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A guitarist puts picks to the test

by Alexander H. Tullo
December 17, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 45


Picking apart plectrum polymers

An array of guitar picks made from various materials.
Credit: Alex Tullo/C&EN
Take your pick: guitar picks made from (from bottom to top) polyacetal, nylon, polyacetal, and celluloid

Hobbies can turn ordinary people into materials scientists. Who hasn’t heard golfers brag about their clubs’ new carbon fiber shafts or cyclists pontificate about their light titanium frames?

But this Newscriptster recently peered into a change purse full of guitar picks—or plectra, to use the plural of the highfalutin term plectrum—and realized that the people who share his passion are no different. “Regardless of the genre of music played, a pick provides an essential tonal foundation,” writes inventor Steven Patrick Pascale in a 2017 patent for a new guitar pick design.

Guitarists are indeed quite picky about their picks.

Many modern picks are made from a host of engineering polymers. But it wasn’t always so.

At one time, natural tortoiseshell, typically made from the shells of hawksbill sea turtles, was the standard for picks, as it was for eyeglasses and combs. But it’s prohibited to trade any objects made of real tortoiseshell that were manufactured after 1947. Tortoiseshell picks have a reputation­­—likely mythological because few people today actually have used them­—of imparting a tone of unsurpassed beauty.

The synthetic replacement for these are cellulose-based picks, made to look like genuine tortoiseshell. Some are cellulose acetate. But guitar maker Fender advertises its picks as “classic celluloid,” implying they’re made of cellulose nitrate, the same flammable stuff that was the basis for movie film until the mid-20th century. The company wouldn’t confirm Newscripts’s queries as to their picks’ composition, so this curious reporter burned one. Indeed, it burst into flames like one would expect nitrocellulose to do.

Herco and other companies introduced guitar picks made from nylon in the 1960s. Nylon is also used today in power-tool housings, as fasteners, and in structural components of cars. The nylon picks have a rough grip molded into the plastic. Guitarists love that these picks don’t slip between their fingers. Nylon picks are also extremely durable, barely wearing down after many hours of use. The material is somewhat flexible, and perhaps as a result, the tone—at least this guitarist finds—can be a little dull.

Polyacetal picks, usually advertised under DuPont’s Delrin brand, emerged in the early 1980s. These colorful picks are extremely common. Polyacetal is a stiff engineering polymer with a slick surface. The material can be found in gears for electronics with moving parts, like printers. This guitarist finds that polyacetal picks offer a sharp attack and a clean, bright tone.

However, many musicians maintain that nylon picks have a brighter tone than polyacetal, with more treble or high-end frequencies. This reporter tried to settle the matter with another crude experiment: using Spectrum Analyzer, a smartphone app that reads out the audio spectra of ambient noise, to compare the sounds both nylon and polyacetal picks made on a guitar string. The higher frequencies were more pronounced with the polyacetal picks, seeming to support this Newscriptster’s long-held contention.

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