The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Why Picks Matter
If you are a metal guitar player you know the gear you rely on to get your tone is important, and picks are no different. You want to choose guitars, amps, effects and even strings that nail the sound you are looking for, but if your picks are weak you’re going to fall flat.
It seems ridiculous that a little thing could make such a big difference in your tone, but the brand, gauge, and material your pick is made out of matters.
Why are picks such a big deal? Think of it like this: The pick is where you connect with the guitar. Yes, your fretting hand forms notes and chords and has some influence over what happens after they are played, but your picking hand is what makes it all happen.
Use the wrong tool at this crucial point and the sounds you hear in your head are never going to find their way out of your amplifier.
Different kinds of guitar players need to use different kinds of picks, and as a metal player, you have a specific set of criteria you should be looking at. The same picks that work for an acoustic strummer aren't going to get it done for you.
It’s not unusual for guitar players who work across different genres to have different picks for different styles or even different picks for different guitars.
If you play metal you want to choose the best guitar for the job. Your picks are no different.
In this article, we’ll look at what makes a great guitar pick for the metal player, and how to choose the best picks for your playing style.
What Is Pick Attack?
What does it mean when someone talks about pick attack? They’re talking about your right-hand technique and the interaction between your pick and your strings. In metal, you want a strong pick attack. Your picking needs to be concise and powerful.
Naturally, this is important for fast playing, like in shredding and thrash-style rhythms, but pick attack also has an influence over how string reverberations are processed through your pickups.
You probably know that stronger signals through your pickups push the preamp section of your amp harder, and that has a big impact on your tone.
It’s tough to push a strong signal through your pickups with a wimpy guitar pick. For many of the great rhythm players in the history of metal, that bone-crushing tone all comes down to their right-hand technique.
So what kinds of picks give us the right attack, and help our tone rather than hurt it?
Pick Gauge for Heavy Metal
Heavy-gauge picks are a big help if you play extreme metal. A good rule is you should have trouble bending them with your fingers. There are good reasons why heavy picks are important in metal.
Heavy picks, or very stiff picks, ensure that more or all of your picking force is applied directly to the strings. This is all about control. Lighter-gauge picks have a mushy feel to them when trying to play with any rate of speed and precision. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to explain, but you know it when you experience it.
When you play a note you want your pick to rip through the string and be ready for the next note. In my opinion, heavy picks give you a feeling of control you can’t get from light or medium gauge picks.
Instead, with those picks, you sometimes feel like your pick is hung up on the last note while you’re ready to play the next one. It’s a matter of milliseconds, but milliseconds matter in precision playing.
Some players may use lighter gauge picks because of their thin edge, and in these cases they often choke up quite high on the pick, allowing less of the pick to bend with each note. It's one of those things you need to experiment with until you find the right feel for you.
Which Picks are Best for Metal?
Personally, I used 1.14 gauge Dunlop Standard Tortex picks (purple) for a long, long time in my days in death metal and thrash bands. They’re super-rigid, offer a decent edge for attack and can take a lot of abuse. The 1.0 version (blue) has a bit more of an edge but is still very strong. Lately, I have been experimenting with the .73 Tortex picks (yellow) which seem a little better for lead playing.
They now come in a Pitch Black variation that looks pretty cool. My bias aside, there are a lot of other Derlin picks out there to choose from.
Nylon picks are generally not what you want for metal. They have good thickness and rigidity, but the edges are way too rounded.
Celluloid picks are probably the most popular picks out there. These are the brown “tortoiseshell” picks you see with music store and guitar teacher’s phone numbers on them. The cheap ones should be avoided completely, but Fender makes a pick called the 351 Premium that’s pretty outstanding.
The heavy-gauge 351 works best as a general-purpose pick. It’s not quite thick enough for extreme metal, but if you choke up on the pick a lot it’s very usable. This is my main pick these days since I play everything from death metal to blues.
You’ve probably noticed that there are two basic kinds of guitar picks: Picks made from celluloid, and picks made from other stuff.
The other stuff may be nylon, Delrin, carbon fiber or even rubber and metal. Delrin is probably the most popular material, as found in DunlopTortex picks.
The Pick Edge
Along with the gauge and materials of the pick, the shape of the pick has an influence over the pick attack. Some players like picks with pointy ends, and even use jazz-style picks because they feel it helps them play faster.
For me, it’s always been more about the edge of the pick rather than the point. In my younger days, I actually used to file my picks down to get the sharp edge I wanted on them.
Maintaining a good edge on the business end of your guitar pick is also why durability is important. All picks decay eventually if you play them enough, but you don’t want picks that get dinged too easily. Small divots in your pick can cause an odd metallic sound to your picking, or worse get your pick hung up on a string as you are playing.
Most of the major pick makers build picks to a high enough standard that this isn’t something you need to worry about. But if you decide to go with cheap picks you may find them turning to dust before your eyes!
Tortex is More than a Pick!
Still Think Your Pick Doesn’t Matter?
After you’ve been playing guitar for while you come to realize that pretty much everything influences tone. Picks are part of the equation. So how do you choose the right pick for you?
The only way you can figure it out is to try a bunch of different styles and see what you like best.
If you play mostly extreme metal you may want to start out with a pick like the Dunlop 1.14 gauge Tortex.
If you play hard rock and some metal, try the Fender 351.
The one thing you can’t do is ignore your picks. Even seasoned players continuously evaluate their gear and try to find new ways to get that ideal tone.
For some, it’s a life-long search to find that best guitar pick to fit their metal style.
You Choice: Best Guitar Pick for Metal
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
MA5TER0FA11 on May 29, 2020:
I have a metal pick it seems to work well but my hearing isn't amazing would it work for a metal song
Guitar Gopher (author) on June 10, 2016:
Hi Eduardo. Those are the picks I use and recommend. If you have some opinions on other brands feel free to add your opinion in the comments section here!
Eduardo on June 09, 2016:
Why only Fender and Dunlop are mentioned? What about Ernie Ball, Gibson, Planet Waves?