Picks and Strings for Beginners

In a separate post, I covered the best guitars for beginning students. (You can find that post here.) But what about guitar strings and guitar picks? In this post, I’ll offer a few guidelines for beginning guitarists.

Best Guitar Picks

The variety of pick shapes and sizes is nearly infinite: you can get square picks, spoon-shaped picks and even picks that look like fishing lures. But much of that is just for fun and isn’t very practical. I always tell students to go with a flat pick with the standard size and shape. You can walk into any guitar shop, ask for a standard pick, and they will know exactly what you mean: a plain triangular pick with rounded edges. This is your best bet. It’s designed for a perfect grip and it allows you to play most everything you’ll want to play on guitar.

Regarding pick heaviness or thickness, beginners should go with a medium pick. Sometimes beginning guitarists prefer super thin picks because they can squeeze the life from it and it will still glide over the strings. But thin picks can sound flappy, like playing cards in bicycle spokes. I want to hear my guitar, not my pick, when I play. A medium pick encourages you to grip it lightly, and this is great technique. Squeeze the pick too much and you’ll know immediately, because it will grab at the strings rather than glide over them smoothly. But grip it easily and it becomes a powerful tool with a great sound, and it’s firmness is always in “attack” position. (Personally, I think a heavy pick is best, and a medium points you in that direction.) The bottom line is that a medium pick is a great place to start.

Now, what material shall we choose? Go with plastic. I’ve had beginning students come to their first lesson, excited to use a shiny metal pick they got from some assortment pack. Yikes! You want some flexibility in the pick, and you generally don’t want a harsh, metallic sound. For me, plastic is the way to go. Why? They are soft enough to get a warm tone out of your guitar, but have enough attack to get a cutting high end when you need it. They’re also cheap and always easy to find. A clear winner.

So get a plastic, standard-sized, medium-weight pick and you’ll be set. One more thing: you may want to explore adding texture to your pick. Some picks have a sandy coating that offers a little extra grip without being sticky. That’s the kind of pick I use. (Specifically, I use a Dunlop Tortex pick, 1.0mm thick.)

Strings for beginners

Selecting the right strings is huge, because it affects everything, from the sound of the guitar itself to how easily it can be played. Let’s first consider string thickness or heaviness. In general, the heaviest acoustic strings you should use are light gauge strings. If you want a workout for your fingers you can go with medium-lights. If you want to die while trying to play, go with heavy. (Don’t go with medium.)

String gauges are measured in 1/1000 of an inch and the typical diameter for a light gauge high E-string is 0.012 inches. It’s common to label a whole set of strings by the diameter of this high E-string, so when you go to a guitar shop to get new strings, you can simply say, “I’d like a set of 12s.” That’s shorthand for saying you want light gauge strings. Custom light strings are even lighter, thinner, and extra lights are thinner still.

For most guitarists, light gauge strings are the heaviest they should choose. I use custom lights, and I recommend the same. They’ll make it easier to play chords, bend strings, do hammer-ons and pull-offs, etc., all without sacrificing tone. Some of the greatest guitar players use custom light or extra light strings.

Regarding material, bronze and phosphor bronze are the most popular for acoustic guitars. You can also get strings made from silk and steel, but they aren’t as popular. I prefer phosphor bronze strings, because they produce a warm, rich tone and strike a good balance between highs and lows. They also last a little longer than standard bronze strings.

Finally, another option is coated strings. Coated strings are great for two reasons. Though they’re a bit more expensive, you won’t have to change your strings as often. That’s always nice. Another advantage is that the wax-like coating makes them easier to play, and they’re friendlier to your fingertips.

My go-to strings for the acoustic guitar are D’Addario EXP coated phosphor bronze custom light strings. Sometimes I also use Elixir NANOWEB coated phosphor bronze custom light strings. Both are available at your local guitar store or through online retailers.

With a standard, sturdy pick, and comfortable, long-lasting strings, you’re ready to focus on learning new skills. You’ll be rewarded for your hard work with a relaxed and confident sound!