Archive for the ‘Red Bear Trading’ Category

Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick


As many may know, after 35+ years of playing, I switched from my favorite picks, medium Dunlop Tortex, to Red Bear picks. Since then, my playing has really taken on a different dimension. I feel a lot more confident with my playing as these thick, natural feeling picks have made me much more accurate, and really bring out the tone of my guitars. It’s truly amazing!

But over the past weekend, my friend Adam Hernandez of Saint Guitar Company, called me up and told me about his friend Vinni Smith, creator of the V-Pick, another high-end pick. In our conversation, he shared that he had told Vinni about my site, and told him to contact me to see if I’d review his picks.

I had heard of V-Picks from people on the various forums I either lurk or participate in, and I was very curious about them, and wondered how they’d compare to my beloved Red Bears. So I beat Vinni to the punch, and contact him, at which point he said he’d send me a few to check out.

I finally got them yesterday. I guess Vinni’s idea of “sending a few” is much different than mine. I was thinking he’d send maybe three or four; instead, he sent me pretty much the spectrum of the picks he makes! What a guy!

Anyway, I was too tired to test them out last night, so I decided to try a few out at a church service I did this morning. I also took my Red Bears to do a head-to-head comparison. Just as expected, these picks had the same effect on me that the Red Bears have. When you’re playing effortlessly, and the strings chime like they’ve never chimed before, it evokes a visceral, almost primitive feeling that takes you to another dimension. That’s what playing with a great pick does for me, at least.

So considering how V-Picks also evoke the same type of emotions in me as my Red Bears, how do I rate them? Well, of course, I have to give them a 5 Tone Bones score. But if you were ask me which are better, I’m going to be completely non-committal and say that it really boils down to personal preference. To me, they both kick ass! But let me take some time to share some of my insights on how they stack up against each other:


With respect to feel in my hand, both Red Bear and V-Picks feel great. But the big difference for me is that the Red Bears feel – for lack of a better word – natural. They really do feel like natural tortoise shell. Please don’t read this as a negative with respect to a V-Pick. It also feels great. It’s just different.


For this test, I chose a similarly sized and pointed V-Pick to compare against a Red Bear Style B Heavy pick. With strumming, both picks produced gorgeous, warm and ringing tone. But I could detect a bit more highs out of the V-Pick, which made the tone sound just a tad bit more lively, while a strum with the Red Bear was much more balanced. Both tones were fantastic, though, so no clear winner in this department. However, I did also test out a couple of the really pointy V-Picks that Vinni sent to me, and whoa! These sounded awesome for picking individual strings. They also produced a very bright, almost jangly tone during strumming. Since I didn’t have anything equivalent with a Red Bear, I couldn’t make a comparison, though I imagine the response would be similar.

But here’s a very interesting thing that I found myself inadvertently doing during my little gig this morning. Depending upon the song, I’d use a different pick to elicit different sounds from my acoustic. When I wanted a really bright sound, I’d use the V-Picks pointy. When I wanted a warm, rich strum, I’d use the Red Bear. Something in the middle, I’d use a rounded V-Pick. I don’t know how practical that is with a full band, but it sure worked for me working solo, where it was just me and my acoustic.

And the winner is…

Neither or Both. Er… There is no winner. For me what it boils down to is personal preference. Both picks are awesome-sounding. And based upon my experience this morning, I’m going to start buying both kinds because of the different shades of tones I can get out each. I’ve read some lively discussions comparing these, but frankly, most of the people who contributed to these discussions had played only one kind of either. I’ve had the fortune to play a few styles of both, which explains while I’m very non-committal about declaring a clear winner; because from my point of view, there simply isn’t one with respect to feel and tone.

So I’m going to endorse both picks because they’re both great. But if you’re after advice on which to choose, then choose one based on how it feels. I love the feel of the Red Bear, maybe a tad bit better than the V-Pick. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a better pick, which is why I recommend you play both kinds and make a decision on what feels best for you. I will add that Red Bear doesn’t have a super pointy pick, so if you’re after something like that, then V-Picks is what you’re looking for!

Notice I didn’t mention anything about price. If it boiled down to that, then V-Picks wins hands-down. Most V-Picks cost $4.00, while Red Bears cost $20.00. But be aware that Red Bear picks are rough-cut, then hand shaped, so there’s lot of labor that goes into them, plus you’re dealing with a polymer made from a natural source. On the other hand, V-Picks are molded, then buffed, so the labor is a lot less.

