t every guitar or mandolin workshop I’ve ever attended someone asks, “What kind of pick do you use?” Even beginning players realize that pick choice matters. I’ve got boxes full of picks that testify to my longstanding search for the “holy grail” of picks. But I finally may have found it.
For years, tortoiseshell picks have been the gold standard. But natural turtle picks have a number of shortcomings. First and foremost, it’s illegal it buy or carry anything but fully documented “antique” tortoise across state lines. Hawksbill turtle (which is what tortoiseshell picks are made of) is a protected/endangered species. Most tortoiseshell picks are not documented antiques tortoise – I’ve never met a picker who could produce proper documentation at a jam. In the eyes of the law, if you use tortoiseshell picks you are a bad person who deserves to get kicked in the shins by a five year old wearing a “Save the Turtles!” T-shirt.
Beyond being illegal, tortoiseshell picks have other liabilities. Tortoiseshell is brittle and chips easily. Tortoise picks need constant attention to keep their edge bevels smooth so they easily go through the strings. A quarter-sized tortoise pick can end up being dime-sized in a matter of six months of steady polishing and use.
Because they are made of a natural material that grows in uneven and unpredictable ways, no two tortoiseshell picks are alike. Even if you try two with identical shapes and thicknesses, each will sound and feel slightly different. This is a major problem. Playing a musical instrument optimally revolves around training your muscles to react in a certain way. That’s called developing muscle memory. To play at a high level, your muscle memory will be honed to the point where any change in the feel of the instrument can cause your playing to suffer. If you depend on a tortoise pick, someday you will be faced with a crisis – you’ll break it, lose it, or it will just change enough through time from re-beveling to effect your playing in a negative way. To maintain a consistent level of playing you must have a pick that can be replaced with an exact copy.
Finally, tortoiseshell picks are, by nature, brittle. I have a habit of flexing a pick when I first grab it. At last years Arlington Guitar Show, someone loaned me a tortoise pick and the first thing I did was apply what I thought was only a bit of sideways pressure to it. Next thing I knew, I had two pieces of pick (and my wallet was $30 lighter).
Tonally, tortoiseshell picks have a lot going for them; they combine clarity with rich tonality in a way that no plastic, nylon, shell, hoof, or metal pick can.Over the years I’ve tried many picks, looking for something legal that matches a turtle picks sound. About a year ago I tried a Red Bear man-made tortoise pick. It was the first pick that equaled the look, feel, and sound of natural tortoise and I’ve since been using their Mick Compton Tater-bug model. As far as I’m concerned, the Red Bear picks are simply the best available substitute for natural tortoiseshell. They sound and feel identical to tortoise with the advantage of being less expensive and even more importantly, they are consistent from one sample to the next. I thought I’d never use another pick…
Mandolin Café Chatter – Blue Chip Picks
I’m a regular reader of mandolincafe.com, which is the most interesting and well organized mandolin site on the web. I especially enjoy the message board, which combines the best and worst attributes of the late night bull session into a neat electronic package. I once noticed a thread titled “Blue Chip Picks,” and while the first posting was the common breathless rave, a piece of information halfway through caught my attention. The poster, named Skittle, wrote, “Danny Roberts …with the Grascals, absolutely loves them.”I know Danny Roberts: he’s one of the best mandolin pickers around. If he switched to Blue Chip picks, they just might be special. So I did some digging.
Blue Chip Pick’s website isn’t the most informative, but it does supply basic info. According to the site, Blue Chip picks are “Made from a very high-grade self lubricating, special formulated composite material…all picks are CNC machined, laser etched and held to a very tight tolerance. Each one is beveled and polished by hand.” That wasn’t much, but it was a start. The site has pictures of picks and comments from users. I contacted Blue Chip owner Matthew Goins and he sent samples.
