The Behemoth Guitar Plectrum Fad

I recently bought a couple of really, really, really big guitar picks. I should have known better but I made the mistake of following the suggestion of a semi-famous asshole who frequently shills for companies online. Even though he's an asshole I secretly like his music so, stupid me, in a moment of weakness, I fell for the really, really, really big pick idea.

Guess which ones they are:




Yeah, the really, really big one that looks like an arrowhead capable of bringing down a wooly mammoth and the other really, really, really big one that looks like the front end of a battleship.

But it's complicated. I actually do like the material the picks are made from and if the really, really big one was radically downsized for guys my size (6'4" 240 pound US Marines) I'm sure it would rock my world.

Kidding aside, it is a good pick it's just unwieldy for a guy who likes jazz-sized picks. The more I used it the more intrigued I became but intrigued is not convinced. Now, the really, really, really big one is another story: while I am still intrigued by the thing it simultaneously makes no rational sense at all. It's heavy, bulky, and only wants to work one way -- you cannot get much milage out of it by turning it various angles or attacking the strings using various aspects of its body. But this same pick is a hit among a small subset of guitarists.

I was totally unaware of the popularity of these monstrosities until I poked around a bit and found that this subset is populated entirely by young white male competitive shredders (YWMCS). How does this make sense?

You have to step back and put your social scientist lenses on to make any sense of it. First, stop thinking of this behemoth as a guitar pick at all. Then what is it? On the symbolic level (a) the monster pick is a cultural signal; it is a contestant emblem; and on the material level (b) it is a ball and chain.  We have to decode both the cultural and material level to understand how a metaphorical millstone could be coveted by those who aspire to geometrically excessive velocity.

Huh?

Here's the deal: in the YouTube era, shred guitar (aka the hotdog eating contest of the music world) has gone as far as it can go. Everybody has learned all the tricks and techniques. There are any number of idiots out there that can create incomprehensible walls of noise so the bar has to be raised somehow. However, there are no more absolute speed barriers to surmount so the really, really, really big pick is like putting a ball and chain around your leg before the big race. It's like swimming while wearing iron trunks. If all the shredders are stuck at so many million notes per second one clan of shredders adopt a form of self-restraint that makes it relatively more difficult to do what you can do with a normal pick. The really, really, really big pick (the 'wrong' tool for the job) becomes a symbol, a form of differentiation and a material barrier that sets things back a few notches. This goes on all the time in other genres.

For example, 'authentic' blues dudes put giant strings on their guitars (for the tone, man) and the jazzers deny themselves effects pedals (for the purity, man) ... you get the idea.

The normal pick takes a status hit: moral deflation. Oh, you're still using a baby pick. Who cares what you're doing. We're using our moon rocks. Let's see how fast you can play with a moon rock.

Are they consciously aware of what they are doing? Of course not. If 150 years of social science has taught us anything it is that people quite frequently ("normally") do not know why they are doing what they are doing. Our capacity for self-delusion is legion. People can rationalize things like this a thousand ways all the while making it more difficult to do what they could previously do while claiming that it's actually easier after adopting the new form of self-hobbling. But is it not possible that people who shred with battleship parts actually end up playing faster than before? Sure, anything is possible but it isn't necessarily the plectrum that is helping -- they're progressing in spite of it rather than because of it. Think of it like using a baseball analogy: the Tommy John surgery.

We often hear of a pitcher who comes back from this surgery who is "better than before." We naturally assume that the surgery has made it possible for the pitcher to throw harder than before but what was really going on was that the year-long rehab work (typically much more intense than anything the pitcher has ever undertaken, including massive lower body workouts) puts the pitcher at a new level of performance, not the surgery. Same with these goofy picks: after moving from a conventional pick design the guitarist ends up practicing more than they would have normally and adjusting mechanics along the way. It was the extra practice that got them ahead not the new pick. However, like everybody else, correlation is confused for causality. The really, really, really big guitar pick is an irrational fad wrapped in a rationalized explanatory shell that will pass when the next form of self-hobbling comes along so that some subset of the guitar tribe (YWMCS) can use to establish a new rank ordering of contestants that enables them to work around the fact that they've all hit the absolute limits of guitar speed.