CORRECTION: (2/11/09 )Vinni contacted me about how he makes his picks. Actually only a few are molded, the rest are cut and hand ground. So my bad…

Personally, price of the picks is one topic on this blog where I’ll say that is less important a factor in the decision-making process, which kind of goes against the grain of what GuitarGear.org is all about. The reason I’m de-emphasizing price is because on the grand scale of things, once you’ve spent a few grand on guitars and amps, whether you spend $4 or $20 on a pick is pretty inconsequential. So the decision should rest on how the pick feels and sounds to you.


The one thing that V-Picks does have over Red Bear picks, is that because the picks are made from acrylic, Vinni can offer a much greater range of thicknesses with his picks. For instance, he can go all the way down to .5mm. I have one of these and while it flexes like my Dunlop Tortex, it still beats the shit out of it. On the other hand, because of the material, Red Bear picks start at 1.0 mm. But I do have to say that I don’t know for sure if there is a lower limit. It could be there is, but perhaps there’s just not demand for picks thinner than a millimeter. Be that as it may, with either V-Picks are Red Bear, you have a variety of styles to choose from.

Another thing you might consider is durability. V-Picks are acrylic, and that is a VERY hard material. It’s tough to scratch, and from what I could tell, these picks will not wear down very quickly. Red Bear picks on the other hand, do wear down, and as they are made from a natural material, need some special care. You occasionally have to rebuff them. But frankly, it’s something I’d expect from a more expensive pick made from natural material. But if you don’t want to fuss with that kind of stuff, then V-Picks is the answer.

As a special treat, I found a video of Vinni Smith giving a lesson on YouTube. This dude is a BAD-ASS guitar player! Rock on, Vinni!

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Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

Red Bear Trading Style B Heavy Pick

Summary: Thick, meaty hand-made pick from Red Bear Trading. You might think a pick doesn’t really matter until you play one of these picks. They’re totally awesome!

Pros: Thick and tactile, this heavy pick gives you instance response as soon as you strike a string. Chords seem to ring out better. Don’t be fooled by the thickness – the beveling makes this pick glide across the strings!

Cons: None

Price: $20

Okay, I admit it, I am now a true believer in hand-made picks! I wrote a review about Red Bear picks a few weeks ago. In the article I asked, “Does a pick really make that much of a difference?” After nearly a month playing with a Style B Medium, and now a Style B Heavy, I can undeniably say that it makes all the difference in the world! In this short span of time, I’ve become a better player, and while I attribute that to quite a bit of practice, I have to attribute a lot of my recent improvements in both tone and attack to the pick I’ve been using. I don’t say this lightly: These picks have totally changed my life with respect to my guitar playing!

When you first hold one of these picks, your first reaction is: Damn! This thing is thick! And while its smooth texture kind of sticks to your skin, it absolutely glides over your strings. And because of its thickness, it produces sound much faster than conventional nylon picks that need to be before they make a sound. The sound the picks produce is also much more crisp.

For instance, playing my Ovation acoustic/electric, I’ve never heard it ring the way it rings – and it’s because of the pick. I’ve had that guitar for over 15 years now, and it quite frankly has never sounded this good! It always sounded awesome to me because of its thick tone. But when I strum it with one of these picks, it now has a gorgeous chime! F-in’ A!

At first blush, you might think that paying $20 for a pick is just way too much. But how much would you pay for good tone? We guitarists spend literally thousands on guitars and amps and racks and pedals and other accessories every year! But most of us tend to play them with inferior plectrums, never knowing what we’re missing by making a relatively small investment compared to the vast sums we spend on other gear. Sure, our standard picks are cheap, and it’s okay to lose them, but there is absolutely NOTHING that compares to the tone you can produce with a hand-made pick. And once you play with a great pick, you’ll never go back to the cheapo picks again.

To be honest and fair, Red Bear is not the only one who makes handmade picks. But Dave is the only plectrum maker who uses TortisTM, a polymer made from animal protein that looks and feels EXACTLY like tortoise shell. Dave has mastered cutting and shaping of the material, something no one else who has tried to work with it has been able to do.

What’s so special about this material? If you speak with people who have played with tortoise shell picks, they’ll tell you about how good it feels to play with one. But by the same token, to play with tortoise shell means that a sea turtle had to be sacrificed to create the pick. On the other hand, Tortis feels like real tortoise shell. In fact, when Dave first sent out his first prototypes, people told him he was full of shit when he said the picks weren’t tortoise shell! That’s how natural these feel!

As I mentioned in the previous article, Dweezil Zappa swears by these! And for good reason. The sound they produce, and how they make your playing much more precise is an absolute inspiration! For more info, and to order them, go to Red Bear Trading!

If you live in the SF Bay Area, and especially near Palo Alto, you can also get them at Gryphon Stringed Instruments.