Blue Chip picks are available in six different versions; there’s a traditional teardrop shape, a pointed three-sided pick, and a rounded three-sided pick: each shape is available in 1mm (.040”) or 1.25mm (.050”) thicknesses. Goins sent two pointed three sided picks – a 1mm and a 1,25mm, as well as one 1.25mm rounded three-sided. The first thing I noticed about the picks was their smooth surface. Instead of satin or a textured surface, they’re polished until shiny. On most picks, this would be a bad thing and would have sent me running for my sandpaper, but the Blue Chips are slightly tacky to the touch. Real and artificial tortoiseshell becomes sticky if you wet your fingers, but Blue Chips are regardless of your fingers moisture level. This enables a player to lighten their grip which is essential for playing at maximum speed.
With a Blue Chip, you immediately notice how easily the pick moves through the strings. Much of the picks feel on the strings comes from the quality of its bevel. A smoother edge delivers a more even stroke, and Blue Chip picks have an extraordinarily well-finished edge. Although I haven’t used them long enough to determine how well they wear, after a couple of weeks of play, there were no differences between the edges of the pick I was using and the one that hadn’t been used.
The Blue Chip reminds me
of a Ferrari GT250
In comparison to every other pick I’ve used, Blue Chip picks are easier to control, especially at higher speeds. At 100 beats per minute (bpm) I didn’t notice much difference between the Blue Chip and the similarly shape Red Bear Compton Taterbug pick. But at 125bpm the Blue Chip was easier to manage and my playing was cleaner. Much of this is due to the bevel; the Taterbug requires the user to do the final finishing to get a smooth bevel. The Blue Chip reminds me of a Ferrari GT250 or a BMW M5. At 70mph, you can’t see why someone would pay a premium for either of these vehicles, but when you push them to 130 or 140, you realize why they’re worth the money. Your average weekend parking lot picker may not “get” Blue Chip Picks, but if you have the skills you’ll understand their value in thirty seconds.
How does the Blue Chip pick sound? Very much like the Red Bear with a trifle more top end air and definition. One of the traditional ways to tell how a pick will sound is to drop it on a hard surface. When I did this drop test, the Blue Chip had a higher pitch and more ringing tone. I do have a real tortoiseshell pick (it was, um… dropped into my hands by a passing bald eagle). It sounds more like the Blue Chip, with a similar ringing quality but at a higher pitch due to this particular tortoise pick being a bit thinner than the Blue Chip.
When each pick connected with my mandolin strings, the Red Bear had the darkest tonality of the three, with more thunk on chops, but less upper frequency clarity and attack on the upper-string double-stops. I also noticed the Red Bear had a slightly grainy texture to the leading edge of transients. This was due in large part to its bevel shape and finish. In comparison, the BlueChip had a more suave and even sounding attack, especially on upstrokes. Actually my tortoise pick was the worst sounding of the three, with less upper frequency air than Blue Chip and not as much low frequency kick as Red Bear. Overall, I preferred the Blue Chip, not because it sounded slightly better (which it did), but because it gave more control and felt more comfortable.
The Cost of Technology
When a Fender heavy costs $.35 some people can’t get their heads around a pick that sells for $35. Of course, anyone who fancies tortoiseshell picks is used to paying as much as $75 for one , and the Red Bear costs between $12 and $20.Why do Blue Chip picks cost what they do? Goins told me “The material we use is extremely expensive. It costs $3300 for a 1/2” thick 10” square piece. I spent many hours figuring out how to maximize our yield from each square so we could offer picks at $35. We use an $80,000 CNC machine to cut picks to a tolerance of +/- .002”.” Goins doesn’t yet sell to retail dealers because he says there would be no profit margin.
…they last longer, wear better, and most importantly to me, feel better in my hands and on the strings.
Best Pick in the World?
The words “best (fill in the blank) in the world” trigger my hyperbole detector. “Best” is such an absolute term for a personal and subjective appraisal, and I can’t totally concur that the Blue Chip pick is the best for everyone. But I can agree that it’s an important breakthrough in pick technology. Are Blue Chip picks head and shoulders better than Red Bear man-made tortoise picks? No, but they do offer several advantages over any tortoise material – they last longer, wear better, and most importantly to me, feel better in my hands and on the strings.
For some, Blue Chip’s cost will be prohibitive, but if you have a $3k-plus instrument, what’s $35 for a pick? Especially one that may be for you, “The best pick in the world.”