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History of Guitar Pick Materials

Close-up photo of an SG style guitar being played.

Guitar picks can seem fairly simple; you just need a little piece of some material that you can use to strum the strings. But most guitar players know first-hand that picks can be a bit more complicated. There are countless different sizes and styles of guitar picks available on the market. On top of that, there are tons of materials that guitar picks are made out of. 

Today, we’re going to take a look at guitar pick materials—how they came about, what they sound like, how they feel, and what they’re best suited for. First, let’s start with a classic but long gone pick material, tortoise shell. 

Tortoiseshell

Prior to the invention of tortoiseshell guitar picks, feather quills were the dominant picks for string instruments. However, John Farris designed and patented a pick made from the Atlantic Hawksbill Sea Turtle in 1885, and it quickly became the standard for instrument picks. 

Sadly, this practice was not sustainable. Atlantic Hawksbill Sea Turtles were over harvested for their tortoiseshell (not just for picks), and they were placed on the endangered species list in 1973, putting an end to tortoiseshell picks. 

So why exactly were these picks so popular in the first place? Well, there weren’t many other options available, and tortoiseshell was the best option available to players. Tortoiseshell is made out of keratin, so they are similar to human nails in terms of tone and feel. 

However, many modern players who have played tortoiseshell feel that it is inferior to the plethora of modern materials available. Tortoiseshell picks are also much more fragile than most modern picks. They are also illegal to sell in most places. With all the new options available, it’s best to leave the sea turtles alone. 

Photo of a hawksbill sea turtle in the ocean.

Celluloid

Celluloid is the original tortoiseshell substitute, and it also happens to be the first commercial plastic. It was invented in 1870 by John Wesley Hyatt after a billiard ball manufacturer offered a $10,000 reward for an ivory substitute. It is made from cellulose, and incredibly abundant natural material, and turns into celluloid when combined with heat and pressure. 

Celluloid first made its way to guitar picks when Tony D’Andrea stumbled upon a sheet of tortoiseshell patterned celluloid at a sidewalk sale in 1902. He discovered that celluloid was a great guitar pick material, and the rest is history. 

Celluloid is very flexible and durable, which makes it a great fit for guitar picks. Tonally, celluloid is usually described as having a bright tone and sharp attack. It is also a remarkably cheap material, meaning picks can be made and sold for cheap. To this day, celluloid is still one of the most popular pick materials on the market. 

Nylon

Once tortoiseshell was out of the picture, pick manufacturers were looking for other alternatives. In this search, Jim Dunlop (a name we’ll see much more of later) ended up creating the nylon guitar pick. Technically, Herco came up with nylon picks first, but Dunlop bought the brand. 

Nylon picks are most known for their flexibility and feel. Because of the material, they typically feel thinner than they actually are. They also are a bit slippery, but most manufacturers make them with dimples for improved grip.

In terms of tone, nylon picks are very versatile. Players say they are on the warmer side, but they can still produce brighter sounds with certain techniques. They are popular in everything from rock to jazz, so they are obviously very capable for a wide variety of styles. 

On the downside, nylon picks aren’t very durable. You may end up swapping picks a lot if you play frequently or are a heavy-handed player. Also, many players simply don’t like the flexible and slippery feel, preferring a stiffer and more “solid” pick. Still, it is one of the most popular pick materials out there. 

Photo of strings, picks, and a guitar against a light blue background.

Modern Synthetics

These materials are grouped together because they are all modern synthetics created by Jim Dunlop for guitar picks. These materials have become some of the most popular and commonly used today, so let’s look at some of them. 

Delrin, Delrex, Acetal

These three are basically all the same, so let’s just discuss them together. Delrin was first used for guitar picks by Jim Dunlop, again in the search of tortoiseshell alternatives. It is essentially a plastic, making them an affordable and functional pick material.

Delrin picks are most known for their durability. It is an incredibly strong material that can hold up to a lot of use. They last much longer than materials like celluloid, making them a great choice for players who play a lot or are heavy-handed. 

These picks are fairly neutral in terms of sound. They aren’t super bright or warm, but rather somewhere in the middle. Some argue that synthetic materials like delrin dull the strings and cause them to resonate less, but whether or not that actually makes a noticeable difference is debated. 

