Author: Campbell, Bruce

A Spendid Spectrum of Plectra
 


The easiest things in the world to lose are sunglasses and pens. They?re also among the easiest things in the world to break. Yet, remarkably, many folks pay hundreds of dollars for fine sunglasses and fancy pens, only to discover they get lost and break at exactly the same rate as the cheaper varieties.

Musicians can add some other items to the ?easy to lose? list ? namely, tuners, capos and picks. Check the CBA Message Board after Father?s Day, the lost and found will consist mainly of sunglasses, capos and tuners. For those who paid big bucks for sunglasses, they will suffer financially, as well as emotionally. Capos and tuners are not usually much more expensive (the common varieties of both are in the $15-$25 range), but you certainly don?t want to buy news after each festival!

But what about picks? Aren?t they pretty much disposable? In my rock?n?roll days, picks were purchased by the gross. You found the brand, thickness and material you liked and bought a boatload, and they were cheap. Watch rockers onstage ? their mic stands are festooned with spare picks, and they often toss picks into the crowd after almost every song.

I thought I was a discerning pick user. I did find a material that worked well for me: tortex was easy to grip and didn?t shred like plastic picks. I don?t mean ?shred? in the cool sense ? I mean plastic picks literally shredded to pieces. And I found the thickness that worked for me (about 1.08mm) and bought a big bag of the suckers and away I went. Every guitar case had a handful, and I was rarely without a handy pick.

When I began playing Bluegrass, I carried my pick preference with me, at first. It never occurred to me that the pick affected tone. If I could hold it, and it wasn?t too bendy, all was good. But I did discover that flat picking involved some different right hand techniques than I used in rock or blues, and the picks that gripped so nice for that music tended to rotate in my fingers. So I began scoring each and every pick with an X-Acto knife to create a roughness and that worked well. The slightly soft tortex was a little muddy so I began buying these Clayton picks and I?ve been happy with them.

But, I learned -- I should NOT be happy with them! For in Bluegrass the material, and the shape loom VERY large! No self respecting Bluegrass picker uses ?off-the-rack? 50-cent picks! No! The Brotherhood of the Plectrum frowns on such foolishness! The holy grail of picks of course, is the classic tortoise-shell pick of yore. But has there ever been an item so coveted and despised at the same time? Oh you can find one, but to use one means you tacitly condone the heartless slaughter of tortoises, and you might as well wear a snow leopard suit with a whooping crane feathered hat with spotted owl trim. Plus, that forbidden pick will cost you $50 or more ? a HUNDRED times more than the old music store tray variety!

OK, so tortoise shell is off the table. Surely modern technology can synthesize some comparable material? After all, they don?t make piano keys out of ivory anymore! Well, sure enough there are a number of premium picks on the market, and I bet they sound great. The Wegen picks are favored by lots of folks and I have tried them and they seem very nice. Also on the scene are Red Lion picks. And there?s a new brand that has sprung up called Blue Chip picks and they seem to have put a lot of effort into creating a very high quality plectrum. But none of these picks are cheap. Wegens go for about $20 and the Blue Chips go for nearly twice that.

Now, we all pay big bucks for our fine instruments, and it?s worth it. Why pluck a top-flight instrument with a cheap, crappy pick? But, like sunglasses and pens, ALL of the premium picks are just as easy to lose as the cheapos. So, although I own a couple of premium picks, I?m afraid to use ?em, for fear I?ll lose ?em. So if you see me pickin? at a festival, ask to see my pick. It?s probably be a 50-cent Clayton, with the cross-hatch scratches.
 
Posted:  8/26/2009



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