Collectors’ Corner: The Mysterious World of Collecting Guitar Picks

By Martin Popoff

If you’ve ever wondered what all those guys were doing, eyes cast down, shuffling their tired feet, milling about at the front of the stage after Van Halen were safely in their buses and on the way to the next city… well, they were probably looking for guitar picks. Collecting custom imprinted picks is a collector craze that is still in its infancy but growing. Scott Roderick from www.swag.com, the biggest pick retailer in the world, thinks it’s catching on quicker than James Hetfield’s pick-clutching right hand.

“Guitar-pick collecting started off as a very cult-ish hobby and probably started gaining credibility somewhere around the mid-80s,” said Roderick. “A lot of stuff isn’t documented. Once again, it’s still somewhat a new hobby. But actual signature guitar picks, from bands, really started probably in the late ’70s, with bands like Van Halen. These old white on tortoise, or block black print on white are some of your earlier styles. And there were a few, Ted Nugent, I believe, had one, J. Geils; there were a handful of acts. But generally they’re block-type prints, very plain-looking. It’s the same as with backstage passes. You look at the old backstage passes, and there aren’t a lot of graphics. Basically it’s somebody’s stamp; not very graphically pleasing. But those are some of the first ones. So generally they were white print or black print with the name of the band. But yeah, one guy looks at another and says, ‘Oh man, you’ve got your name printed on a pick; that’s cool.’ And one picks it up and then another picks it up, and before you know it, there are a lot of picks out there. And then some time in the early ’80s, you started seeing different colors, band logos, signatures printed on them, different materials.”

“There are really just a handful of companies who actually make these for the bands, one being Jim Dunlop, also D’Addario, D’Andrea,” explained Scott, when asked about print runs of something like a guitar pick. “Those of the three major players. There have been others who’ve come and gone…. plus Ernie Ball was in it for a time. They don’t even have records or samples of something that they printed 20 years ago. Nobody ever thought — and I’m speaking for them; they would be the ones to really ask to get the best answer — but they didn’t even think that this would be something people would think about collecting. It’s really been since the mid-80s that somebody really started to go for this. I always like to use the analogy: Remember when we were kids and we took baseball cards and put them in the spokes of our bikes, or glued them into our books? Exactly. Well, now, nobody would ever think of doing that. So that’s my analogy with guitar picks. Nobody thought of these things as collectible. So there weren’t good records kept.”

Emphasizing the fact that the history can be lost, Scott said, “There have been times where you go backstage and you show an artist 60 different picks. ‘Look, I’m a collector, and here are all your picks.’ Sometimes they don’t even remember some of them. A lot of them grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. [laughs] And a lot of times, the guitar techs are responsible for specifications, and if that particular guitar tech is no longer with the band, some of the history goes away with that person.”

But Scott explained that in most cases, you’re looking at well under a thousand picks, perhaps, a couple or few “gross” — bags of 144 picks. Of course, there are situations where a pick is manufactured for promotion or resale or even to be stuffed inside of each CD before packaging. Bon Jovi, for example, had a pick for sale at their merchandise booth. But it turned out that it was different than the ones used on stage; hence two picks with different levels of collectibility. “Generally what I hear,” said Scott, “is that they did a couple of gross of picks. And for you to be one of 300 people who have a specific item, it’s not that many.”

Predictably, the big-ticket items are the early picks, as mentioned above, also picks from legends such as Van Halen, Ritchie Blackmore, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, and Kiss (counterfeits exist, with the white being not quite so yellow as an aging original), the pinnacle being perhaps a Stevie Ray Vaughan pick.

Added Scott, “There are other people like Eric Clapton… Lee Dixon is his guitar tech, and he gives very few picks out. A lot of it depends on supply and demand. How many of those picks ever make it to the market? It’s well known that Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick throws out tons of picks, but there are some artists who will throw one out the entire night. The stories are folklore; they’re passed down amongst the generations of the pick elders [laughs], but Alex Lifeson… the story I heard, is that he’ll use the same pick for numerous shows; it’s like a superstition type thing. He’ll take that pick, he’ll put it in his pocket, off to the next one. And then there’s other guys, ‘Yeah, sure, here you go.’

“The new items, you really don’t know sometimes how many of them are out there,” added Scott, further on the subject of supply and demand. “For new stuff, prices can vary enormously. Take Eddie Van Halen and the [last] tour. When the Eddie Van Halen pick first hit the market, it was going for $75, $100 apiece. But all of a sudden, as the number of concerts mounted, more and more came out, and the price slowly went down. So you don’t know. Now, with vintage items, the only time a price varies is if something is in the news. And that can be anything from the band breaking up or they’re out on tour or, as morbid as it is, when there’s a death in the band.”

There aren’t, surprisingly, that many oddities, other than variants in shape, color, material and gauge (thickness). Scott added, however, “There are other times when the artist would have an inside saying. For example, one of the stories about Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones goes that on the front of his pick it said Mr. New Shoes. Well, in a recording session, every time Ronnie would walk in, he would have a new pair of shoes. And it would be ‘Hey, there’s Mr. New Shoes,’ and they put it on a pick.”

“Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top uses a Mexican peso — but you can’t collect that, as it’s just a coin, and there’s no way of verifying that it had been stage-used. A lot of artists will use them for specific tone. Also, Brian May from Queen uses a sixpence. But later, for the Back To The Light tour, The Mint Of England designed a Brian May sixpence coin, with his profile. Here’s an item that was selling on his tour for approximately $10. Today, that coin pick, all day long, $200-$250. And that’s on a good day. Brian [also] released, for the Queen opera… a brand-new, Brian May 2004 coin pick. As far as anybody else, there have been only a few. Ricky Medlocke did a brass pick. Steve Clark and even some of the members of Def Leppard today, did a stainless steel pick.”

In terms of people around the world who collect, Scott said that Japan is big, but America reigns. “This is a worldwide hobby. At last count, I’ve sold to 26 different countries, which is phenomenal. There are huge collectors in Japan, but definitely, the good ol’ U.S. of A. is where most of the collectors are. And I think that’s probably because the bands, for the most part, are from around here, and they tour here the most. But here’s an interesting fact: A lot of times, bands will have different picks for different parts of the world. Def Leppard printed picks that said Japan 2002. Aerosmith is very big for making a Japanese guitar pick; Joe Perry just did one with a Godzilla on it, which is very cool.”

I asked Scott how collectors typically obtain their picks.

“In the days before eBay and such, you could go right up to the techs and say, ‘Hey man, do you have any guitar picks?’ and they would freely give them out. ‘Here’s a handful.’ Or one, or a few. It wasn’t that big of a deal. In today’s reselling market, a lot of the techs do not want to give these out because they feel they will get sold. It’s the same way in sports with celebrities signing autographs. They feel that a lot of people are taking these and just flat-out selling them. So yes, it’s much harder today to get these items from the bands. So really, how do people get them? You have to be up at the front and be lucky enough to get them. That’s why they’re so tough to get.”

Turns out that www.swag.com is the prime place to see numerous examples of picks through the years. There is also a brief history of pick collecting (the site actually sells other rock memorabilia as well, including an impressive array of backstage passes). But Scott said there are other sources of information. “There are a few discussion boards, one at yahoo.com, and if you do some Internet searches, you’ll find some stuff. There are a few different boards that do trading. There are of course auction Web sites where you can get information, and a lot of pick-selling goes on on eBay. But the best way to learn about it… like any hobby, it takes time. Ask questions among collectors, and enjoy your hobby. Learn as much as you can.

The objection to pick collecting he hears time and again is, “‘It’s just a piece of plastic!’” exclaimed Scott. “‘What do you mean, 15, 20 bucks for a piece of plastic?’ Well, if we really want to use that analogy, baseball cards… it’s a piece of cardboard. A Beanie baby is a stuffed animal. What’s a vinyl record, petroleum-based? What makes any collectible worth what it is? It’s how hard that item is to get. A diamond. It’s so small! [laughs]”

Small can be very beautiful to folks accursed with the collecting gene. “Yes, that’s one of the great things about pick collecting, that you can have a collection of 5,000 guitar picks displayed in three-ring binders, and it can take up a few shelves, you know, hopefully, in your safe. [laughs] But it’s just like coin collecting or stamp collecting. People really get into it just for that. And the majority of picks you can pick up for under $20. You don’t have to spend an enormous amount of money. Now granted, if you’re spending, $50, $75, $100 on a pick, there’s a reason for that. It’s an extremely difficult to find item.”

Imagining the ultimate complete collection of picks, Scott opined, “There could be, oh gee, 40,000, 50,000 guitar picks. There’s probably even more than that, maybe 100,000. How many do I have? I have 20,000, 25,000. But what we stock… being in the retail business, you can’t get married to the merchandise. If I took the attitude that I am strictly a collector, that if I only had one of something, half of my inventory would not be for sale. Because a lot of these picks, you’re lucky to even have one, let alone an extra one for sale. So there are bands that I’m very fond of. I’m a big Van Halen collector, and every time one of my children leave, I get a knot in my stomach.”

So that means everything is up on the site for sale, save for the thousands coming in all the time. As we spoke, Scott was staring at a recently purchased collection sitting on his floor — 6,000 picks, each one different.

“Everything is up on the Web site. Once again, there are certain ones I’m very fond of, and there may be a premium attached to them, just because I don’t care to see it go. You just put a premium on it, just for that fact. I think a lot from the ’80s, the Motley Crues etc., are just downright cool-looking. I’d say that with the metal music from the ’80s, that signified electric guitar. And I think electric guitar signifies guitar picks. There are also country picks. There are picks from Earth, Wind & Fire. But something about heavy metal, rock ’n’ roll, signature guitar picks… in my book, that’s pretty cool. [laughs]”


For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store:
• Download Goldmine’s Guide to AC/DC (PDF download)
• Get an inexpensive digital edition of Goldmine’s cover story on Whitesnake” (PDF Download)
• Get the invaluable record collector’s resource: Goldmine® Record Album Price Guide, 6th Edition

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