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Pic Wars - The Phantom Menace (quest for the ultimate plectrum)

by vaughn skow September 28, 2011 6 min read

Hey guitar folks, ready to delve in to some serious pic discussion?  This is a blog that I’ve been simmering on the back burner for many weeks now; ever since the summer NAMM show.  At the NAMM show I did something quite out of character for me, I actually dropped ten bucks and purchased a meager four "V-picks". 

They were enticing, with oh-so cool looks, and promises to improve my tone and speed, and not fall out of my fingers.  Right then and there, I decided I could make one heck of a blog outta comparing these new-fangeled picks to old standards.  Later that day, I ran into Daniel from WGS and showed the new picks to him; he proceeded to lay in my hand a "Finns" pick, another new one to me! 

It was official; the pic-wars were on!  Since then, I’ve gone plumb pic-wild. Here is just one of several of my stray pic containers; I’ll just bet you have some that look similar.  

READ ONfor the epic pic story to beat all others.

My pic journey began with the obligatory "Fender Medium".  In the middle of Minnesota farm country in the late 70’s/early 80’s these were pretty much the only pic readily available. When I visited my folks on the farm this summer, I found a plastic box full of literally hundreds of broken Fender Medium picks.  That was the problem with those things, they always broke.  It was difficult to find one in my pic collection that was intact.  I’ll say this, that old celluloid must have been some chemically potent stuff, I nearly got high as a kite just breathing in the fumes as I opened that box of broken picks; the first time they had been open in decades.

Right around 1980 I ordered a stone "mind-pick" from an advertisement in Guitar Player Magazine.  It promised tonal improvement and lightning-fast speed, all for the amazing price of just ten bucks (hummm ... sounds suspiciously like the v-pick pitch now that I think about it).  What it actually was, well, was ... a rock; a pretty polished rock, but a rock none the less.  It is a novelty; it is not a guitar pick.

Somewhere in the early 80’s the new Dunlop nylon pics found their way to my small town, and wonder of all wonders, the darn things didn’t break; but boy did they wear-down. 

Maybe the Fender’s would have worn-down too, but they always broke before they had time to wear down!  I stuck with various Dunlop nylon pics for a decade or so.

Then I moved to Nashville and became a pic-whore.  I didn’t intend to, it just happened.  Everywhere I went, people were giving me picks with their company name on them.


When I opened my first checking account in Nashville, I got a free toaster and a big handful of pics, seriously!  Test drive a car; get a pick with the salesman’s name and number on it.  Walk into a guitar shop, and walk out with a handful of store-branded picks, gratis!  Buy a pair of jeans, and get a pack of free picks.  Every band, and every player seemed to have vanity picks with their name on them, and they tossed them out like candy at a Christmas day parade. 

My buddy Todd still uses pics in leau of business cards.

So for a decade or so, I simply used whatever pick I managed to grab, paying little attention to what it was made out of or how thick it was.  Then in the 90’s I started to play professionally quite a bit more and decided to re-think my pic philosophy.  About that time I read an article on the virtues of the tardrop-shaped Dunlop Nylon Jazz picks ... bought some and hated them.  I’d unsuccessfully tried Fender’s tear-drop pics, I should have known that size and shape just didn’t work for me!

For a while I did what some of the A-team Nashville session guys did at the time and used a cut-off thumb pick with a traditional pick stuck under it.  That didn’t ever really work for me, but I’ve still got the mutilated thumb picks.

I tried a bunch of picks with "grippy" surfaces and I hated each and every one of them.

Next, I experimented with nearly every pick Dunlop makes, and ya gotta hand it to them, they make a bunch of different picks:  Celluloid, Nylon, Ultex, Tortex, Poly, Felt, Delrin, flat picks and thumb picks, big picks and little picks, the list goes on and on ... My hat’s off to Dunlop for their contributions to us all, but oh, the decisions! 

Darn if I didn’t come back to the same old dilemma, when it came right down to it, I preferred the celluloid picks, everything else just didn’t sound as good and the tip wore down quickly, and when they wore down, they sounded even worse.  Of course, the celluloid pics broke with a disheartening regularity.

Then lightning struck: I happened upon a single d’addario pick unlike any other I’d ever felt.  It had a real magic on acoustic guitar, and try as I may, I couldn’t wear the thing down.  Ureka, I’d found my pick!  Problem: it was no longer made.  I actually called d’addario and was told they should still be available under the Planet Waves name, but I have never been able to find them.  After years of use, that special pic did finally break, and even then it behaved unlike any other pick I’ve ever owned, actually breaking from top to bottom!

Ever since, I’ve been a pic nomad, wandering aimlessly from pic to pick.  Early this summer I picked up a handful of (free) music-store branded picks, later that evening, after playing the first song of the evening at an outdoor show, I thought something black was raining down out of the sky.  I had black powder all over myself and my guitar.  It was the pick, now only a fraction of its original size.  I shoulda known better.

For the most part, I was back to celluloid pics, mostly made by Martin, for acoustic work; and various Dunlop pics for electric.

So, that takes me to where this blog started, the summer NAMM show in Nashville; I was seriously primed to find the new pic of my dreams.  Did I find it?  Well, yes, but not the way I expected.  The V-Picks wound up (for me anyway) being in roughly the same classification as the stone "mind pick": a neat curiosity, but not a functional pic.  Like the rock pick, they have absolutely no "give" to them, and they felt like a chunk of Plexiglas in my hand.  That may be your thing, but it’s not mine.

The real hit was that "finns" pick that Daniel handed me.  Turns out it is, in fact, a nylon pic made by Dunlop, but it doesn’t feel or respond like any other nylon pic I’ve ever held.  I’ve never liked a pic that was not of the traditional size/shape, but I like this one.  On acoustic, it sounds very much like a thin celluloid pic: bright, expressive, and sensitive.  On electric it sounds and feels like a cross between a nylon and a celluloid, with the best qualities of both, like that magic d’addario.  Oh, and that weird shape?  Well, all I can say is that it works for me, actually felt quite natural from the very first time I used it.  Give one a try, I double-dog dare ya.

Next week I plan to have some video comparisons of some of the pics highlighted here, it’s gonna be awesome!  But first I’ll leave you with a couple of interesting novelty picks.

First the edible weatware pic ... actually made from wheat.  I didn’t actually try eating one, but when I tried playing with them, they instantly broke.

Next the pic preferred by countless punk rockers:

And finally, I had to include this:

Got your own pic story?  Share it with us here as a comment to this blog!  See ya next week.

emailvaughn    About Vaughn Skow

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