“You’re collecting guitar picks!? Is this a joke?”
I can’t recall how often I’ve been accosted with this query. At this point I pull from my pocket (and how often can one carry around part of a collection in your pocket?) a small leather change purse containing a myriad of vintage plectra. Trapezoids, mosaics, cork-grips, corrugated. The former doubting Thomas is easily drawn to the diverse shapes and colors. In a world where there are not just one but two books devoted to the collectibility of happy meal toys, why should an interest in the hobby of collecting the lowly guitar pick be so farfetched?
My personal quest into the world of pick collecting began rather casually. I found a nice old Martin Style C uke from the ’20s and rather than use the customary felt pick, I recalled a long oval celluloid pick I used when I began to play guitar in 1966. Because it was so flexible, the pick did the work, not the wrist. It might do the trick. Realizing no modern store would have such an ancient piece, I perused the older shops in downtown Boston. Alas, no luck there, but a clerk alerted me to a recently published book called Picks! by Nashville studio veteran Will Hoover. I absorbed that little book on my trip home, where I went through all the picks I’d saved over the last 30 years and found many a collectible entity. I was hooked and my journey was begun.
Here, we’ll attempt to unearth a little-known corner within the world of vintage instrument collecting – the art of the pick! I’ll endeavor to unravel the questions: what to look for, where to look, and how to rope, corral, and store these little critters.
What to Look For
One of the beauties of pick collecting is that there are so many aspects to it. For the sake of being concise, we’ll address half a dozen. Arguably, the most soughtafter pick today is the celebrity pick – a pick designed specifically for a star.
It seems just about every time a tour commences, a new celeb is put out for show. Thus, celeb collecting could garner dozens of logos for the same act over a period of years. Some celeb picks are in more demand than others. Stevie Ray Vaughan is a case in point. But buyer beware – there seem to be quite a few fakes out there and even these are demanding top prices.
Some tend to favor early celebs. Nick Lucas was a famed guitarist who, in the early ’30s, was part of a team that designed what has become known as the “Lucas shape” – the D’Andrea #351. Even competitors describe their 351 shapes by this title. The Lucas imprint was one of the first produced and made from the ’30s through the ’70s with various changes in logo design. Other pre-celebs include Nick Manoloff, with his name impressed in the pick rather than screened on, like the Lucas. Bob Clifton had a celluloid “Tu-Way” diamond-shaped pick, also with his name impressed. Roy Smeck never seemed to meet an endorsement he didn’t like, and had a metal finger pick and a celluloid thumb pick with his name engraved on them.
Any discussion of early celebs leads to the largest area of collectible picks – the vintage variety. By this, we mean anything older than 25 years, and in most cases, not being made anymore. Although there were dozens of pick companies, we’ll stick to the D’Andrea and Herco companies.
The D’Andrea company has been around the longest. Founded in 1922 by Luigi D’Andrea, this family-run firm is still producing picks and other supplies 75 years later. At one point in the late ’40s/early ’50s, D’Andrea offered 59 styles, including picks with rubber, cork, or corrugation, all designed to improve grip. They had picks for mandolin and banjo and some way-out sizes that defy description. If a player wanted something special, D’Andrea would supply them. Eventually, the selection pared down to about two dozen. Thankfully, Luigi had a numbering system.
D’Andrea’s biggest competition came in the ’50s from the Herco company, started by the Hershman family of New York. The Hershmans imported picks from Japan, and their 720 collection had only 11 flat picks, three thumb picks, and a finger pick. Although they offered similar sizes as D’Andrea, there are several distinguishing features to look for. D’Andrea had a logo, Hercos did not, but can be identified by the small “Japan” imprint on the face of the pick. D’Andrea corkgrips have a smooth cork finish, while the Hercos are rough. D’Andrea picks are highly polished and the Hercos usually have a dull sheen. Same shapes had different numbers. The D’Andrea Lucas shape was #351. Herco’s was #25. While D’Andrea used many celluloid colors over the years, Herco kept the same faux-tortoise amber and brown until later years, as well as an occasional multicolored mosaic. And finally, a red-speckled shade. The Herco company was swallowed up by the giant Jim Dunlop corporation and the D’Andreas are still thriving.
