Hands-on review: Timber Tones wooden guitar picks

(Brian Johnson | Posted 2011-11-05)

Hands-on review: Timber Tones wooden guitar picks

Plectrum, or pick, materials vary greatly, from the more traditional plastic, resin and acrylic, to the more exotic wood and bone. Materials have become diverse because each produces a different tonal experience relative to the equipment and strings. Just like the continual and elusive hunt for the optimal tone by way of guitars, amps and pedals, the same exists with the plectrum.

My latest journey into this foray led me to a company called Timber Tones (www.timber-tones.com), a UK company that currently produces 18 varieties of wood plectrums that gives some of the nicest results I have heard in a long time from something as simple as a small object striking a guitar string. With musicians complaining of the ‘clicking’ artifacts of plastic and resin, such a by-product seems to be nonexistent or very nearly so with Timber Tones. It should also be stated that Timber Tones uses, whenever possible, off-cut or surplus materials from non-endangered forest growth. In fact, in 2010 92% of its plectrums were made from off-cuts from guitar and furniture manufacturing.

Timber Tones upholds woodworking standards when addressing its products by way of the Janka Hardness Test, a method used to measure the resistance of a wood type to withstand denting and wear. It measures the force required to embed an 11.28 mm (0.444 inch) steel ball into wood to half the ball’s diameter, which leaves an indentation. This method typically is used to determine whether a species is suitable for use as flooring, but it is a standard for all woods for whatever purposes.

To give an example, balsa is a very soft wood and will sustain only 100 pounds of force under the Janka Hardness Test. White ash, a common hardwood, has a rating of 1320, whereas Lignum Vitae is rated at 4500.

The 18 luxury plectrums developed by Timber Tones are as follows, from hardest to softest:

1. Lignum Vitae (Janka Hardness 4500)
2. African Ebony
3. Macassar Ebony
4. Sonokeling
5. Bloodwood
6. Purple Heart
7. Satinwood
8. Jatoba
9. Mexican Bocote (Janka Hardness 2200)
10. Zebrawood
11. Bubinga
12. Santos Rosewood
13. Afromosia
14. African Sapele
15. Curly Maple
16. Cocobolo
17. Ovangkol
18. African Mahogany (Janka Hardness 830)

A good way to think of these picks, from hard to soft, is that the harder the pick the more appropriate it is for bass and electric guitar, with a possible application for brightening up the acoustic guitar. (I say this with some reservation, which I’ll explain momentarily, since harder woods definitely give greater note definition and clarity, but that may not be a player’s desired effect.)

Conversely, it is suggested that the softer the pick the more appropriate it is for classical guitars and having a ‘warming influence’ on acoustic guitars.

As well, the harder the pick, the more pronounced and crisp the tone, offering a more pronounced treble effect, softer yet clear bass, and rich mids. Conversely, the softer the pick, the less articulate the tone (although it still rings clear) as the mids and bass take over with more subdued treble. And, what is noticeable is that the harder the wood, the more volume output when picking or strumming – again, that may or may not be a desirable outcome depending on your playing and compositions, but you get the general idea.

And so, on that note, although Timber Tones’ recommendation for the electric guitar ends with the Santos Rosewood (Janka Hardeness 1780), I certainly can see picks even softer being ideal for adding nice lushness to electric chords, as well as being appropriate for that soft jazz and blues playing when a snap attack is not desired. Moreover, the softer picks tend to give a fatter, more robust sound (more bass to mid-range) to one’s playing and I definitely have experienced how they can lend themselves wholeheartedly to various genres of music (my compositions range from instrumental rock to atmospheric psychadelia, with a Pink Floyd flavor, and I tend to use the softer picks as much as the harder ones).

It is evident that each plectrum gives a subtle difference in tone, thus allowing you to fine-tune your sound and how playing is to be projected. However, I noticed that the more effects you pump through your guitar the less noticeable the differences are between the picks unless there is enough of a difference (the hardest vs. the softest vs. something in between).