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Red Bear Trading CompanyRunning a blog like mine is always rewarding; not just because of all the gear I get to play with but because of the incredible people I get to meet. Among them is Dave Skowron, maker of Red Bear picks and co-owner (with his wife) of Red Bear Trading company. If you read the previous article I posted today, you’d know I’m truly excited about these picks! They look and feel great, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear they’re natural tortoise shell. In fact, when Dave made his first prototypes for some friends in Nashville, they all said he was full of it when he told them they were made from a polymer made of animal protein that looks and feels just like tortoise shell. I’ve never had a tortoise shell pick, but I have felt antique stuff made of natural tortoise shell, and this stuff is close – damn close!

But whatever it’s made of, who cares? These picks are special. You wouldn’t think a guitar pick could make a difference in how you’d sound and play, but you’d be wrong. I know I was because I’m now a convert. But I’m also not any big name, so let me drop one: Dweezil Zappa swears by these picks! He shared a story with Dave about how he spent seven days a week for a year and a half woodshedding to learn his father’s songs in preparation for the “Zappa Plays Zappa” tour. He related to Dave that if he’d had been using Red Bear picks, he would’ve learned them in a few months. The point is that these picks not only make you sound better, they make you play better. I can personally attest to that! Whether you play acoustic or electric or both, you can’t go wrong with one of these picks. In fact, you can use the same pick for both types of guitars! I do.

In my excitement about Dave’s picks, I gave him a call to interview him. Funny thing, I really didn’t have to ask many questions, as Dave is a garralous and talkative guy, who’s got no problem speaking his mind. It was a real joy speaking with him. Here’s a transcript (a lot of it paraphrased) of my conversation with him:

So Dave, what’s your story? How did you get started with making picks?

I was a programmer by trade, specializing in Oracle DBA stuff, but I was also really into playing guitar. One thing led to another and I started building guitar. I made a couple, then started getting into building parts for guitar. I was hanging out on the Vintage Guitar forum before it closed, and met a bunch of other guys who were into building guitars. When that forum closed down, I started the 13th Fret web site. One of the guys that hung out there was a luthier who was looking for some tortoise shell-like material for making pick guards, and he came up with a compound that looked just like it, and he made some picks from it. The problem was that it worked great as a material pick guard, but horribly sucked as pick material. So he searched and found a company that made tortoise shell-like material that was great for picks, but horrible for pick guards, and asked if I could shape some.

It took a long time to refine my technique, but I was able to get some good results. So I sent some out to some friends I knew in Nashville for them to give them a try. They called back asking for more, and telling me I was full of shit that these picks weren’t made out of tortoise shell. I swore to ’em that they were made of a polymer made from animal protein. But the end result is Red Bear Trading Company.

How’d you come up with the name?

My dog’s name is Bear, and he has red hair, so “Red Bear.” [And here, I was thinking it was some Native American relationship!]

Without giving away your secret sauce, how are your picks constructed?

I get sheets of the material and use special laser cutters to cut the shapes, then use some precision sanding to get them to size and polish them up.

Sounds pretty involved.

Yeah. The stuff’s not easy to work with, which is why we charge the price we charge. In fact, some guy complained that the picks were way too expensive, so I sent him some of the material and told him to go ahead and try to fashion picks out of it, then tell me how much I should charge. <chuckle> He never did get any picks made…

[That really cracked me up!]

Did you have any idea that your picks would be such a hit, and that you’d get such a glowing endorsement from someone like Dweezil Zappa?

I never even thought we’d get that kind of response! It has been awesome! When we first started, as a bluegrass guy, I was really focused on the acoustic guitar flatpickers. I didn’t even think about the electric guitar community. But they found their way into that community. Mostly, it was the Nashville guys. These were players who were awesome guitarists in their own right, but they played for big names, so when you’d drop their name, people would say, “Who’s that?” I’d have to say that he played in so-and-so’s band. Then the light would go off, and they’d know who I was talking about. But when one of my picks found its way into Dweezil’s hands, and then he called me to get some more (which I didn’t believe at first when my wife said he was on the line), I knew we had made it. We’re so thankful to have his endorsement. He mentions our picks all the time. It is very cool.


Very cool indeed. Our conversation actually went on for a long time. But I thought I’d just include the best parts. Like I said, it was a joy to speak with Dave. He’s the kind of guy that you could shoot the breeze with all day and talk about pretty much anything. He’s immediately personable and warm, and isn’t afraid of cussing when necessary – in other words, he’s real people.

This kind of stuff – the relationships I get to form with folks out there is what makes me keep on going with this blog! Cheers!

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