Pick Quest, Part 2

Wegen and Red Bear Picks Reviewed

Picks are a simple, comparatively cheap, and surprisingly effective way to tweak one’s guitar tone, whether acoustic or electric. In Part 1, I compared several budget picks that meet my basic criteria — thick, triangular, and tortoise-inspired. In this post, I put a pair of “boutique” picks through their paces. Are they worth the additional cash?

Boutique Plectrums: Wegen TF and Red Bear Tuff Tone

The market for boutique picks has been steadily growing in the past decade or so, and there are many high-quality alternatives on the market. In most cases the price jump is pretty significant — anywhere from about $7.00 to $35.00 per pick. The price tag usually reflects the exoticness of the material and level of craftsmanship required; most of these picks do not come off a machine production line and require some level of hand finishing. As someone who has probably lost hundreds of picks in my fourteen years of playing, I was inclined to explore the more affordable end of the boutique spectrum.

Wegen TF-140

Wegenpicks are crafted by Michel Wegen in the Netherlands, utilizing a hard material that has the look and feel of tooth enamel. Picks are available in a variety of sizes and shapes; I opted for the triangular TF140 (1.40mm). The pick’s quality is obvious right out of the package, from the ergonomically helpful grip holes to the hand-finished “speed bevels” that replicate a well-worn pick edge.

The first time I tried the Wegenpick, it was like removing a blanket from my guitar. Each pick stroke resulted in an immediate and articulate response from the strings. Strummed chords yielded more string-to-string definition, which can be challenging with a boomy rosewood dreadnought like the D-28. Trebles are strong with the TF140, but not brittle as can be the case with plastic picks. Bass notes are strong and not drowned in overtones.

Red Bear Tuff Tone

I had a similarly positive experience with the Red Bear “Tuff Tone” line. The Tuff Tones are a more budget-conscious and durable alternative to Red Bear’s standard line (beginning at $10 each versus $25-30 for the standard line). Among the shapes offered, I chose the “tri-trip” option with three distinctly different points — beveled triangular, sharply pointed (think Dunlop Jazz III), and rounded. Players can opt for grip holes and custom speed bevels, and several different thicknesses  are available (I chose 1.50mm “heavy”). The options are appreciated, though the individual attention required means that customers must sometimes wait a month or two for Red Bear to catch up with its backlog.

By comparison to the Wegenpick, the Red Bear is a little more well-rounded across the tonal spectrum. The Tuff Tone material is more neutral, not coloring the sound and emphasizing the instrument’s inherent sound qualities. The tri-tip option certainly lends versatility to the pick, which each tip offering it’s own unique sound — a feature that would come in handy in studio recording situations.

A note should be made regarding the recordings, which don’t necessarily suggest a dramatic difference in sound among the picks reviewed. This is partly a function of the limited recording setup, consisting of GarageBand and a built-in laptop mic. However, it’s not clear that a better rig would have revealed dramatic differences. Based on an ear test alone, I found that it wasn’t necessarily inherent volume or tonality that sets the boutique picks apart. Rather, the material and craftsmanship that goes into these picks makes them extra responsive to technique, rewarding the player with a consistently clear and pleasing sound, no matter the pressure of the pick stroke and associated dynamic level. It’s not that these sounds can’t be achieved with cheaper picks — it’s just more effortless with the boutique picks, permitting the player to concentrate on other playing nuances. For that reason, picks like the Wigeon or Red Bear are probably more recommended for intermediate and advanced players with discriminating ears.

It’s Good to Have Options

All of the picks reviewed — budget and boutique — have their relative merits. Moreover, mileage will inevitably vary depending on player technique and choice of instrument. However, there’s no reason not to try a few options, especially when even the boutique picks don’t cost much more than a pack or two of strings. There’s also something to be said for having a few options available in your gig bag, facilitating adaptation to a range of studio and stage situations. I still find myself cycling through all of the picks reviewed, discovering new applications in which I prefer one or the other.

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