Pick Quest, Part 1

Picks from Dunlop, Clayton, and D’Andrea Reviewed

A prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant was awarded to a violin bow maker from Boston last year. It’s common knowledge that good violins are expensive, but some may be surprised to learn just how much professional violinists spend on their bow alone — anywhere from many hundreds to thousands of dollars. It stands to reason though; the bow is what draws sound from strings and wood, a crucial link in the connection between artist and instrument — not far off from the role played by the much humbler guitar pick. Funny then that many professional guitarists, by stark contrast to violinists, opt to draw sound from their strings with a $0.25 piece of plastic.

Over the past year or so I’ve been on something of a pick quest, exploring the range of both budget and boutique alternatives on the market. Picks are a simple, comparatively cheap, and surprisingly effective way to tweak one’s guitar tone, whether acoustic or electric.

Clockwise from upper left: Clayton Ultem, Dunlop Ultex, D’Andrea Pro Plec, Red Bear Tuff Tone, Wegen TF

Budget Plectrums: Clayton Ultem, Dunlop Ultex, and D’Andrea Pro Plec

All the picks reviewed in this post are intended to replicate the sound of tortoise shell, which is still considered by many to be the ideal material for acoustic tone. Fortunately for our testudine friends, tortoise shell is now an illegal commodity in the United States and various companies offer synthetic alternatives. One of the earliest to be widely adopted was celluloid, and D’Andrea has been manufacturing picks from the material since 1922. The appropriately tortoise-colored Pro Plec line is available in six different shapes (including the rounded triangle that I prefer), but only one extra-heavy thickness (1.5mm) — perfect for flatpickers like myself, but possibly a little too much for more casual strummers.

Tested on a ten year old Martin D-28 with 0.013 gauge phosphor bronze strings, the Pro Plec yields a thick and consistent tone, albeit one that is muffled by comparison to other picks reviewed. The pick certainly feels nice and the embossed logo helps in maintaining a solid grip. It’s not clear how much improvement in tone there is over nylon or other common materials, but at only $0.60 apiece the D’Andrea is still a recommendable budget option, particularly for jazz players or plectrists seeking to tame the treble of an exceptionally bright instrument.

The Clayton Ultem and Dunlop Ultex lines are both made of similar opaque yellow material, though the Clayton has a courser texture by comparison to the more smoothly polished feeling of the Dunlop. I opted for the thickest gauges offered (1.20mm and 1.14mm respectively). Both picks offer a crisper, clearer tone by comparison to celluloid or nylon picks. This is more obvious on an acoustic guitar, but the clarity is noticeable with electric instruments as well. The Clayton pick has a particularly brilliant sound, especially on the treble strings. It can actually be a little overwhelming and almost brittle, though careful technique can offset that tendency. By comparison, the Ultex pick yields a slightly more subdued but even tone across the strings. Neither pick is inherently better or worse; the choice between one or the other will likely depend on the individual instrument and player. At only $0.50 apiece, there’s no reason not to experiment.

Stay Tuned

In Part 2, I’ll share my thoughts on two “boutique” pick options — the Wegenpick TF140 and Red Bear Tuff Tone, both of which up the ante in terms of material, craftsmanship, and price tag.

2 thoughts on “Pick Quest, Part 1

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