Conversely, the less saturated your tone the more apparent the various nuances of the picks. Consequently, Metal players can choose just about any pick in the spectrum depending on whether they need a harder/louder and brighter attack, or something more subdued. Then those with more of a pure sound need to be more particular and likely should go for a sample selection of very hard, medium, and softer to gain perspective for each flavor before investing in more pick stock.

I should add that there are some aspects that make these picks unique and desirable, and they are not simply pieces of wood cut out in a pick shape. Timber Tones are machined to precise tolerances, thus ensuring that the only difference among the collection will be the wood that you choose; they may have slightly different feels between the fingers, but all are machined to equal specs. After inspection, each pick is treated with a wax to seal the wood and give them grip (they are more secure between sweaty fingers than most other picks I have tried), and then are treated to a coating of Tung oil, which brings out their luster (I find the Zebrawood and Cocobolo particularly attractive), besides adding to preservation. Timber Tone plectrums are not inexpensive like plastic picks, but they certainly are not that costly when compared to amp, guitar and pedal investments we make to achieve that certain sound and quality of playing.

And it should be remembered that what you use as a plectrum impacts on both tone and playing ability/style. These picks have a wide range of varying dynamics and fit so well with quality equipment that they should be considered seriously. And the wax is not the only aspect that gives them good grip – it also is in the thumb/finger surface as the centre of the pick has a contoured edging (that bevels down to the tip) that enhances comfort. Moreover, even the softest pick of the group is so well-machined and edged that pinch harmonics are easy to come by.

If you buy one pick, try something in the mid-range, such as the Bubinga or Santos Rosewood, since these would give a nice middle-ground of what you can expect... and you can better select from there. However, it’s worth the investment to obtain the entire collection since (like guitars, amps and pedals) each one offers something a bit different in how it affects tone and playing. There may be times when a very intense solo requires that sharp articulation and then moments later you need a ‘softer brush dipped into the palette’ to create a new mood. And if you visit the site you will notice that you can purchase all 18 in a tin; and 4 woods for electric guitar; and four varying hardness timbers for Acoustic Guitar (either available in a pack or a tin).

There are a few other interesting points about Timber Tones before ending this review. I was made aware that this company is in discussion with a furniture manufacturer in Belize, and that Timber Tones may be producing a collector series of picks made from 40 exotic hardwood off-cuts.

As well, Timber Tones now has buffalo bone/horn plectrums manufactured in Vietnam. In case this sounds cruel or unnecessary, the plectrums made from bone and horn are bi-products from buffalo farming (mozzarella cheese, steak and leather), and Timber Tones is simply using the excess from the farming process. As a result, this is more eco-friendly than plastic picks. These bone/horn picks do sound great, offering a super loud yet organic tone that has more of an edge than the wood picks and yet do not seem harsh in their response. They have a very nice feel and ambiance that would please both metal-heads and unplugged acoustic musicians looking for some added volume and clarity of notes. And if you think bone or horn may be too hard a material, consider Brian May of Queen’s use of a sixpence as a plectrum!

FINAL VERDICT: Because of the varying dynamics among the collection, and that each has its own characteristics, players will find Timber Tones very responsive to both strumming and note playing – from brighter execution when performing lead to warmer and lush chording.
,br>PLUSES: Picks that give an essence of prestige and quality; improves depth and loudness when playing that is a boon to acoustic playing, but with organic qualities that can be heard even with an electric guitar; more full-bodied than nylon picks and far diminished ‘clicking’ artifacts as compared to plastic or acrylic picks.
,br>MINUSES: Not as ‘bright’ or as ‘sparkly’ sounding as picks made from some other mediums, particularly metal-edged picks, which can be viewed as a plus or a minus (the degree of brightness does vary from one pick to the next, however); more expensive than traditional picks, but worth the investment since they produce a superior and more natural result in the reviewer’s opinion; slightly thicker than the average pick (which does make it more comfortable between the fingers), it takes an hour to become accustomed to.

Timber Tones sells its picks in four-packs which retail for 11 British Pounds. For more information, visit www.Timber-Tones.com.

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