Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Fender you hold in your hand

You can hide a guitar pick between finger and thumb, and many consider it so inconsequential they think nothing of leaving it lie, forgotten, where they last used it. But it commands considerable importance in playing fretted instruments, being a major determinant in the sound the player produces. For years I’ve enjoyed experimenting with types of picks, but after more than two decades of using almost everything except the old classic I’ve begun using the same type of pick I used in my early guitar playing years.
That pick is the Fender 351, and it will always pull me back to 1972, those halcyon days when I was learning guitar, when all guitar players, it seems, used the small reddish triangular pick with the rounded corners, the cursive Fender logo embossed on one side. A mere 0.71 mm thick, it is made of celluloid, the first plastic.

Will Hoover in “Picks!” (1995) writes that celluloid was created in 1870 by combining nitrocellulose (cotton fibers and nitric acid) with camphor, and it was quickly adapted to a myriad of uses, replacing more expensive natural materials such as bone, ivory, and in the case of picks, tortoiseshell. For years musicians preferred picks made from tortoiseshell, specifically the outer casing of the Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle, long prized as the ideal pick material, offering flexibility and good tone. But tortoiseshell supply was limited, making those picks expensive, and so celluloid picks came along around the early 1900s. In 1970 the turtle was placed on the endangered species list, making the purchase of tortoiseshell picks more than simply a matter of price, unless of course you could find some old used picks somewhere.
A better name for a musical pick is plectrum (plural plectra or plectrums), from the Greek plektron, because “pick” can mean many things, whereas “plectrum” has only one meaning. Italian immigrant Luigi D’Andrea began making plectra of celluloid and founded D’Andrea Manufacturing in 1922. The company dominated the international plectrum market through the middle of the 20th century, making picks under its own name, producing celebrity imprints and making plectra bearing company names including Fender.
It’s worth remembering that while most people now associate a plectrum with the guitar, when Luigi founded D’Andrea the market included many more shapes and sizes than are seen today that were used for mandolins and banjos, which dominated popular string music in the early 1900s. The classic rounded triangle shape became associated with the guitar as that instrument took over popular music starting in the 1920s thanks to singer-guitarist Nick Lucas, who chose the 351 shape for his eponymous line of D’Andrea plectra, thus making that shape the guitar plectrum of the 20th century and beyond.
I like to splay an assortment of plectra on the table and try each one, assessing the difference in tone. One plectrum can create a bright, clicking tone, another will produce a muted sound, and a third will produce a sweet, moderate tone. No single plectrum can be considered good or bad because the sound I desire varies with my mood and the type of music I’m playing.
Further, my opinion of the type of tone I wish to produce has changed over the years. I began experimenting with alternates to celluloid in the early 1990s when I began playing Celtic mandolin, and my bandmate Tom recommended Jim Dunlop 0.73 mm Tortex plectra. The name Tortex of course derives from “tortoiseshell,” and the Dunlop website says this: “Tortex picks are carefully designed and manufactured to give the characteristic maximum memory and minimum wear that made original tortoise shell famous.” When I first tried the Tortex picks I found them to be too thick and harsh, so I found a Dunlop pick made of Delrin, a DuPont acetal homopolymer (that’s the company’s description — I need a chemist) in 0.71 mm with a beveled edge. It produced a sweeter, softer tone, and I used it for years.
When Tom introduced me to the Clayton Ultem plectrum, however, I set aside my sweet Delrin plectra in favor of the brighter resin-colored plectrum that is said to most closely mimic the sound of tortoiseshell plectra. (That’s also the claim for celluloid plectra, and I wish I could find some old tortoiseshell plectra at a garage sale or flea market so I can compare these modern plectra to the gold standard.) A couple years back, after years of using only the Ultem, I began trying other plectra material and shapes, culminating in my recent return to celluloid.
So here I am, 40-plus years after starting the guitar, again holding a rounded reddish triangle bearing the Fender logo. It’s a lovely plectrum, and it produces a rich, clear sound — not too harsh, not so sweet it’s dull — and its color looks good against the black fretted fingerboard when I stick it in the strings for safekeeping until next time, when I’ll again ask that tiny tool to bring forth the music of the spheres.

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