My liscense plate.

The Pick

Clic the pickture for a larger version of "Before and After"

Maybe the pick isn't the most important part about being a good player. However, it's great entertainment to experiment with different brands, materials and shapes. I have been trying different picks, making my own from different materials, and modifying commercial picks for as long as I have been playing mandolin. I finally came up with something that I really like.

I have given a lot of them away but so far I have resisted selling them. Each one I make takes 10 to 15 minutes of rather boring labor, a 75 cent Clayton pick, and probably another half a bucks worth of sandpaper. If I ever did sell them I would probably price them high enough so no one would buy them. Hopefully there will be enough information here so that you can make your own. Click the pictures for larger versions.

Skip the nonsense and go straight to the instructions (especially if you are inclined to argue, this is all just a bunch of opinion anyway)

Points and Thickness
As soon after I started playing mandolin a little more seriously I took lessons with Jack Tuttle and he got me using Golden Gate picks. It takes some work to learn how to drive a fat, round pick but it is an obvious improvement over a standard pick. The thicker pick was an improvement on tone and after some work for control as well. When you drive the pick across a string you know when it is going to cleanly "snap." A floppy pick is just a little less predictable.

I liked the rounded points but I thought that maybe they were a little too rounded. I like the sound you get when the pick is parallel to the strings. When it isn't quite parallel to the strings the volume drops off pretty quickly. When the pick is too rounded I think it also tends to slide over the string a little and make your note a little less predictable. I'm sure this is never a problem for the John Reischmans of the world but I needed a little help. I reshaped them to a slightly sharper point, just a little bit more like standard pick. I think a slightly more pointed pick allows a little more forgiveness without compromising too much on tone.

A problem with reshaping Golden Gates was that they would be too small by the time I was done. The big Fender "dorito" picks were way to thin to mess with.

One of the biggest problems with the Golden Gates is that the edges are a mess. They just don't polish them like "the good old days", whenever that was. I would always spend 10 or 15 minutes sanding the roughness off of the edges. While doing this I discovered that I liked to have a little more of an edge on the pick. If you take a close look at the profile of a Golden Gate you'll notice that they have a very round edge, a little towards the the "square" side of a half circle. A thick Clayton is practically square with only the very edge taken off. I like an edge that is still convex, but that does come to somewhat of a point. I think that it snaps off of the string cleaner. Don't go too far though. A knife fine edge is another problem. It sounds thin and wears quickly.

Mostly I have modified commercially available picks. Most of the commercial picks are too small to work with or too thin. I think a thin pick leads to a pathetic little tinkley sound. You don't need to use the heaviest pick available, but a Fender medium is just no good.

I have played with a few tortoise shell picks and they were always too thin (both physically and thus sonically). They are also rather bright sounding. Mandolins don't generally need more brightness. I thought part of the problem might be that I was only able to get a pretty thin pick. I recently got a thick piece from an old hand mirror. I made a nice thick pick from it, and I still think it sounds worse than the plastic. There is too much "clatter" from the pick on the string, as opposed to the string vibrating. I was disappointed that I didn't find the "Holy Grail" of picks, but I'm glad that no innocent turtles will die because of me. Cow horn and bone aren't worth much either. Horn de-laminates and bone is too stiff/hard and bright sounding. If you like the brighter sound of a tortise shell pick you might like the Ultem material mentioned below. A lot of guitar players tend to prefer this.

My preferred starting material is now the Clayton picks. They have almost squared edges and are way too pointy but they are large and made of good material. I've made picks out of the thicker triangle shaped picks that they sell. The thickest is the 1.9 (white, acetal polymer) and is my favorite. You might have to order tham because they don't come in the variety packs that most stores order. The 1.52 (white, acetal) and 1.52 Delrin picks also work great. I can't distinguish much difference between the Delrin and the Acetal Polymer picks. The Delrin are apparently dyed after manufacture. When you take off the points and edge you get down to the "white" and the black ends up a very dark blue after sanding. They are slippery and have a teflon feel to them. The 1.20 (yellow/amber Ultem) is preferred by some of my friends, particularly guitar players. I think the 1.20 yellow picks look cooler, but they don't take or hold an edge the same way as the acetal polymer. I think they are a little bright for mandolin.

Steve Clayton Says...
Acetal Polymer is a unique material among guitar picks, producing warm clean overtones, while holding up to the most demanding performance. All are white, making them easy to find when dropped on stage. Delrin XL is a very tough material. It produces a brighter sound than our Acetal/Polymer, but not as bright as Ultem Tortoise. Ultem closely resembles real tortoiseshell in sound, feel and color. This new space age material produces a clean crisp tone with limited flex. Unlike real tortoiseshell, the material will not fracture.

The state of mandolin picks today? Sad indeed.

D'Andrea used to sell a very nice 1.5mm Pro Plec pick (their website says it's celluloid). However, the ones they are putting out now are horrid. They are much thinner, pointier, and the edge is a mess. It was a very attractive tortoise shell looking pick and had, by far, the nicest "factory" edge. If they were a little less pointy they would have just about perfect out of the box. The material sounded a little deader than the others (drop the different picks on a glass or stone table. Some "plink" and some "thud."), I don't know if this is one of the most important parameters. It doesn't seem to affect the instrument tone as much compared to the effect the shape and edge have. Maybe you can find some of the old stock, or maybe they'll start making them right again.

Grisman has a new pick. Oops, make that HAD. They are out of production already. They appeared to be the same material as the D'andrea noted above, but with the Grisman/Golden Gate rounded point. Nice finish and all, but a little round for my taste and this isn't my favorite material. Its a little softer and kind of dampend.

Go to the Instructions

** Jack only uses mine now, and suggested the D'Andrea Pro Plec 1.5 mm to his students who want something "off the shelf." But, now that they "aren't making them like they used to" there isn't much off the shelf worth talking about. The closest you can get is to look for the cleanes Golden Gate in the box and polish the edge. Or, make one of your own folloing the instructions on the next page. back

***John said I could quote him, he said "good pick." Really, you can ask him. I think he is going to stick with the "clown barf" Golden Gates that he had. Someone gave him a whole bag of them. I only had a few picks to give him. back

Jack teaches bluegrass guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and swing and old time fiddle. His site has a lot of great material. Gryphon sell great instruments and has a great repair shop. A great site for lyrics to traditional bluegrass songs.
This is built and maintained by Ken Torke, and is copyrighted for no particular reason.
Last updated April 5, 2008