A far easier division of pick collecting is the shop imprint. Most stores have some kind of logo on a pick. Commonly, it’s only the name of the establishment and perhaps a phone number. But there are some with stylized artwork. Needless to say, if you live in Colorado, there’s not much chance of finding a shop imprint from New Hampshire. So visit shops in your area and grab a handful for future trades.
Most major guitar companies have logo picks. For the most part they are D’Andrea made. Different companies have offered various sizes. In the ’50s, Fender only had the small #358 and the Lucas-shaped #351. In the ’60s they expanded to include the rounded-triangle #346 and the large #355 triangle. An interesting sidebar to the Fender pick story is that Leo never applied for his name to be trademarked. CBS didn’t get around to it until August of ’65 and didn’t receive it until ’72! So, if you find an old pick without the trademark “R” after the word Fender, chances are you’ve got a pre-CBS pick!
Gibson, on the other hand, had been selling picks since the ’20s and by the ’40s and ’50s they had more than a dozen shapes. Some of the earliest have “Gibson” impressed directly on the pick with either a straight block letter logo or an arched name. Later, they began to have the name screened in gold block letters on shell-and-white picks. To confuse matters more, Gibson’s numbering system was not the same as D’Andrea’s, even though they were D’Andrea-made. Four sizes in a black material called eboneen emerged in the early ’70s. These are sometimes referred to as the raindrop pick, for the unique design.
Other companies would follow suit, including Guild, Gretsch, Epiphone, and National. Although the Nationals from the ’50s and ’60s came in white-and-shell, Lucas-shaped, and #346 size, they were imported from Japan.
More than any other vintage pick, genuine tortoiseshell and real ivory are the most sought after. Both of these materials have been on the endangered species list since the early ’70s and are no longer made. D’Andrea offered tortoiseshell picks with their logo from the ’30s through the ’70s. Once you’ve played with a real shell pick, you may never go back to nylon.
During the ’50s and ’60s, regional music distributors handled most of the door to door operations of selling National products to smaller stores in their area. Some even had their own logo picks made by D’Andrea. In the Northeast, one large distributor was Harris-Fandel. They offered all of the popular D’Andrea styles with their own “H-F” stamp. One of their best claims to fame came in 1973 when they commissioned D’Andrea to make the “Famous No. 351″ pick to commemorate their anniversary. Other distributors would include “Coast” and “Pacific” on the west coast, “Maxwell” and “Cortley” in the south and “Heater” in the northwest. These companies usually offered a “jobber” catalog for the stores, which are invaluable in identifying the picks that were available in these areas.
Another offshoot for vintage paraphernalia are pick cards and display cases. The cards would hold a dozen or more picks at three for 25 cents, or 10 cents each. Nick Lucas, Nick Manoloff and Bob Clifton could be found elbowing each other and Herco and D’Andrea for counter space. Both D’Andrea and Herco offered similar plastic pick display boxes. Finding these old boxes isn’t easy. Most were used until broken and then tossed away. Any that might still be around are in rough shape. Oversized display picks are also in demand. I’ve seen these with the Fender, Guild and Martin logos.
Finally, there’s always someone trying to reinvent the pick. Some of these designs are quite intricate and not very practical. They soon fade into memory. While others carry on in hopes of finding their niche. Dunlop offered their grey nylon pick with a rubber band through it. You’d wrap the band around your finger for better grip. In the early ’70s there was an ad for a “Band-it” pick. It had a large loop over the pick so the player could slip his finger through. Then, there is a new pick on the market called “Dava.” Depending on where you hold the pick it functions as everything from thin to heavy. Who knows, some of these might be collectible in 20 years.
Where to Look
After deciding on an area to concentrate, the question arises – where do I find them? The easiest attainable are shop imprints. Just go in and buy some. Next would be the most desired – celebs. If you frequent clubs or concert halls that your fave guit-meister might alight, bring some stamped self- addressed envelopes and make contact with a guitar tech. Be polite and ask if he might drop in a few picks (one for your collection and some for trade) and mail them off to you. A complimentary soda or beer might not be a bad incentive.