The only real downside of delrin is that it can be slippery, especially if your hands are sweaty. Dimpled grips are a common way of addressing this issue, but it’s still worth noting.

Ultem and Ultex

Ultem and ultex picks are some of the best synthetic picks available. Again, they are made from a very tough and durable plastic. However, they are even more durable than tortex picks and are one of the most durable guitar pick materials out there. 

Ultex picks tend to produce a brighter and sharper sound due to the stiffer nature of the material, compared to the more natural sounding tortex. They also tend to glide across the strings smoothly, making them a very popular choice for very fast or shred style players. 

One downside of ultex picks is that they can be noisy. Because of their stiffness and durability, they can create a lot of string noise, especially on thinner strings or if you have sloppy technique. That said, they are still an incredibly popular guitar pick and one of Dunlop’s best sellers. 

Photo of multiple Dunlop Ultex picks against a white background.
Photo courtesy of Jim Dunlop

Acrylic

One other popular pick material worth mentioning is acrylic. They may not be the most common picks, but they are still seen in the hands of professionals all over the world. Acrylic picks may be the most durable guitar pick material (well, other than options like metal and stone). They wear very slowly, so they are a great choice if you like having a sharp tip. Tonally, acrylic picks are brighter than most picks. 

The big flaw of acrylic picks is that they can be very slippery, especially when wet. It is incredibly easy to drop a sweaty acrylic pick. Thankfully, manufacturers have been trying to address the issue. V-Picks, a popular acrylic pick company, are made with a special acrylic that slightly bonds to your fingers. Most acrylic pick companies also sell picks with grips or holes, allowing you to get a better grip.

Other Materials

There are also other less conventional materials used for guitar picks, such as bone, wood, and metal. These may sound odd, but these picks have been used by many well known players. 

Bone picks are very durable, but they also can cause a lot of string noise. They can vary greatly in tone depending on the specific material used. For example, horn picks tend to be warmer, whereas bone picks tend to be brighter. 

Wood picks are hard to describe because their qualities depend greatly on the type of wood used. Most woods are too soft to use as picks and wear down very quickly. Harder woods, such as sheesham or lignum vitae, can make for better picks. Those picks tend to be very warm and smooth. However they can be hard to use, expensive, and wear quicker than synthetic picks.

Using a metal pick may seem like overkill, but they can be useful. As expected, they are some of the most durable picks money can buy. They produce a bright and jangly kind of tone. Their weight and feeling make them a very satisfying pick to use as well. They do have significant downsides though. Metal picks can quickly damage strings or your guitar’s finish. There is also a distinct pick noise that comes with metal picks. 

Conclusion

Guitar picks are a simple tool that us guitarists rely on, but they can be remarkably varied and complex. There are countless different pick materials, all with their own unique pros and cons. When looking for picks, have some fun trying out the different options available. Buy some different picks, give them a shot, and see what your favorites are—you may be surprised.

Looking to try a sample of a few different sizes, shapes and materials? Check out our bundle of our most popular guitar picks to get an assortment of some of our customer favorites.

2 Responses

  1. In reference to your article on picks. You forgot to include Blue Chip picks.
    These picks come in a wide variety of shapes and thickness. And, rather expensive at $35 per pick. However, they virtually last FOREVER. I’ve used the same two identical Blue Chip picks for over 6 years…. They do not show any signs of wear whatsoever. REMARKABLE!!!
    Here’s some verbiage from Blue Chips website:
    “The cost of the picks relates to the cost of the material and labor used to create them. We use an extremely expensive, highly proprietary composite material that must be milled with precision that accounts for the bulk of the cost of each pick. The creation of a pick from this exceptional stock is also very labor intensive. Picks are CNC machined, then beveled and polished by hand before being laser etched.
    They are made of a specially formulated composite material that will withstand very high temperatures and is extremely wear resistant. It contains special lubricants which make the picks very fast off the strings.
    And, NO I do not work for Blue Chip picks.”
    I was once told some years ago that these picks are made from the same material that’s used to make high end PC computer boards.
    I think these pick at least deserve an honorable mention in your article. They have been a God send and game changer for me. I am no longer hunting for the perfect pick. I’ve found it.
    Sincerely,
    Howard Mack

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