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Turtle Shell vs Faux Turtle Shell Picks

May 20, 2010
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turtle1For some guitarists—especially acoustic players—turtle shell picks occupy an empyrean region far beyond the realm of mere mortal plectra. They are so desirable, in fact, that genuine turtle shell picks sell for as much as $100 each on the black market (trafficking in turtle shell has been illegal since 1947, as most sea turtles are endangered). These financial and moral considerations have dissuaded all but the most ardent users—but players continue to sing the praises of turtle shell picks, thereby perpetuating the mystique. 

Not surprisingly, several manufacturers have sought to create picks that deliver the same sound and feel as turtle shell, but at a lower cost and without requiring the slaughter of endangered animals. GP requested samples from a few of the more popular manufacturers, borrowed some genuine turtle shell picks for comparison, and tried them all out with both acoustic and electric guitars. Of course, not all turtle shell picks are alike, and although the four we acquired were conventionally shaped and three were roughly the same thickness as a typical “heavy” plastic pick (the third was closer to a “medium”), they all sounded and responded a little differently. The sound of the thicker picks was somewhat softer and richer in the mids and lows, though all four produced a bright top end. What they had in common was a tightly focused and almost magical balance of highs, mids, and lows resulting in lots of depth, warmth, and sparkle without ever becoming harsh. They also produced a louder overall sound than conventional picks, particularly on acoustic guitars.

Most manufacturers provided many different styles and even types of picks, so it was necessary to narrow the selection down. To keep things as “apples to apples” as we could, in most cases we chose one standard-shaped and one larger triangle-shaped pick, of medium thickness, though that wasn’t possible in every case. We also asked each manufacturer to weigh in on their particular approach, and comments from several of them follow the test results.

Red Bear
Red Bear Trading Company offers a huge selection of faux turtle shell picks, including its flagship Tortis models, which are manufactured from a polymerized animal protein and come in five gauges: Light (1.0-1.10mm), Medium (1.11-1.30mm), Heavy (1.30-1.65mm), Extra Heavy (1.65-2.0mm) and Gypsy Jazzer (2.0mm and up). They are available in several shapes, with sharp or rounded standard bevels, or a “speed” bevel that simulates natural edge wear. We tested the Classic light gauge and the Classic medium gauge with grip holes ($20 retail), both with sharp bevels, and found them to be very similar to the turtle shell picks. They didn’t bring out quite the same warmth and depth, the highs were slightly less well defined, and the overall balance of frequencies wasn’t quite the same—but these picks were damned close and the feel was nearly identical. All of the Red Bear picks were very, very, impressive with both acoustic and electric guitars. redbeartrading.com

Clayton
Steve Clayton’s Ultem picks ($.69 retail) are manufactured from the plastic material of the same name. Rounded Triangle, Standard, and Small Teardrop shapes are available, and they come in eight gauges: 0.38mm, 0.45mm, 0.56mm, 0.72mm, 0.80mm, 0.94mm, 1.07mm, and 1.20mm. We tested the 0.80mm Standard and 0.72mm Rounded Triangle models. These relatively inexpensive picks sounded quite good, and their unusual combination of snap and flexibility made for very detailed articulation, but they didn’t have the warmth and depth of the genuine turtle picks, or their peculiar brightness and high-end sparkle. steveclayton.com

Wegen
Wegen is a Dutch company renowned for manufacturing the very thick picks used by Gypsy jazz musicians—but Wegen produces a wide variety of plectra, including a few models that are similar in size and thickness to the four genuine turtle shell picks we had for comparison. The 1.4mm Bluegrasspick  ($15 retail) is slightly crispier sounding but otherwise very similar to the thicker turtle shell picks in terms of sound and feel, particularly on acoustic. Also, the pronounced bevel and medium-narrow tip allow for excellent articulation. The 2.5mm GP 250 ($20 retail) is considerably thicker than the other picks tested here, and the sound is slightly darker and louder than that of the genuine turtle shell picks, but it has much the same feel. wegenpicks.com

JB
John Barszcz produces celluloid picks with hand-beveled edges that he feels makes then sound and feel similar to turtle shell picks. Bevels are cut at a 45-degree angle, and suitable for either right- or left-hand players, though JB picks may also be ordered with bevels customized for one or the other. Gauges include 1.0mm, 1.2mm, and 1.5mm. We focused on the 1.0mm Shell Sonic ($5 direct) and the 1.0mm Shell Sonic Triangle($6 direct), which, while not the equivalent of genuine turtle shell picks, performed remarkably well, especially the Shell Sonic Triangle, and especially on the acoustic. These make fine alternatives to standard celluloid picks. jbguitarpicks.com