As for the vintage buds, most modern stores haven’t been planet-bound long enough to have the older material. Your best bet is to seek out the old mom-and-pop operations that have been in business for decades. Here in the northeast, there were many large mills in small rural towns. They employed many ethnic peoples and their music. These smaller shops catered to them. Most of the mills are long gone but some of these shops still survive. There’s a good chance a large cache of vintage stuff had been collecting dust in the back room or under the counter for the last 30 years. I’m sure they would be happy to unload them at a discount. But you’d better move fast. These places are dying off.
The most obvious place to look for vintage picks are vintage instruments – in their cases. When you happen on a vintage shop, pawnbroker, flea market, antique store or luthier repairman take a look in the pocket of the case. Voila! I once visited a large antique fair in central New England and there among the overpriced cherry desks and Tiffany lamps I found many a banjo and mandolin case with a hidden treasure inside. In another instance, at a vintage guitar show in the L.A. area, I approached a stunning 1957 Fender Strat in mint condition. I told the dealer I couldn’t afford such a luscious specimen, but what about these nice old Fender picks in the case? “Take ’em,” he offered. That’s about as close to anything I’m ever going to get in a ’57 Fender. And free is always my favorite price.
The best source I’ve found to increase one’s collection is by joining a trader network. There is strength in numbers. If you can’t find what you desire in your neck of the woods, chances are someone in another part of the country (or for that matter, another part of the world) might have what you require and vice versa. There are always ads in the back of Vintage Guitar and other publications searching for the same. Besides making a fresh contact, you’ve made a new friend.
Storage and Display
Now that you’ve started to acquire a few picks – okay, a lot more than a few picks. The final step is the proper storing and displaying of your collection. As noted in Will Hoover’s book, picks are more sensitive to fire than the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. How often have you seen a guitarist with a nice ‘stache put his pick on one side of his mouth, smoking a cigarette on the other side while doing a fast tune-up on stage? “Nice pyrotechnics, man!” Yeah, but what do you do for an encore?
I’ve found an easy solution for storing picks. I use plastic cases with many compartments. The type used for jewelry. They are perfect for placing picks of the same color and brand. An important point to make here is – picks have to breathe. Celluloid is porous. Take ’em out for air occasionally. In time, if they stay all cooped up they become dry, brittle and break easily.
As for displaying your new-found friends, care is also paramount. Celluloid, being a finicky element, must be kept away from moisture. Avoid common transparent tape, the glue will do irreversible damage in the long run. For displaying, I like to use archival photo slide sheets (top mounting). The clear plastic enables one to view both sides of the pick. They fit into an ordinary three-ring binder for easy storage and transport. Other methods include mounting picks on large display boards, but make sure to use archival tape. Placing picks of the same heritage together in a frame makes an attractive gift. Try not to make any display permanent, as a collection grows you might want to shift your picks from one spot to another.
I was tempted not to broach this subject, but as we live in a mercenary world, I suppose I must.
As with anything old, collectible, no longer available, or just plain “I gotta have that at any price!,” value is in the eye (or more precisely in the pocketbook) of the beholder. If someone is willing to shell out $75 for a plastic Halloween pumpkin from McDonalds, I suppose someone might do the same for a genuine Eric Clapton pick. I believe picks were designed for a purpose. There is beauty in their simplicity. But invariably when used they wear out and die. Therefore, if it’s a mint piece as with any commodity, someone’s going to charge and someone will probably pay. I’d hate to see pick collecting go the route of vintage guitars and amps. Eh, c’est la vie.
Wrapping Up the Picks
Pick collecting is far from a new enterprise. Guitar Player has had several articles about picks dating back to 1975. I came to pick collecting searching for a sound of my youth. I found a vast tract of uncharted and undiscovered information. I’m in this for fun, not profit. As vintage guitars, amps and effects have become beyond the grasp of the everyday player and into the vaults and display cases of deep pocketed collectors, the humble pick satisfies the “collecting jones.” And at a mere pittance. There are so many avenues to go down. You can specialize in one or more areas and never tire of the seemingly endless stages of the pick. And, someone is always trying to build a better mousetrap …er, pick.
Oh, and what’s my favorite pick, you ask? I bought a gross of Fender #351 in medium in 1970 in a clear plastic box. No trademark after the Fender logo. I’ve still got some left and I cherish every one of these babies.
D’Andrea pick selection courtesy of Chris Gaylord. Photo: Brett Sterrett.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May. ’99 issue.