Sweet As Honey: A Pick Maker's Guide
Rick Calhoun is from Taylorsville, North Carolina — born and raised.
“It’s the typical southern small town,” he says. “People wave to each other as you pass them on the road and everyone seems to know one another.”
Full of farms and churches, the town of around 2,300 people isn’t famous for much — beyond being named for US President Zachary Taylor — but locals do refer to it as the Apple City.
“Along with the farms, we have many apple orchards,” Calhoun explains. “The bees play a vital part in keeping the orchards healthy and producing fruit year after year. The beekeepers keep the bees safe in their hives where they produce the sweetest honey I’ve ever had.”
Calhoun says he’s a strong advocate for local honey and that he always has a jar in the house because it tastes delicious and helps with his allergies.
“When I was trying to come up with a name for our pick brand, I didn’t want to name it after myself — I wanted it to represent something local. Honey Picks just felt right at the time and we’ve enjoyed designing around the honey theme.”
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"I've always been interested in guitar picks."
“And the thing most people don’t realize," Calhoun says, "is how much a single guitar pick can not only change your tone, but can completely change the way you play the guitar.”
His journey into the world of boutique picks started around the age of 18 when he saw an ad in a guitar magazine for a $20 variety pack of acrylic picks.
“My initial reaction was ‘Whoa, these are so thick!’ and they felt very foreign. I didn’t really bond with them right away, but I stuck with it and found that it seemed I could not only play faster with ease, but my tone was improving as well. It wasn’t just a gimmick.”
From there he was hooked — and down the rabbit hole he went.
“I was just so intrigued by the different shapes, materials, thicknesses and grips with each pick,” he explains. “Trying new picks became an obsession.”
Some 15 years in, his brother Andrew came up with a novel idea.
”I work with my family in a small electronics manufacturing building and we had recently bought a laser machine to engrave date codes for our electronics products,” he recalls. “We had some scrap pieces of blue and clear acrylic laying around and my brother — knowing of my interest — suggested we make some picks. I drew up a simple shape on the computer and he cut it out on the laser. I took a Dremel tool to the pick and beveled it. It was very crude and not much to look at, but I was so excited to make my own pick.”
After hours of continued experimentation — and countless mistakes — Calhoun and his brother decided to team up and try to take pick making seriously, officially launching Honey Picks together as 50/50 partners in April 2020.
Two years later, the Honey Picks niche represents equal parts art and science.
“Picks play an important role in the overall tone of your guitar playing experience,” Calhoun says. “I tend to think of my guitar picks as little EQ tools – I know which picks will give me a warmer fat tone, and which ones to grab if I want a bright tone with a quick attack. There are so many ways a pick can influence your tone.”
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Pick making, at least the way Calhoun does it, is a meticulous process.
“The thing people may not understand about making guitar picks is that it takes an incredible amount of time, patience and attention to detail for every single one.”
On average, it takes around 15 minutes to craft each Honey Pick — though thinner picks with a simple finish can take as little as five minutes each. On the other end though, an extensive custom pick can take hours of tweaking to get just right.
Calhoun says there are a few factors to consider when making a great guitar pick, or crafting one that’s going to work best for each player and their unique preferences. But starting with a quality material — and being knowledgeable enough to detect the difference between a quality material and one with inconsistencies — is the best place to start.
Honey Picks mostly relies on six unique materials which vary in tone, durability, innate grippiness and aesthetic properties:
Acrylic — grippy and durable, with a full, bright tone
Kirinite — hardened acrylic with aesthetic swirls, though more durable and slightly darker sounding than standard acrylic
Casein/Galaith — challenging to source, but visually striking synthetic plastic with a full, projecting tone and slick feel
Tagua — made from a vegan, sustainable faux ivory nut product that’s grown in South America; exceptionally durable with a full, projecting tone and a very slick feel
Resin — reasonably grippy with a warm, balanced tone; less durable, but available in a wide array of colors, swirls and patterns
Thermoplastic — bright sounding, reasonably durable high impact plastic with a satin finish that increases grip
From there, it’s down to the details.