BlueChip
Made of a super-expensive high-tech material and precision machined on CNC equipment, Matthew Goins’ BlueChip picks are currently the rage in the bluegrass community, and after sampling the 0.89mm TD 35 and 1.0mm TD 40 ($35 retail) models I can understand why. The material is “self-lubricating,” which when combined with hand-beveling makes for quick picking, while at the same time maintaining a slight tackiness that makes them easy to hang onto. They don’t look or feel all that much like turtle shell picks, but they sound and respond very much like them, and they are finding their way into the hands of pro players who used to use the genuine article, which says a lot. bluechippick.net

Golden Gate
Manufactured by Saga Musical Instruments, Golden Gate Flat Mock Turtle picks ($3 retail) come in Large Triangle, Round Triangle, and Narrow Triangle shapes, and are all relatively thick and rigid. They are cut rather rough, and may either be used “as is,” or beveled to taste (which is what most users of genuine turtle shell picks wind up doing anyway). These feel a lot like the real deal in the hand, and provide much of the same tone and response, though the highs don’t have the same sparkle and the balance of frequencies isn’t as pleasing. At $3 each, however, they are a great bargain. sagamusic.com

All of the picks we sampled are excellent in their own way, and each offers qualities that one player may prefer more than the qualities offered by the others—but in terms of which come closest to feeling, sounding, and responding like genuine turtle shell picks, the Red Bears have the edge, followed closely by the Wegens and the Golden Gates. None of the picks fully capture the turtle magic, but the Red Bears are remarkably close. So close, in fact, that the difference may not make the hassle of maintaining the real deal worthwhile, even if you can find—and afford—some.faux1

Top row: Red Bear Classic (Light), Red Bear Classic (Medium), Clayton 0.72mm, Clayton 0.80mm
Middle row: Wegen Bluegrasspick, Wegen GP-250, JB 1.0mm Shell Sonic Triangle, JB 1.0mm
Bottom row: Blue Chip TD 40, Blue Chip TD 35, Golden Gate Large Triangle, Golden Gate Narrow Triangle

Manufacturer Comments (via email)

Michael Skowron, Red Bear Trading Company
?Regarding real turtle shell picks (tortoise is a land animal whose shell makes terrible picks and other things) one of the properties that makes them very desirable as stringed instrument plectrums is the way they excite the string. They impart two types of energy to the string: One is a "pluck" which is almost percussive. The other—and this in my opinion is where the magic is—is that they also impart a frictional element much like the violin bow does. During the pick's contact with the string—after the attack but before the release—the shell material is exciting the string with friction. Add the initial attack and the release and you have the full effect of a turtle shell plectrum. Now bear in mind that I've never done any scientific experimentation that can prove or disprove this, but you can just feel it when you play with a high-quality shell pick. There is also the tactile element. Turtle shell was very popular for knitting needles and hair combs back in the day. The reason is that it imparts little or no static to the hair when used in a comb or the yarn when used as knitting needles. This was a very desirable trait when women typically wore their hair long. Combing out four feet of hair that got all static-charged must not have been much fun. Same with knitting—other materials used as knitting needles imparted a lot of static to the yarn thus resulting in "fuzzy knit" where the yarn (usually wool) would get more and more fuzzy due to the static charge being built up on the needles as the knitting progressed. Eventually the "crack" of a static discharge would shock the knitter, and then the charge would build back up, and repeat. We've all experienced the discomfort of walking across a carpet then touching a doorknob only to get popped by the spark of static discharge. Not fun! Shell products eliminated this static buildup. I believe it is this very property that allows such rich tones from an instrument string. You get the note, plus subtle overtones that just aren't possible with any other material. Plus, items made from shell just simply "feel better" when in the hand. Much like a lacquer or shellac guitar neck just feels better than poly or other non-natural finishes. (Note: Lacquer is made from wood or cotton fibers and shellac is an insect secretion—both naturally occurring).? ?

Enter Red Bear Picks. Our material also has the organic factor that gives them the feel of real shell. No other pick has this factor. This is what sets Red Bear picks totally apart from any other pick. It is the material, plus our hand-formed bevels that make our picks unlike any other pick on the market. In blind tests with real shell picks, time and time again we are told that the tester cannot tell the difference. In fact, ours is one of the, if not the only pick on the market that can really directly compare to real shell. All the other "synthetic tortoise shell" picks may look like shell, but looking like shell and sounding/feeling like shell are two different things. All these plastic pick manufacturers continually claim that their picks sound exactly like tortoise shell. It's their claim, not the millions of players. Whether the picks are made of plexiglass, acrylic, nylon, wood, steel, peek, or any of the myriad high-speed, self-lubricating plastics (beware of the fumes if one of these picks is lit on fire—they can be very dangerous) out there, nothing comes as close to real turtle shell as Red Bear picks do. Our material was designed in the Victorian era as a direct replacement for turtle shell and has been successfully utilized as such since then.

