazz playing, especially on flatwound strings. The resulting tone is rich and full, but with very little attack. Lighter pick gauges like a .60 will provide a more defined attack as the pick strikes the string, but with less sustain. Country picker Pete Anderson likes a 1 mm pick, while acoustic strummer like Liz Herrin like a .60. For me, there is a practical compromise between the two, the medium or .73 gauge pick in premium celluloid. Perfect for single note runs, Travis picking or strumming the acoustic guitar. However, I always have some Ultex .60 handy.
In closing, select your pick based on whatever makes you feel comfy and secure in your playing. If you like playing with a quarter, go for it. If you dig the Fender medium, have at it. But if you’re looking for a quick tone refresher, change up the gauges and materials and experiment. You’ll dig the results.
Next time: There are strings attached