When you’re starting out on the guitar, it can seem like there is no definitive answer for which plectrum thickness you should be using. With plectrums ranging from the incredibly thin and flimsy to the extra chunky and rigid (and everything in between), which one should you go for as a beginner?
My take is that it’s best for beginners to opt for a medium thickness plectrum (i.e. .73mm or thereabouts). Medium thickness plectrums offer the best of both worlds. On the one hand, there is some bendiness to them which makes them accessible for entry level techniques like chord strumming and simple alternate picking exercises. At the same time, medium thickness plectrums are sufficiently firm for the more advanced techniques you’ll learn in the future, so if you start out with a .73mm plectrum from day one you won’t need to think about plectrum thickness ever again. This also means that there won’t be an awkward transition period where you’re having to ween yourself off the super thin and bendy plectrums which are commonly suggested for the beginner player.
Let’s take a look at a few different guitar pick thicknesses in a little more detail and I’ll explain in why I think that beginners are better off leapfrogging the soft, thin plectrums and going directly to their medium thickness counterparts.
What Are Thin Guitar Picks Good For?
(i.e. Thinner Than .60mm)
In my view, thinner plectrums are mainly of benefit to brand new guitarists to ease them in to the physical demands of playing the guitar. Even if you’re fairly athletic, if you’ve never played a fingered instrument before, chances are you won’t have developed the finger strength required for the fretting, strumming and picking movements involved in playing the guitar.
As thinner plectrums are bendier, they put up less physical resistance to the string than thicker picks and require less force to be applied to sound a note. For that reason, I think the added pliability of thinner plectrums is useful for introducing new players to the strength required of the picking hand – much like learning a new movement in the gym without adding any weight to begin with.
I definitely recall when I was first getting started using a plectrum (after learning to play the classical guitar with my fingers) the frustration of trying to pick a note only for my plectrum to just get stuck behind the string. Although this was probably accountable to my awkward picking technique at the time, it’s inevitable that a thinner plectrum will be more forgiving in yielding to the string and less likely to encounter this problem.
I did a little wider research on the uses for thinner plectrums and found others online saying that they are good for strumming chords. To test this out, I dug out an old thin .46mm Martin plectrum I have to compare its strumming capabilities against my usual go-to plectrum thickness, a .73mm Dunlop Tortex Sharp.
I have to agree, on both my Hohner acoustic and my Gibson SG electric, strumming with the thinner plectrum does feel physically easier with the thinner plectrum. If you were to be strumming acoustic for an extended amount of time, I expect you’d likely suffer far less fatigue in the thumb and forefinger of your picking hand if you opted for the thinner plectrum.
However, there was also a striking difference in the sound emitted by the two thicknesses of plectrum. The difference was not so apparent with my acoustic (probably because the acoustic is so much louder), but when strumming the unplugged electric, there was a clear difference in the tone of the chords. For the thinner plectrum, the chords were mellower while for the medium plectrum the chords seemed much more defined and sparkly.
There was also another bizarre phenomenon I noticed when strumming chords on the unplugged SG – the racket that came out of the thin and flappy Martin plectrum. It was the sound of the flimsy plastic plectrum making contact with the strings before the sound of the chords were heard – like a playing card attached to clip the spokes of a bicycle wheel. I’m fairly sure this would get picked up if I was to record using a microphone.
Beside the playing card noise, the key downside to thin guitar picks in my view is that they are just too flexible to be suitable for faster, precision playing. When a thinner plectrum makes contact with a string, it is bent back by the string before actually plucking through. This flex of the thinner plectrum means that your picking hand needs to make a broader motion to pluck the string than it would if the plectrum remained rigid. It also means there is a slight delay on every upstroke and downstroke. This is inefficient.
What Are Medium Guitar Picks Good For?
(i.e. Between .60mm and .88mm)
In my view, medium thickness picks offer the best of both worlds. At this thickness, the pick is sufficiently rigid to produce sparkly clear tones and facilitate precise technical playing, yet remains flexible enough to yield to chord strumming without feeling too high impact on your thumb and forefinger.
Because medium picks are more rigid than their thinner counterparts, there is far less flex to the plectrum when contact is made with the string. This means that the string is quicker to yield to the plectrum and allows your picking hand to undertake a smaller range of motion to play the same note. Developing the smallest and most efficient range of motion in your picking hand is one of the key elements in improving alternate picking speed.
The difference between my thin .46mm Martin plectrum and my medium .73mm Tortex was most apparent when trying fast paced tremolo alternate picking. The technique felt consistent and controlled with the medium .73mm plectrum, but sloppy with the thinner plectrum. Part of this will be because I am used to the .73s, but I think the issue is mostly down to the thinner plectrum being too flexible.
As the medium thickness plectrum retained its rigidity throughout the picking motion, I was able to carry out rapid alternate picking with only a very small amount of picking hand movement.
However, because of how bendy the thinner plectrum was, my picking hand was having to go through a much wider range of motion before the string was actually plucked. This extended picking hand movement inevitably takes longer to execute. Although in reality this picking delay is probably in the milliseconds, it really makes a difference when you are trying to notch up your playing speed.
Although there is rigidity to my Tortex plectrums, they are not so thick so as to be completely stiff. For instance, if you put one between your thumb, fore and middle finger, you can still make the pick bend with one hand. As a result, the .73mms still feel comfortable for higher impact techniques where pliability is more desirable (i.e. chord strumming).
What Are Hard Guitar Picks Good For?
(i.e. Thicker Than .88mm)
To demonstrate the thicker end of the spectrum, I have two of the hard Dunlop Tortex Sharp picks – the 1.35mm (black) and 1.50mm (white).
These plectrums are essentially unbendable. Although you can get a little bend out of both of them if you use both hands, these plectrums are essentially a brick wall and will offer next to no resistance to your strings.
The firmness of these plectrums makes for the brightest of picking tones as they strike through the strings with zero yield. As there is no flex and no delay in these plectrums returning to form, they feel surgically precise. This makes them ideal for fast paced technical playing like tremolo alternate picking and string skipping alternate picking where the inefficiencies of a bendy thin plectrum would be unsuitable.
Although the harder and thicker plectrums have an advantage in accuracy and clarity of tone, they lose out when it comes to techniques that benefit from more flexibility – chord strumming being the main example. Although I can strum chords just find with the white 1.50mm plectrum, because the plectrum is not yielding at all to the string, all of the shock and resistance travels right up the plectrum to my thumb and forefinger.
I would therefore expect that if your playing style incorporates chord strumming in large part, the thumb and forefinger of your picking hand are going to fatigue very quickly if you go for a thick and heavy pick. I am sure that you could ultimately build up a tolerance to the impact on the thumb and forefinger in time, but if your playing style is fairly balanced with equal amounts of precision picking and chord strumming, it would seem to make more sense to just go for an all-rounder medium thickness plectrum like my .73mms.
My Favourite Guitar Picks
I’ve been playing the electric and acoustic guitar with a plectrum for years now, so have been through loads of different types of plectrums. In the end, I have settled on Dunlop’s Tortex Sharp .73mm picks.
They’re a medium thickness plectrum so offer the best of both worlds in terms of rigidity for more accurate playing and a sufficient amount of flexibility so that extended chord playing is still comfortable.
As my playing style leans more toward the technical rather than the rhythm end of the spectrum, the standout feature of these picks is their sharpened edge. I find that this feature really aids my precision and is far superior for technical pick work over more rounded style picks like the Jazz 3.
Once the edges start to round off after enough playing, I’m also into the habit of sanding down the plectrum into a point once again. The Tortex plectrums are sufficiently large to enable this to be done a few times before they need replacing.