In summary, real shell picks are a joy to play because they feel so good and produce tones that are not possible with other types of pick materials. Red Bear picks have that same feel and tonal capability. Our material is going to wear better than real shell since it is denser. Of all the players who use our picks, the vast majority will find little to no wear after heavy use. We've had hundreds of reports by users who are astonished at the lack of wear our picks exhibit. For both acoustic instruments and electric, our picks are reported to be the best available. Like real shell, they simply feel better and provide tones like no other is capable of. As an added benefit, our material is non-toxic, and the sea turtles of the world are much happier for it.? 

John Barszcz, JB?
What specifically are a few of the qualities found in tortoise shell picks that aren’t found in other types of picks?
That warm sweet tone and feeling you get from tortoise shell picks is like no other. In my opinion no pick can measure up to its crisp tone. It glides on the strings perfectly and brings out the instrument’s true sound. I feel that my picks come very close to the tortoise shell pick.?

How did you go about developing the formula for JB picks and how long did it take?
?I’ve been playing guitar for over 20 years and I would consider myself a pick freak. I own just about every pick on the market today. They are all good picks in their own way, but I've always preferred to use celluloid. A few years back I found that if you modify the bevel on the celluloid pick it moves across the strings easier and faster and it sounds similar to the tortoise shell pick.

?In what ways do JB tortoise shell picks differ from other synthetic tortoise shell picks on the market??
Price. My custom JB picks sell for about $5, and the standard picks are 6 for $3.50. They sound just as good as the more expensive picks. Also, JB picks will not break like some of the other picks on the market. The bottom line is preference—it doesn't matter what the pick costs. What matters is what the musician is comfortable with. There has to be a connection between the musician, his instrument, and his pick. All three have to come together. It took a while, but I eventually made that bond. I decided to produce my own custom line of picks to help other musicians make that same connection. My advice is to keep on pickin' and everything will come together.? ?

David Gartland, Golden Gate/Saga Musical Instruments
What specifically are a few of the qualities found in turtle shell picks that aren’t found in other types of picks?
Genuine tortoise is very stiff. Not in a hard, aggressive way, but a smooth, soft, unbending kind of way. Even with a thickness similar to that of a medium Fender pick, a genuine tortoise pick would be very, very stiff. I have seen them 5.0mm thick and used by Gypsy Jazz players, too.  The stiffness gives you the instant pick attack and the material gives you a real crisp, articulate, yet not too bright a note. Because it is also a smooth material, the pick flies over the strings effortlessly. They tend to wear-in just like a real comfortable pair of running shoes, so that the player can really get attached to them over time. The other great thing is that they do last forever—that is if you don’t lose them.

To get an idea of the tonal properties, I like to do the drop test on a table. Take a number of different picks of varying materials and drop them from about a foot high. Listen to the note. Each will be unique and will have a particular bounce. Some will even flop! A genuine tortoise pick will have a good bounce with a real clean note, not too bright, and even a bit warm. This comes out in the notes plucked on a stringed instrument and is why people love them.

How did you go about developing the formula for your picks and how long did it take?
Because we understand the properties and benefits of picks made from this material, as well as the endangered nature of the species from which it comes, we set out a long time ago to find a reasonable alternative. So, ultimately the source led us to a material that exhibits many of the same properties without being from an endangered species or illegal to own or purchase. I would suffice it to say that our Mock Turtle Picks are made from a completely organic, naturally occurring material, and will give the musician the playing experience similar to that of an actual turtle shell pick. One thing that is common to our Mock Turtle picks and genuine tortoise picks is that each pick can be shaped by the player (filed and sanded, etc.) to make it just the right shape and size. Normal wear will follow nicely from there.  

In what ways do your picks differ from other synthetic turtle shell picks on the market?
The most obvious way is that our pick is totally organic and of a similar biological make-up to the real thing. Therefore, our picks are far closer in feel and playability to genuine tortoise than many synthetic designs.?

Michel Wegen, Wegen
What specifically are a few of the qualities found in turtle shell picks that aren’t found in other types of picks?
Well, I think the color, and the idea that you are using an animal product. Any plastic is no good, no matter what.

How did you go about developing your picks and how long did it take?
I started making picks in 1994 or so, and I am still learning each day to make them better.

In what ways do your picks differ from other faux turtle shell picks on the market?
I make serious picks for serious players. Tools for the job!

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