“Investing in quality tools and supplies makes a big difference in the overall experience of making a guitar pick,” Calhoun says. “For instance, choosing the correct compound to polish your pick is also often overlooked as the compound you use will determine the overall finish of your pick. Also, thickness plays a big part as a thicker pick will introduce added volume and bass response, while thinner picks will have much less bass and tend to be brighter, while producing less volume."
Beveling technique is also important.
“Each bevel — symmetrical or asymmetrical — requires a unique skill. Let’s say that you have a fairly large sized pick overall — one way to help that pick not feel so large in your hand is to add a fairly large bevel all around to soften the edges, similar to how rolled frets feel on your guitar. It just adds a bit of comfort, in my opinion. Asymmetrical bevels, also known as speed bevels, have become increasingly popular as they mimic the feel of a well worn pick, allowing the pick to glide smoothly through the strings.”
And then there’s the tip, which is especially crucial.
“The tip of the guitar pick will play an enormously huge role in how it plays and sounds and can determine the tone, feel and attack of the notes,” he says. “A rounded thick tip will have a warm and full tone, whereas tips that are honed to a sharp point will have a snappy attack, but may lack bass response, depending on the thickness and shape of the tip. The tip also dictates how fat your tone is and the way a maker develops the tip is maybe the most important and unique aspect of their design."
But above all, consistency is the most important factor.
“We’ve all had days where our work is better than others, but it is essential to find out what works best and then be consistent with your processes,” Calhoun says. “Our goal is to treat every pick as if it’s as important as any other, regardless of who’s playing it. Picks made for the rockstar of the day shouldn’t be any different than the ones sold to Joe down the street. This is where you really need to take your time and be patient because it is so easy to get everything else right only to rush through the tip and take too much off. Consistency is the key to making great guitar picks.”
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Of course, Honey Picks isn’t alone in the boutique pick market.
“It reminds me a lot of the boutique pedal market back in 2010,” he explains. “At that time we knew about the major players like Boss, MXR and EHX, but there was a lot of excitement around the new boutique companies like Keeley, Wampler, JHS, Way Huge, Fulltone and Earthquaker Devices. I feel like Honey Picks is part of this new wave of boutique pick makers. And honestly, the pick community has been an absolute joy to be a part of. From the very beginning we have not only been accepted by the other pick makers, but almost everyone is encouraging and helpful in any way they can be.”
While trends come and go, Calhoun believes that Honey Picks is unique in the fact that it offers so many different shapes, sizes, thicknesses, grip styles and materials, as well as the fact that his company offers a true custom shop experience.
But at the end of the day, buyers today are faced with the same dilemma he faced more than 15 years ago — why pay more for a custom or boutique pick when multipacks of Dunlop or Fender picks are $5 or less at nearly every guitar shop in the world?
For Calhoun, the differences are obvious.
“If we compare a boutique pick to a mass produced pick, the first difference would be material choice — most mass produced picks are made from the same common materials that have been around for ages, whereas new materials are constantly being added to boutique pick maker’s catalogs. The most obvious difference between a mass produced pick and a boutique pick though, is the amount of time put into each pick. We do not use injection moldings that can produce thousands of picks at a time. Instead, each pick is made to order, by hand, one at a time. The attention to detail is second to none.”
And perhaps the most compelling point? Customer service.
“As a small boutique pick maker, we want to produce the absolute highest quality picks that are available and sell them for prices that we would pay ourselves,” Calhoun says. “But customer service is of the highest importance. I spend hours every week communicating back and forth with customers, helping them navigate this wild pick journey. We help players make decisions on what guitar pick will work best with their styles and tones and I work personally with every person who places a custom order. In truth, we want to build a loyal community of players that not only come back for our picks, but also come back for our friendship.”