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It’s a bad dream that’s come true for too many guitarists: You arrive to practice with your band or at a show only to find you don’t have a guitar pick.
If you’ve been there, then you’ve definitely wondered what you can use as a guitar pick.
If you find yourself without a guitar pick when you really need one, you can use a wide range of household objects as alternatives and substitutes, with coins and credit cards among the most commonly used. Other common items like paper clips and toothpicks can also fill in for a guitar pick in a pinch.
Let’s look at why you might need a substitute pick, what you can use as a pick in an emergency, and some of the pros and cons of the options you have.
What Can I Do If I Don’t Have A Guitar Pick?
Nearly every player can relate to the sinking feeling of repeatedly searching your guitar case or gig bag to find a guitar pick only to come up empty handed each time. Or maybe you’re warming up and the only pick you have with you breaks.
If you go on stage in just a little bit, or you’ve been trying to arrange this practice session for weeks, then not having a pick can’t be the end of the story. The show, or the practice, or whatever you have scheduled, must go on.
Not everyone needs a guitar pick, even if they regularly play with one. If you mostly strum chords on an acoustic guitar, for example, you can easily substitute your thumb or index finger for a pick.
If you play more complicated rhythm parts, or you’re not comfortable playing without a pick, though, all isn’t lost.
This should probably go without saying, but your first move should be to ask around for a pick and just let people know you lost yours. If you’re playing a show, another member of your band, someone with another band, or even an audience member might have pick handy.
If you’ve checked and couldn’t find one that way, either, don’t give up hope. There are a lot of basic, common things you can find nearly anywhere that you can use as an alternative to a guitar pick.
In fact, I’d bet most people reading this have all of these alternatives in their home, and some even have most of them in their pocket.
What Are Some Guitar Pick Alternatives?
Most guitar pick substitutes are things you can just pick up and start using, but some require a little bit of work. Let’s look at one of those as our first example.
Using A Credit Card As A Guitar Pick
You might have heard about this in the past, and if you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. While credit cards aren’t made from the same material as guitar picks, most are of a similar density and stiffness, so they work quite well.
They’re also really common. And you don’t need to feel limited to just credit cards, either.
When we’re talking about cards, that encompasses a whole range of things from supermarket membership cards to insurance identification cards to old drivers licenses.
You definitely can use a credit card though — but while it might seem pretty punk rock in the moment to cut up your actual credit card for the show, you probably should stick with expired ones instead. That way you won’t have to make a sheepish call in the morning requesting a new card.
One advantage is that you can make different kinds of pick substitutes from different kinds of cards. Thick, stiff cards, like standard credit cards, make heavy gauge picks, while thinner ones, often found as gift cards or even insurance ID cards, make lighter gauges.
One nice part about using a card is that they already have a well defined round corner. You can use that to guide yourself when cutting out a pick.
That’s especially helpful in the case we’re considering here, because you’ll be cutting out the shape of a pick without another pick to guide you, after all.
A little bit of care will make a decent shape, but you don’t need to worry about it too much — again, the nice rounded corner you can start with helps make the card usable as a pick. The rest of the shape just needs to be comfortable to hold; you don’t have to exactly match an ideal guitar pick shape.
If you don’t have a plastic card you can spare, though, you can try a similar idea with business cards or other kinds of card stock — thick, sturdy paper used for mailing, among other things. In many cases, one business card won’t be thick enough to make a pick, but if you cut out several identical shapes from the card, you can use glue or tape to laminate them together.
Using A Coin As A Guitar Pick
This one is a true classic, and one that many people have tried, even if they have a guitar pick readily to hand.
That’s because many famous guitarists use a coin for a pick. One of the most famous of those is Brian May, the man behind the guitar sound of Queen.
In this video, May talks about why he uses a British sixpence coin to play.
If you have a coin that has some kind of sentimental meaning to you, then that would make a great pick, but you don’t have to have any particular numismatic interest at all, because any coin can work.
The four most common coins in the United States, the penny, nickel, dime, and quarter, are easy to find and each can be used as a pick.
Because of how thin a dime is, it makes a really sharp, articulate sound when you use it. But because of how small it is, you might have a hard time using it as a pick effectively, depending on how large your hands are. That is why the quarter is a normal suggestion for a guitar pick alternative.
It’s thicker than a dime, but still thin enough to make individual picking easy, and it’s far larger than any of the other most common U.S. coins, making it easy to hold onto.
One thing to be aware of is the damage that metal coins can do to guitar strings. Coins with serrated edges, like dimes and quarters, will cause more wear on strings than coins with plain edges, like pennies and nickels.
But any coin is likely to wear out strings a lot faster than a plastic pick would. The reasons why are complicated, but metal-to-metal contact is far harder on the strings than the plastic-to-metal contact a normal pick would produce.
Using A Paper Clip As A Guitar Pick
Another metal object that might fill your needs for a plectrum is the humble paper clip. The rounded shape of the ends means you can both hold it comfortably and use it to easily play individual strings.
The shape also helps the paper clip stay fairly solid while strumming but is also flexible enough that it won’t break easily, nor will it snap strings quite as often as thicker choices might.
And, like the other objects on this list, they are very, very easy to find in a variety of places.
Using a Toothpick As A Guitar Pick
Another common household item can also be repurposed to make a decent guitar pick substitute — a toothpick. Anything from the wooden kind used in kitchens to the new, plastic floss/toothpick combinations will work, as it happens.
That, again, has to do with its shape and its material. Plastic guitar picks use thin, relatively stiff plastic to play the strings, and the plastic toothpicks are made in a similar way and can do the same.
Wooden toothpicks, on the other hand, are thicker, but made of more flexible material. That ends up accomplishing about the same thing as a plastic pick, but with a much different shape- however, that shape could cause your “pick” to get stuck in the strings more often.
Where most guitar picks are wide and thin, toothpicks are thick but have a very narrow cross section. That gives you a much, much more precise attack, something that might make soloing easier.
How Can I Make My Own Guitar Pick?
If you’re trying to make a substitute pick quickly because you need a pick to perform, then you’re at the mercy of what you have on hand to work with.
Cutting a plastic credit card isn’t difficult, but getting a precise cut with a pair of household scissors can be a challenge. You might find the cards cracking instead of cutting, or, if your scissors aren’t sharp enough, bending instead of cutting.
If you have them on hand, a pair of kitchen scissors designed for cutting meat or a pair of trauma shears, which are made to cut through multiple layers of cloth, make cutting out a pick from a credit card a much simpler task.
Those kinds of scissors are both sharper than others and have a stronger mechanism, allowing them to cut through thicker material.
Another option to throw in your case or bag is a simple guitar pick punch. With the same basic design as a three hole punch, these tools let you put a piece of plastic like a credit card into a slot and then squeeze the handle to produce a perfectly shaped guitar pick.
You can also use a punch on card stock or other relatively thin material, allowing you to experiment with different kinds of picks to get different sounds.
This video explores how different pick material can affect the tone of your guitar.
A pick is an essential part of the sound and playing style of a lot of different guitar players, both because it can give a rhythm player more volume and a lead player a more precise attack.
That’s one reason it’s probably worthwhile to throw a handful of extra picks of your choosing in your case or gig bag, and maybe one in your wallet, as well.
But everyone is caught short at one time or another, so it’s fortunate there are quite a few alternatives to guitar picks that you can find just about anywhere you look. They might not be ideal, but they also might give you the tone you’re looking for.
And no matter what, they mean you can keep playing, and that’s the best outcome of all.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.