Brian May: why I use a sixpence for a guitar pick

Great guitar players tread their own path and it's worth noting that two of them don't use traditional guitar picks (opens in new tab) – both Billy Gibbons (opens in new tab) and Brian May (opens in new tab)use coins. The latter has explained why in a new interview with BBC Radio you can hear above.

I used to use very bendy picks because I thought it was good for getting speed," May said. "But I gradually discovered that I wanted more and more hardness in the pick, and the more rigid it is, the more you feel what's happening at the string in your fingers.

"So in the end, I picked up a coin, and it was just perfect. That's all I needed. And I changed the way that I held the pick, sort of bending one of the fingers around, and I never went back from that point."

"It has this lovely serrated edge, and if you turn it at an angle to the strings, you get a lovely kind of splatter"

The sixpence didn't just change May's technique, the guitarist revealed the old British coin has another intrinsic quality for guitar playing. 

"The sixpence has another great advantage - it's hard enough to give you all that contact, it's also soft enough not to break your steel strings because it's made of nickel silver, or whatever.

"And it has this lovely serrated edge, and if you turn it at an angle to the strings, you get a lovely kind of splatter. So to me, the guitar is like a voice, and that splutter is one of the consonants that helps to make the guitar talk."

If you want to try it for yourself, you'll have to check sites like Ebay because the 2020 Brian May edition sixpences are currently sold out on the Queen website (opens in new tab).

In the clip above, the Queen legend also talks about the genesis of his homemade Red Special electric guitar (opens in new tab) and its specs. But what about Billy Gibbons' choice of coin plectrum?

He plays a Mexican peso coin – but it's machined into a traditional guitar pick shape.


(Image credit: Joby Sessions/Future)
More Billy Gibbons


(Image credit: Joby Sessions/Future)

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"The preference of plectrums started early on with a Fender heavy-gauge pick," Gibbons told us back in 2012 (opens in new tab). "Having gotten used to it, we found that the heavier the gauge, the preferential they turned out to be. From living in Mexico for a few years when I was a punk, I remembered they had a peso coin that was so sizable that the idea became, 'Hey, I bet we could lay a pick within the confines of the coin and maybe have a machinist bevel it down.'

"Which we did. They don't make those large-sized peso coins anymore, but we got lucky and found a sackful. Even better, we found a machinist who was set up to bevel them down to playable picks. We've been on it ever since.

"We kind of jump between the rare peso coin and a plectrum made by Jim Dunlop, who came to the rescue with Billy G pick made from a plastic-like substance that was intended for racing car windows. He stumbled upon this substance, and it was perfect for picks.

"Between the peso and Dunlop Billy G Special, I'm covered."

If you're looking to change up your tone with a new guitar pick - why not check out our buying guide with our choices of the very best guitar pick (opens in new tab) options for guitarists and bassists.   

Read more: Brian May rig tour (opens in new tab)

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar. I've currently set aside any pipe dreams of getting anywhere with my own songs and I am enjoying playing covers in function bands.