Guitar Pick Hero

How one man’s quest to write a book turned became an obsession.

Will Hoover is in the middle of a story, describing one of his encounters with Arlo Guthrie. “You know he was a raconteur,” he says, his easy smile lighting up his face. Takes one to know one. Hoover, a writer, veteran reporter, musician, singer and author seems to have lived a hundred lifetimes, and has at least a thousand hugely entertaining stories to go with each.

Take the story of his 8,000-plus guitar pick collection-that is commemorated in his book, Picks! Contrary to what many may think, the book idea came before the collection.

“I wanted to write a book,” he explains. “But I wanted to write a book about a topic that no one had written about before.” It was that goal that led him to the subject of celluloid. However, there were already tomes on the subject. “So, I was left with ping pong balls and guitar picks,” he says. Noting that ping-pong balls weren’t very exciting, he settled on guitar picks-or plectra.

The first seeds for what would become his vast collection were planted at vintage pen fair held in Honolulu in the 1990s. Noting that there were some elegant choices made of plastics-in rich colors, mimicking burled woods, ivory or tortoise shell- he looked into the sources behind these vintage pens. What he found was that no matter what the manufacturer called the plastic, they were all the same: celluloid. Due to its highly flammable nature (Hoover lit one celluloid pick up, and it was ashes in mere seconds) and the fact that it was so laborious to produce, celluloid is no longer a material of choice for pens, or picks, for that matter.

Since celluloid is what launched Hoover’s search, the focus of his collection are the vintage picks, many of which are made of the material. In truth, Picks! was the impetus for many die-hard pick collectors start in on their obsession. But while many collectors consider promotional “celebrity imprint” picks (picks that are printed with a musician’s name, for instance) very valuable, Hoover begs to differ. He points out that anyone can commission a pick, and what you see may not exactly be what you get. You could say that a pick’s provenance is what intrigues him more than what’s printed on it. He singles out one pick in particular-a pick that says “Manny’s” on it. Jimi Hendrix fans know that he purchased his picks at Manny’s Music Store, and there was never a Jimi Hendrix imprinted pick while he lived. So, there’s a chance that the “Manny’s” pick once graced the fingers of the guitar hero. But, those who collect the celebrity imprint picks would prefer one emblazoned with “Jimi Hendrix” instead. Indeed, Hoover points out in his book that an Elvis celebrity imprint pick can fetch $1,000 and a Sir Paul McCartney pick is worth about $100.

Although Hoover doesn’t use picks when he’s strumming his Martin guitar, the different materials that have been used to make the perfect plectra through the ages fascinates him-tortoise shell, ivory and shell. Then, there are the various materials and designs used to innovate, such as cork, rubber, wire or simply corrugating the pick.

Personal highlights of his collection include the aforementioned “Manny’s” pick, an oblong-shaped pick with an dizzying rainbow of colors (these are called “clown vomit,” Hoover explains) and a Bob Dylan pick gleaned from a Dylan roadie.

An extremely rare Charles McNeil plectrum (it’s featured on the first page of his book) is arguably the most expensive pick in the collection, simply because no others have been found.

Research for the book took Hoover all over the country, and introduced him to a host of characters along the way. But first, he had to gather his picks. To do this, he did what any good reporter would do: he searched out sources. There wasn’t a music store in Hawai’i that he didn’t approach for their stash of picks.

“It got to the point where I’d walk in [to a store], and they’d mumble to each other, ‘There’s that guy who wants the picks,'” he recalls.

At first, he was met with skepticism. He’d point to the ubiquitous fishbowl full of random plectra that usually sat on or near the cash wrap of the store and ask them “how much for the whole bowl?” Sales clerks, managers, store owners, almost always countered with a price per pick quote. “Yes, but how much for the whole bowl?” he’d persist. The answers varied, but he paid the price. “I would have paid whatever price the quoted me,” he says with a smile.

However his book and collection wasn’t a done deal until an acquaintance brought him a box of picks that were discovered in the trunk of a vintage car. The box contained an assortment of picks of kaleidoscopic colors and sensuous curves-a few of these made the cover of his book.

Heartened with his find, Hoover made his way to the mainland to hunt down more picks and do additional research- and invariably meet more people and gather more stories. There was the lady who owned a music store in a small town who sold him a fishbowl of forgotten picks. The man who had a treasure trove of catalogs who hung up on him–at first. “I sent him a thank-you note for his time and a $50 check,” Hoover explains. “Then he sent me a 10-pound box of catalogs!”

One of the most touching experiences was the interview and impromptu tour of the D’Andrea factory that Hoover was treated to courtesy the company’s president. D’Andrea USA, founded in 1922, is the world’s most prolific pick company. After scoring an interview with Tony D’Andrea, Hoover asked him where the original dies that cast the first D’Andrea picks were.

After an extensive search throughout the company, D’Andrea found the dies in a box, and personally cut some picks for Hoover.

Once his book was complete, he donated the entire collection to the National Music Museum on the campus of the University of South Dakota ( There, an intern was assigned to catalog the “Will Hoover Guitar, Mandolin and Banjo Pick Collection.” It was only a year later, when she called him up; that he knew the collection totaled more than 8,850 plectra.

Now that the collection is preserved for posterity in the museum, Hoover doesn’t actively collect the picks anymore. Sure, he kept some special pieces of which he had duplicates, and people are kind enough to gift him with picks here and there. He is, after all the guy who put picks on the map. “It’s funny, the picks keep popping up,” he says. “I’ll open a drawer, and a pick will be there.” However, it’s clear that, for Hoover, the journey of collecting the picks and the people he met along the way are what make the collection special for Hoover.

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