John Looney bounced a synthetic Dunlop Gator Grip guitar pick on a table at Hal & Mal's. He was in between sets playing the mandolin with Anna Kline and The Grits & Soul Band, so he didn't have much time for this demonstration.
"You hear that?" he asked, when the pick plopped on the table. Then he pulled a tortoiseshell guitar pick from his wallet and dropped it at the same distance as the Dunlop. The tortoiseshell, now illegal to sell, made a lower pitch with its softer thud on the table.
Looney, 28, has played the mandolin for six years and the guitar for 15. He collects guitar picks. He has about 50 "cheap" ones he keeps on his coffee table and some special picks he keeps in safer places, like his wallet. The tortoiseshell is special partly because it is a harder substance. Looney says he can pull more out of his mandolin with harder picks.
"Some people like a pick with a little bend to it. I like picks that don't bend at all," he says. "As I got to be a better player, my pick got heavier and heavier."
The density of the material and the thickness of the cut of a pick affect sound. All of Looney's picks create slightly different tones on his mandolin. He really likes his pick made of ebony, a hard wood.
"It's harder, but it's a brighter tone," he said. "Other materials produce a more mellow sound. For the mandolin, I need more volume and to be able to pull more sound out of it."
He is always searching for the best sound and best feel, so he experiments with different picks. Looney works at Morrison Brothers Music, and reports that the Blue Chip pick is all the rage now. It's beveled on the edge, and it slides off the string. The bevels, the soft edges and the triangular shapes create varied tones. Sharper points produce a brighter sound. Softer edges sound smooth. Some players prefer to only use their fingertips, while some banjo players like a steel tip. Jazz players love sharp edges on their picks, Looney says. They move faster.
"A lot of it is the feel of the pick, how it rolls off the string," he says.
Looney thinks he is going to have try a petrified wood pick next.
Musician Scott Hales, 47, uses a petrified wood pick--not exclusively, but he uses it fondly.
"The thickness has more of a muffled-type tone," he said. He likes to use petrified wood when he's picking, doing leads or strumming. "All the bending is in the string. I can tell the difference. I can hit sharper notes."
He agrees with Looney that little things like the pick you use a make a huge difference when you hit that string. That's why he prefers using a heavy pick, a pick that doesn't bend at all.
Hales is busy recording some of his blues and jazz tunes at a studio in his Madison County home just six miles from the Mississippi Petrified Forest, a private park. The gift shop at the park sells all kinds of petrified wood souvenirs, jewelry and guitar picks.
Bob Dellar, 66, who works in the gift shop, pulled out a tray of picks from the display case containing an assortment of shiny stones shaped to make music: thick green triangles with sharp points, rounded picks with wood grains, thin white picks with black squiggles and yellow-gold rocks that will slide over guitar strings one day. The stone picks came from petrified logs found on the property. The ancient logs landed here about 38 million years ago as driftwood in a great flood. Layers of sand storms, silt, clay, minerals, glacier dust and millions of years of slow conditioning turned decaying wood cells into stone.
His daughter, Deborah Shoemaker, is the park manager. She also plays the guitar. Shoemaker demonstrated the petrified wood pick, strumming her acoustic guitar. She held her hand at different angles, never letting the stone pick slip, explaining that every slight angle can make a difference.
Shoemaker, 40, hires various craftsmen to shape and bevel guitar picks from pieces of petrified wood, all from Mississippi, but none from the protected logs at the conservation park. This past weekend, she was sorting through a new order that had just come in from out of state.
The small plastic bags contained dark brown and yellow pieces of polished stone. Some were rounder than others, all were wider than her thumb. She's organizing the new shipment to sell at her booth at the Intuitive Encounters Mindful Spirit Expo this weekend.
Hales said for him, playing with a petrified wood pick is spiritual.
"These things are old. Being that old, being here longer, it feels good in your hand and in your tone. It's like old guitars and old violins--like an old Stradivarius--just sound better," he said.
Petrified wood allows for that kind of singular expression through mood and technique, Hales said.
"Any musician wants to play so that you can hear half a chord and you know who it is."