The History of the Pick
by Marco von Baumbach
It is a useful tool for guitar players, which is taken for granted by most of us, but who actually knows its origin? Working out its entire story is not easy, since its lifeline is not that easily accessible, but I tried to reconstruct it by making use of several sources.
The Pick has become famous by the invention of the modern electric guitar, for many people therefore it is self-evident that the pick as well must be a modern invention. But the truth is that the Pick has a very long story, going back more than a thousand years, when they used a quill to play on the Lute. The oldest known illustrations of lute players are dated back 4500 years, being found on seal impressions of the Akkadian time. That being said, it is likely possible that Picks may have existed thousands of years ahead of our time! Who would have thought of that?
Amongst the quill, bones are also part of the archetypes of nowadays picks, which have been in use for centuries if not millennia-long.
The Sitar must have been invented about 700 years ago. To play the sitar one has used a chunk of wire as the pick, which has been fixated on the index finger. The sitar is up to today a popular instrument in eastern cultures. In the illustration on the left, one can see a wire pick on the index finger of Ravi Shankar, one of the best-known players of this instrument nowadays.
The Pick got its nowadays shape using horn and tortoiseshell. The horn was obtained by the bones of cattle and the tortoiseshell was gained out of the shell of hawksbill turtles. The tortoiseshell gained a lot of popularity, because it is rough and flexible as well, which was perfect for Picks (but not so good for the hawksbill turtles). I found no definite date since when these types of Picks were used, but they lasted up until the 70ies of the last century. Other popular materials of the last century, which were cheaper but not that ideal, were glass and shells amongst others.
Then going into the 70ies one started to use nylon for the Picks, which was invented about 4 decades in advance. The big advantage of nylon is its cheap production, in comparison to obtaining tortoiseshell, by also gaining a flexible and stable product. The only disadvantage of nylon and other synthetic materials which are in use today is, that they get worn out much quicker. But considering the very low price for products made of synthetic materials, you can easily effort a lot of them, so this won't trouble you too much (and the hawksbill turtles will thank you for choosing the nylon Pick)
As you can see, the Pick which we consider as self-evident today, has already gone through a long journey. So, I hope the next time you go into a shop and order a bunch of Picks, you show some respect for the time-honored Pick, which he has earned himself through its millennia!
About The Author:
This article was written by Marco von Baumbach, a guitar teacher in Wuppertal, Germany.