Bluegrass Master Gary Brewer of the Kentucky Ramblers Shares Some Guitar Pick Wisdom

Gary Brewer
(Image credit: Gary Brewer)

Talk shop with Gary Brewer for a few minutes and one thing rings clear as a bell: There is rhyme and reason behind everything on his mind. And that mind is full of wisdom acquired over more than four decades playing bluegrass professionally, as well as know-how handed down from his dad and his grandfather, whose tenure in the original Carter Family band dates back to the early ’20s.

When GP went deep with Brewer on his new acoustic guitar concept project, House of Axes, he went into the weeds on playing with a pick. Here, we share his knowledge and advice on the subject.

Organic Issues

Real tortoiseshell picks were the thing back in the day, and I used to use them years and years ago. Not to make a funny out of it, but they’re “picky” from an environmental aspect – not just about the animal, but also from a playing perspective.

If it’s humid outside, by the time you play an evening concert they start catching and catching. They get to feeling rough on the wound strings, due to the humidity. The best time to use something [organic] like a tortoiseshell is in the wintertime or in a studio where you don’t have that environmental concern.

Thick Does the Trick on Acoustic

I use a very thick pick, and I’ve got a theory behind that too. A harder pick is a more economical choice, speed-wise. I play fairly aggressively, and if I bear down on a string with a heavy pick, I can move from one string to another very quickly and economically versus a pick that bends. That’s because once I strike the string aggressively with a thinner pick, it must straighten back out for me to strike it again. Then it bends again, and so on and so forth.

While this is happening, you get a whole lot of ticking sounds, and it’s virtually impossible to play a hard rhythm while staying solid with the pick, especially for me because I play rhythm and lead at the same time.

On the other hand, I can stay solid and even with a thick pick. I like the harder pick for that reason alone – an economy of motion – and it gives me more power than a softer pick. Back when I used a regular plectrum, D’Addario custom-made signature versions of their purple picks for me in several thicknesses, from 1.14mm to 1.40mm. But I switched picks about a decade ago.

Three Sides is Better Than One

For about the past decade I’ve been using triangular picks. I endorse the BlueChip TAD50, which is a big, thick tri-sided pick [1.25mm]. I use three-sided picks because if I start getting a little wear on one side, I’ll turn that pick in my hand to get the bite that I want from another tip. You’ve got two more choices with a tri-sided pick, so that’s ideal.

I do that regularly, right during the middle of the song. If you inspect the House of Axes videos I posted on my YouTube channel [Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers], you’ll see me flipping and turning that pick as I move from playing from one cluster of notes to another.

Jimmy Leslie has been Frets editor since 2016. See many Guitar Player- and Frets-related videos on his YouTube channel, and learn about his acoustic/electric rock group at