Guitar Plectrums Part 2: Material

by Alec Plowman, May 10, 2018 . 4 min read

Guitar Plectrums Part 2: Material

Last week, we covered gauge, and talked about the different uses for lighter and heavier gauge plectrums (if you’ve haven’t read last week’s article, check it out hereIn this edition, we’re looking at the kinds of materials used in plectrum production and what they mean for your playing.

And why should you care so much about plectrums, you might ask? Well, as we established last week, they’re just as important to your playing as having the right guitar, amp, and tuner.

Just like you wouldn’t settle for a cheap acoustic guitar from the mall or bad quality, used electric guitar from a yard sale as your first instrument, you shouldn’t skimp on plectrums. Buy an old bag of cheap guitar picks off the guitar store counter and your playing will suffer for it; it’s a surefire spanner in the works when it comes to learning the guitar.

Right, with that out of the way, let’s dive into it, discussing the material most widely associated with guitar plectrums, and the controversy surrounding it…

Tortoiseshell

Popular amongs guitarists since the 1920’s, Tortoiseshell picks are regarded for their natural feel, warm tone and durability. They last for years, can easily be re-shaped by filing and, are considered the perfect pick by many as a result.

So what’s the controversy?

Well, the problem with Tortoiseshell, as the name suggests, is that it’s made from real animal shell. Tortoiseshell doesn’t actually come from a tortoise. It’s derived from the shell of the Atlantic Hawksbill Turtle, a reptile that has long been on the endangered species list.  As a result “tortoiseshell” has been banned from sale since 1973.

In short, making Tortoiseshell picks today is very illegal, and there are plenty of ethical implications to using them.

Tortex

Following the banning of Tortoiseshell, pick manufacturers sought to emulate the material’s style without getting themselves in legal hot water. DuPont Derlin was discovered in the process, and was the material Jim Dunlop used for their legendary Tortex picks.

Powdery in texture, Tortex picks apply friction to the strings and grip really well. They give good tone, have a nice attack an agreeable feel. No wonder they became the pick of choice for everyone from James Hetfield and Dimebag Darrel to Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell upon their popularization in the late ‘80’s-early ‘90’s.

Ultem

A relatively new innovation, Picks made from Ultem (otherwise known as polyetherimide) boast an impressive combination of flexibility and huge attack. By many accounts they’re virtually indestructible and provide a huge dynamic range compared to other picks on the market – great for adding light and shade into your playing.

When it comes to Ultem picks, you’ve got Dunlop’s Ultex range, including their legendary Jazz III. Pleny of guitarists also sing the praises of Steve Clayton’s Ultem offerings.

Nylon

You might have heard of the legendary Herco Flex plectrum. Back in the 1970s, they were the choice of every self-respecting classic rocker, from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, by way of KISS’s Gene Simmons.

Nylon picks have textured grips, which act against sweaty fingers and keep that plectrum in your hand. They’re famous for producing very bright sounds, as well as their incredible flexibility, which is great if you want some spring in your guitar playing.

If you’re in the market for tight rhythm sounds and compressed lead tone that characterize modern rock, nylon picks are not your friend. But, if old-school classic rock is your vintage, then these might be up your street.

Heck, if they’re good enough for Jimmy Page, they’re certainly worth a try!



Get our free Alternate Tunings Guide!
Submit
Get Roadie Tuner

Check out some other similar articles

You have bought your first guitar and are ready to begin your musical journey. But you don’t know where to start.

Frederik Nielsen
Nov 11, 2019 . 3 min read

You want to get better at guitar, right?

Who doesn’t? If you’re serious about your instrument, you’ll do anything and everything to build up your chops.

Alec Plowman
Sep 30, 2019 . 4 min read

When it comes to learning guitar, everybody has a goal piece. It’s that one song they’ve wanted to master since they first picked up the instrument

Alec Plowman
Sep 23, 2019 . 3 min read

The voice of Hawaii, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, blessed us with his cover mashup of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and What A Wonderful World.

Frederik Nielsen
Sep 16, 2019 . 3 min read

Teaching yourself to play ukulele is great!  Whether you’re learning to play ukulele online or with a book, it’s an awesome skill.

Alec Plowman
Jun 25, 2019 . 4 min read

So you want to learn to play ukuleleAwesome. But, what’s the best ukulele for beginners? Which cheap ukuleles won’t leave you buyer’s remorse?

Alec Plowman
Jun 6, 2019 . 4 min read

Whether you are a beginner or have some experience with guitars, you still may be wondering how to tune a guitar perfectly.

Alain Abou Atmeh
May 2, 2019 . 4 min read

Alternate tunings make life as a guitarist a bit more interesting, as it’s easy to get tired of just being famous all the time. That’s why we cover alternate tuning

Frederik Nielsen
May 1, 2019 . 5 min read

Drummers are loud people — let’s talk about it. I have to deal with a drummer who never calls in sick for rehearsals. He always shows up,

Federik Nielsen
Apr 29, 2019 . 3 min read

It’s a well-established fact: having a routine makes your more productive. Chances are you already put this into practice when it comes to

Alec Plowman
Apr 5, 2019 . 3 min read

What’s the best acoustic guitar for a beginner? If you’ve ever worked in a guitar store, you’ve probably been asked that question. A LOT.

Alec Plowman
Mar 31, 2019 . 3 min read

The guitar world has lost a legend. Jim Dunlop – guitar plectrum and guitar pedals pioneer – has died. A cause

Alec Plowman
Feb 13, 2019 . 3 min read

We’ve talked before in this blog about how jamming with other musicians is an amazing way to fast-track learning the guitar.

Alec Plowman
Oct 11, 2018 . 3 min read

What sets apart a great lead guitar solo from a mediocre one? Is it technique? Finger dexterity? Scale mastery?

Alec Plowman
Jul 23, 2018 . 4 min read

Beginner guitarists and tuning stability have a turbulent relationship. In this day and age, getting your guitar

Alec Plowman
Jul 9, 2018 . 4 min read

So you’ve decided you want to play electric guitar. Awesome. You’ve just taken your first step into a wider world

Alec Plowman
Jun 28, 2018 . 4 min read

You are all in for treat! One can never be awesome enough with the axe, so take a look below for the tricks

Frederik Nielsen
Jun 13, 2018 . 4 min read

Embedded in every guitar player’s DNA is an incredibly huge ego (not my opinion, Google it) that needs to be fed on a regular basis.

Frederik Nielsen
May 28, 2018 . 4 min read

A few days ago, I went to a local show to watch a couple of up-and-coming bands I’d heard some good things about.

Alec Plowman
May 25, 2018 . 3 min read

What’s the best way to learn guitar? You can take guitar lessons, you can look up guitar tabs,

Alec Plowman
May 24, 2018 . 4 min read
We'll be bringing you recommended tabs and plenty of interesting quotes from guitar legends along the way!