The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Friday, May 23, 2014

Why I don't like guitar picks and other profound insights

I have to admit that I'm not into guitar picks.

To me, it seems like some cosmic joke that a person buys an expensive guitar, but to bring out the potential of both the player and the guitar, the interface is a one dollar piece of plastic.

And you definitely get what you pay for. That little piece of plastic will not strum chords for you or automatically pick out a lead guitar line worthy of Jeff Beck on it's own.

It doesn't work the other way around either. There's no such thing as a $1000 guitar pick that will automatically make you sound like an expert on a $100 guitar.

It's not that I don't use picks. There's really no way for me to play the mandolin, for example, without one.

I also don't claim to hold the mainstream view. There's thousands of guitarists out there who use the pick to create beautiful music, perhaps hundreds of thousands who use one to create mediocre but entertaining music or derive great pleasure from playing, and of course the huge host of hobbyists who make the guitar as popular is a fart in an elevator to friends, family and loved ones.

Keep in mind I'm only being half serious with all this, but there is a psychological reason for my snooty disdain.

Like most problems, it started in my childhood.

I played the violin for seven years as a child. To me it was actually a two-piece instrument, the violin and the bow.

The bow had to be as well-made as the violin, and intricacies went beyond simply how to hold it and drag it across the strings. It was a unit that required careful attention to its adjustment, and a violinist was almost as fussy about the quality of the bow as the violin itself.

In other words, the violin and the bow were inseparable as an instrument.

So the little bowl of guitar picks that I have just doesn't possess the grandeur of a beautifully made violin bow. It's difficult for me to think of the guitar as inseparable from a little piece of plastic.

That hasn't stopped the guitar pick industry from trying though.

Over the decades the things have essentially evolved into a teardrop shape. Attempted innovations have included improving the gripping area with various shaped surfaces and even felt, and different types of plastic that either warm up the sound or sharpen it.

The main problem with trying to create an innovative pick, is that no one wants to buy a real expensive one, because like me, I constantly lose the things.

Some innovations have come from the instrument makers themselves, with the creation of guitars that don't need to be picked. 

The most famous is the Chapman stick, where the player just touches the strings and the note rings out. I remember being at one of Chapman's early seminars at a small guitar shop, and thought it was an idea that would take over the guitar world. Unfortunately I couldn't afford one, so I never got to test that theory out.

Now there's inexpensive MIDI guitars where you do basically the same thing, just touch the location of the notes on the fretboard to make the music. The things are inexpensive for good reason, no self-respecting guitar snob would be caught dead with one.

At least at this time that includes me.

There is actually one method where you can play the guitar without a pick. It's a well-known fact among guitar players that if you crank the amp loud enough, all you have to do is finger the notes and it'll all come blasting out of the amp. Heavy-metal guitars of been doing it for years, but it's not a technique I recommend if you live with or near other people.

It's not a well-known fact, but most guitar players are conservative enough to be members of the tea party as far as guitars are concerned. In particular, the older crowd play guitars that come from 50s and 60s designs, and haven't budged from that preference for 30 years.

Luckily amplifier and effects manufacturers have the opposite attitude and have created technology that can make a guitar sound like basically anything, but of course they also have to make sure they make amps that can re-create 50s and 60s sounds or the industry would be about as big as pork rind snack market.

That conservatism also means that there's probably never going to be a high-tech pick.

I can already think of one that would be a big hit. If you could make one that could wiggle back-and-forth at adjustable speed, then one of the most difficult skills on the pick would be taken care of with a simple device.

I don't think it's a far-fetched idea. I think we have a couple of generations of people who are going to enter middle-age with crippled fingers and wrists caused by the overuse of smartphones, and I'll bet you more than a few of them will also be guitar players who will find that playing rapid notes will no longer be possible without technological assistance.

I doubt that'll happen now, but 20 years from now just remember you read it here first.

Personally I don't use picks very much because I'm a finger picker, both on guitar and banjo. I keep my fingernails long on my right fore and middle fingers.

I'm not claiming that fingerpicking is superior to using a pick. It's just that when I first started learning to play guitar, all my favorite guitarists at the time were finger pickers.

Being a finger picker isn't easy either. I used to use a thumb pick and fingerpicks, but didn't like the sound (except on electric guitar). Plus with fingerpicks you always have to stay in practice, and these days I don't have the time to play every day. I find with fingerpicks, if you don't play for a week, it takes a while for the things to feel natural again.

Whereas, just using fingernails and thumb, it seems like it only takes a few minutes of playing to get back into the groove, and I like the feel of direct contact with the guitar.

Going the natural route does have its disadvantages.

For example, when I scratch my face I constantly poke myself in the eye with one of the long fingernails. When you chew your nails, it's easy to forget that two of your fingers have long nails.

I've also accidentally scratched my back too deeply with one of the fingernails a few times, and past girlfriends have patiently listened to my explanation as to why there was such a big scratch on my back, and then asked me how I really got that scratch.

Having long fingernails means you have to take care of them, and as we all know, all that technology is found in the woman's side of the world. If you look in the men's section for grooming, there's just the usual clipper and files.

If you look in the woman's section, they have literally hundreds of alternatives and choices for both low and high-tech protection and maintenance of your fingernails.

Having faced racial hatred as a child, the ability to survive that emotionally has served me well as an adult male being subjected to patronizing or latent induced glares by males insecure about their masculinity as I peruse the latest technology in the women's pedicure section to keep my nails in tiptop shape.

I particularly like those foamy rubber things that have different surfaces to gradually hone nails into smooth efficient edges that bring out the best in my guitars and banjo.

Although I rarely use guitar picks, I do admit that the things will be around as long as guitars exist. The fact is, no one's come up with a better way to play the guitar that combines low price, consistent tone, and ease of replacement when the things get lost or worn out.

My favorite pick, which is styled after a Japanese flag will always be in my collection and never get lost, if for no other reason that I don't use it to play guitar.