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how thick is your pick?

[Note: The point of view from which I approach the advice offered here is that of personal experience; in other words, I’m sharing with you what I have discovered. If you have something constructive to add, please email me (drewvervan@drewvervan.com) – I’d love to hear from you.]

How thick is your pick?

Intro

For acoustic playing, I use D’Addario, Medium Gauge, Phosphor Bronze strings.  I also use Fender shaped Extra Heavy flat picks.

I didn’t simply choose this setup and start out this way; I made these choices after a long journey full of trials and many errors.

On my Taylor 710, this string-pick combination stands up to my hard playing style.  I have a wide dynamic range, a wide sensitivity range (playing lightly to rockin’ very hard!), and all the while the guitar delivers clean notes and full tone.  The same basic setup is true for all of my other guitars as well, except for the Taylor 12-string, but even on this guitar, I use the heaviest gauge strings and extra heavy picks.

The Story

Many years ago, when I first started playing acoustic guitar, I used extra light gauge strings and extra light picks.  While I was learning, this seemed fine.  My guitar at the time had poor action, and the light strings made it easier to push the strings down.  The wafer thin pick also seemed good, since it matched the super light strings.

As my skills improved, I found that I was more able to aggressively play the guitar, yet remain in musical control.  As I gained confidence, I also demanded more out of my guitar, and this is when the troubles started.

I noticed that I was going through picks at a rapid rate.  Every few days, the light picks would crack or chip, and sometimes they would simply split in half.  I moved up from extra light to light, but it wasn’t long after that before I changed to medium gauge picks.

Now I was starting to get the desired tone and dynamic range out of the guitar, but, with the heavier pick, a new problem started: breaking strings!

I was now playing gigs fairly regularly, and, even if I put on a completely new set of strings for each gig, I’d break a few through the course of a 3-hour show.

So, changed my strings from extra light to light gauge.

This, of course, made the action worse, so I had the guitar professionally adjusted and setup for the new gauge strings.

OK, so now I’m using light gauge strings and medium picks, and I’m starting to get what I want out of my guitar.  About this time, I start playing in groups, as well as playing lots of solo gigs.  I notice that I still don’t quite have the dynamic range that I want, and I assume my guitar simply isn’t going to come through, so it’s time to get a new guitar.

I get my dream guitar – a Martin HD-28.  It’s initial setup is for medium gauge strings – which I try for a while.  In the end, I’m simply not used to the heavier strings, and my medium picks aren’t up to the task either.  I should have put this together and realized I needed to stick with the heavier strings and upgrade to heavier picks.  Silly me – I went the other way.  I had the guitar reset for light gauge strings.

The new guitar sounds great! I’m really enjoying it, which is encouraging me to play more and more, and I feel the improvement.  I still have a problem though: When I start playing VERY enthusiastically, there’s a good chance I’m going to break one of the light gauge strings.  At this point, I think I must have something wrong with my technique (which I did!), so I start taking lessons again.

The lessons really help (d’uh!), and I’m introduced to a couple of different approaches to holding picks, striking the strings, and other techniques for improving my tone and shaping my style.

After all of this, everything is much, much better; however, I still break strings and I sometimes even crack the medium gauge picks while playing.  I find that these problems cause a tentativeness to my playing – I don’t go as full out as I would like, and while playing, I’m focusing on being careful instead of being creative.

I chat with my teacher, some other players, and the folks who service my guitar, but I really don’t get a consensus on what I should do.  But I also read about the setup of some of the players I admire – such as Pete Townshend – and I decide to make some more changes.

I take the guitar back in and have it setup for medium gauge strings.  I switch to Fender heavy picks as well.

My technique continues to improve, and now I’m hardly ever breaking strings!  As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m really getting the tone, sensitivity, and dynamics I want out of the guitar.

As I move more and more into playing along with celtic musicians in a supporting role, I switch picks again to Fender extra heavy.  I experiment with even heavier picks, but the tone goes too dark for all around playing, so I decide I’ve reached the limit.

The Summary

So, I long ago sold the Martin, and changed to a Guild and a Taylor.  I have both setup with medium gauge strings, and I have dozens of Fender extra heavy picks on hand.  I RARELY break strings, even though I, at times, play extremely aggressively, and freely rock out as hard as I feel like doing.  The guitar stands up to the playing, the strings hang in there for many, many hours of playing – even over the course of several gigs!  And, I never break a pick – they slowly wear away, to the point where I need to stop using them because they’re too small to hold.

Based on my journey and my experiences, here’s what I recommend:

  • Make the transition to the heaviest gauge string and pick you can control.
  • Have your guitar professionally setup for this gauge string (in Baltimore, the only place to go is Appalachian Bluegrass; in Austin, seek out John Thurston).
  • Take, at least, a few lessons with a recommended teacher to help you develop effective technique (in Baltimore, you could study at Appalachian Bluegrass with Charles Roe; in Paris, you could seek out Robin Bullock – my old teacher).
  • Have fun getting the most out of your guitar!