History of Guitar Picks: Evolution From Tortoiseshell to Modern Materials

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By Guitar Pick Reviews

Today, we’re taking a deep dive into the fascinating history of guitar picks. Their incredible evolution over time and how these tiny tools have had such an immense impact on our sound.

We’ll explore everything from feather quills through tortoiseshell, and metal picks all the way to modern marvels like high-performance plastics and carbon fiber composites, so grab your pick and let’s get started!

Celluloid, Nylon, Ultem, Metal , Acrylic, IROC, and other high performance plastics
Celluloid, Nylon, Ultem, Metal, Acrylic, IROC, and other high performance plastics

Feather Quill Meets Shell Shock: The Early Innovations in Pick Material Selection

We all know that musicians can be quite resourceful when it comes to finding materials for their instruments.

Before plastic picks dominated the market, lute and other early stringed instrument players used birds’ feathers as makeshift plectrums.

Interestingly, feather quills are still used today as plectrums, in harpsichords, among other instruments.

While they provided them with a unique touch and soft tone, feather quills weren’t very durable or consistent. Additionally, players used bones, horns, leather, and stones in search of consistent tone—a much-needed improvement came about soon enough.

Enter tortoiseshell picks made from shells found right off turtles’ backs.

Although not widely accessible, these shell-crafted gems offered both flexibility AND durability. Becoming golden standards amongst those seeking precision but also expression through playing style.

Unfortunately, this popularity was bought at a cost. Ethical concerns about the depletion of the hawksbill sea turtle population led to an official ban on their use in 1973.

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Celluloid Uprising: The Rise and Reign of Plastic Picks

The era of plastic picks began in the 1920s, about a hundred years ago. Luigi D’Andrea made the first plastic pick by pressing heart-shaped pieces off a celluloid sheet. These were a very cheap alternative to tortoiseshell, which was very popular back then.

Celluloid picks were consistent in tone but lacked durability. They are easy to shape, allowing pick manufacturers to experiment with different guitar pick shapes easily. Their low price finally allowed players to unleash their musical potential through this type of accessory as well!

These newfangled flat picks came with added colors and patterns, which allowed for expression even just at first glance. That being said, the tortoiseshell pattern was always popular.

As we can see, guitarists had very few options to choose from when it came to guitar picks. Thankfully, since then, the landscape has expanded tenfold!

Introducing More Types of Plastics to be Used as Guitar Picks

In the 60s, pick manufacturers like Herco started to make picks out of nylon. Nylon became very popular because it is much less rigid than celluloid, allowing picks to be very thin without breaking.

Another material that gained popularity was Delrin, later to become the base material for Dunlop’s Tortex. The turtle logo on Tortex picks represents being an alternative to tortoiseshell.

Delrin, Tortex, and Nylon Guitar Picks
Delrin, Tortex, and Nylon Guitar Picks

Oh, What a Variety!

Nylon, Delrin, Tortex – You Name It!

We’ve already seen plastic picks make their mark on musical history beyond just plectrums. Nylon became popular in many genres as it provides a much softer touch while maintaining nuanced tones.

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For those who require something more durable, yet grippy, there’s Tortex or Delrin to choose from. Both proving very versatile materials catering to rock & heavy metal needs where pick attack speed is a key factor — but what about those outliers?

For more brightness and durability, we have Ultem, used by companies like Dunlop (for their Ultex, Flow, and Primetone series), D’Addario, Bog Street, Honey Picks, Northern Ghost Plectrums, and many boutique pick makers.

Ultem Guitar Picks
Ultem Guitar Picks

Metal Mayhem

Steel & Brass picks can be quite the earful. If you want to take your sound production up another notch, then why not try out some metal picks?

These babies are solid enough able withstand pretty hard playing sessions allowing for even greater control when fast alternate picking is desired (think Slayer), along with a unique metallic tone, which can offer an extra edge over our regular plastic flat ones.

Plus, metal guitar picks look really cool, too, so win/win situation!

Aluminum, Stainless Steel, Brass, and Titanium Guitar Picks
Aluminum, Stainless Steel, Brass, and Titanium Guitar Picks

Wooden Wonders

Bringing Nature To Your Notes Moving away from the hard and heavy, we have wood picks made up of materials like ebony or rosewood, which bring warmth to any solo.

As these particular plectrums offer softer attacks, they are much more suitable for folk, blues & acoustic genres.

Wooden Guitar Picks by TerraTone, GT Plectrums, Dugain, and SixStringers
Wooden Guitar Picks by TerraTone, GT Plectrums, Dugain, and SixStringers

Modern Innovations In Pickmaking

It seems today’s technology can innovate seemingly anything going beyond regular pick shapes into personalized 3D-printed picks crafted specifically towards your hand size/shape as well as added grip enhancements. Talk about taking control over sound production even further!

Specialty composites such as carbon fiber or graphene allow for increased strength, durability, and enhanced clarity making it the perfect choice, especially for professional musicians who require utmost precision when playing.

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Other high-performance materials, such as UHMW-PE (used by makers such as Purple Plectrums and Winspear), IROC (used by SixStrings), PEEK (Luka Plectrums), and Vespel (used by Charmed Life Picks and BlueChip Picks) have different advantages, such as wear resistance and self lubrication qualities, making them ideal to be used as guitar picks.

IROC, Faux Ivory, Kirinite, PEEK, Glass filled Nylon, Graphtex, Juma, UMHW-PE, Acrylic, and 3D ptinted guitar picks.
IROC, Faux Ivory, Kirinite, PEEK, Glass filled Nylon, Graphtex, Juma, UMHW-PE, Acrylic, and 3D ptinted guitar picks.

Wrapping It All Up

From feather quills and tortoiseshells all the way to advanced materials like carbon fiber composites – guitar picks are essential tools for creating tone.

Whether you’re a jazz purist or an aspiring metalhead, your pick can make or break your sound. 

So how do you find the one that’s right for you? With so many options out there, it can be overwhelming. Let me help by summarizing all the different types and materials when it comes to guitar picks! 

For those who prefer something classic: celluloid picks, which revolutionized the industry with their consistent durability and range of colors & patterns fit for any style!

Then there’s Tortex & Delrin – staples amongst rockers who need strength in their grip plus power & precision no matter how hard they shred!

For those who need to “go organic,” wood picks deliver a mellow sound ideal for folk and acoustic genres.

And finally, there are modern innovations that let you customize with 3D-printed shapes or personalized designs. So whatever your vibe – be it classic or contemporary – picky perfection is at your fingertips!

After all, we play music not just because of how it sounds but also as an experience & expression – something made even more badass when embraced in combination with top-of-the-line instrument accessories like guitar picks.

Happy Pickin’ peeps!