Guitar picks — they’re the unsung hero in the world of guitars, resting invisibly, as it were, in the shadows between the fingers of the players who use them. They don’t get a lot of ink or accolades, but other than maybe drumsticks, they’re the object most commonly thrown into the crowd at the end of a great concert. And while they might seem disposable, an afterthought really, the pick is a frequently discussed topic among players and an integral piece of gear that rounds out the total package of a player’s arsenal.
Where It All Started
Picks were originally called plectrums – and still are in England — which meant any small flat “tool” used to strum a stringed instrument. In the early years of European stringed instruments that would eventually become the guitar, picks were made of stone, wood, or even the quill of a bird feather.
These natural materials were still used through the 1800s until a much superior, better-sounding source for picks was found: the Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle, commonly referred to as tortoiseshell, though it is really made from turtles not tortoises. For decades this prized material held on as the preferred pick for its flexibility, feel, and tone. Then in the early 1900s, celluloid was developed, and it became a popular secondary choice to tortoiseshell.
By 1973, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITE) act was passed effectively making tortoiseshell picks illegal. Even to this day, it is illegal to buy or sell the leftover tortoiseshell picks from the pre-CITE’s period. A player can own a genuine tortoiseshell from the pre-CITEs period if that player can show proof that the pick was made before CITE became law and that the pick was obtained in an “ethical” manner. If that sounds complicated, it is. Most experts in the field recommend players steer clear of any offers to buy picks made from actual Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle.
A Shift to the Future
The good news for the Atlantic Sea Turtle is that celluloid picks caught on quickly. Players noticed that it most closely resembled the feel and tone of genuine tortoiseshell picks.
One of the earliest companies to manufacture celluloid picks was D’Andrea Manufacturing in the 1920s who would become a major vendor to America’s “Big Three” in guitars: Gibson, Fender, and Martin. With these iconic guitar companies on board, the celluloid pick became the pick of choice for a variety of both acoustic and electric players and it remains popular to this day.