Boutique Guitar Picks from Red Bear and Blue Chip

The plectrum, from the Greek plēktron ‘something with which to strike', is the medium between most players and their instruments. We fetishize our guitars, amps, and electronics, etc., but tend to overlook this crucial element when it comes to figuring out our sound and techniques. 

Like most guys that have played for decades I've been through my fads and experimented with a bewildering number of designs and materials. 

With the birth of the boutique manufacturing movement came the concomitant rise of the high-dollar guitar 'accessories' -- we can now drop 'stupid' sums of money on little plastic picks that purport to enhance our tone, technique, and outlast their disposable cousins. 

Are they worth it?

I've spent the last six months or so playing on two such picks: (a) the Red Bear Big Jazzer XH from Red Bear Trading Co and (b) the Blue Chip Jazz 60 from Blue Chip Picks

The Red Bear Jazzer will set you back about $20. The feel, tone, and string contact are all good. Unfortunately, this pick broke as I was writing this piece -- I noticed that the pick material (polymerized animal protein) appeared to be decomposing and, after applying a modest amount of pressure to the pick, it just snapped in half.  It appears that pick became brittle over the winter and basically disintegrated. Actually, this is my second Red Bear; I bought one that was thinner a few years ago and it broke after a couple of months. It also warped badly as body temperature warmed the material -- it had a  'memory' problem if you know what I mean. I went back to using the Dunlop Jazz III for a while before giving the Jazzer XH a spin. It might get your ire up to know that your $20 pick is going to break in a matter of weeks but you can perform a little cost-benefit analysis and determine how one Red Bear stacks up to a bag or two of your current disposable favorite at .25 to .33 per pick.  

Red Bear now makes a cheaper and more durable alternative called the Tuff-Tones that "in blind tests ... were in indiscernible from our standard line." Why buy the standard line at all then?  It might make sense. It might not. I have not given this a spin so I cannot say.

Blue Chip also offers an upscale alternative to Red Bear products. The Blue Chip Jazz 60 is more or less the size of a Dunlop Jazz III and will set you back about $35. Yep, 35 @#%! dollars.  However, whatever material BC is using is really durable (out of curiosity I just applied at least three times as much pressure on the BC pick as I did the Red Bear and it barely flexed).

After sporadic use for nearly six months my BCJ 60 has lost none of its edge -- no kidding. It is just as sharp as the day it arrived. The Blue Chip material feels great between your fingers and I like the way it makes contact with the strings (wound and plain) and the release is smooth while producing no artifacts.

However, for me, it lacks some of the tactile, gritty texture I like in picks. As it turned out I didn't use the Blue Chip very much after I wrote this article. Here's what I use now.

One of the unanticipated aspects of using picks like this is that problem of losing one. I left my first Red Bear pick at a gig one time and ended up driving about 15 miles to retrieve it. If you're a recordist or have moved into your post-gigging phase of life this is less of a concern.

Personally, I'd stick with the Dunlop Jazz III over the Red Bear (more economical over the long run considering the relative lack of durability of their emulated tortoise shell picks -- run your Red Bear through the wash or leave it in your pocket too long and it's history) but if you can swing the $35 up-front cost, Blue Chip is good but, ultimately, not my cup of tea. 

What kills both of these picks? Inquiring minds want to know!