All About Tortoiseshell


Every once in a while you’ll run across someone claiming to have an old Stratocaster or other Fender instrument with a pickguard of real tortoiseshell, or old Fender guitar picks made of genuine tortoiseshell.

For the record, those who claim the former are mistaken. Fender has never fashioned instrument pickguards from real tortoiseshell. That’s no big secret, either—various experts and most reliable reference books and websites note that when Fender started offering “tortoiseshell” pickguards in 1959, it was indeed faux tortoiseshell made of celluloid.

There is a small chance that those who claim the latter—to have Fender guitar picks made of real tortoiseshell—might actually be correct. It’s pretty unlikely, though, because they’re rare, and there are definite qualifications, as we’ll soon see.

Let’s take a look at tortoiseshell both real and imitation, and at Fender pickguards and picks so formulated.


Real Tortoiseshell

Real tortoiseshell is naturally occurring, beautiful, brittle, expensive and, since the early 1970s, illegal in the United States and many other nations.

And it does not come from tortoises. A great manufacturing misnomer, genuine tortoiseshell comes not from the slow-moving, land-dwelling reptiles of its name, but rather from marine turtles. Specifically, most genuine tortoiseshell used down through the ages has come from plates (or scutes) on the carapaces of Atlantic hawksbill sea turtles.

The Atlantic Hawksbill sea turtle, age-old source of much of the world's "tortoiseshell" even though it's not a tortoise.
The Atlantic Hawksbill sea turtle, age-old source of much of the world’s “tortoiseshell” even though it’s not a tortoise.

Craftsmen and artisans worldwide used the substance for thousands of years as a decorative material prized for its dark translucent beauty. It was used throughout antiquity for all manner of jewelry, combs and brushes, inlay and pique work, decorative boxes and cases, medicinal remedies and much more. In modern times, it was especially popular for eyeglass and sunglass frames, combs and brushes and knitting needles (real tortoiseshell resists the buildup of static electricity), decorative work and much more including, yes, musical instrument plectrums.

Many acoustic guitarists in particular have prized genuine tortoiseshell picks for the tone they impart, their remarkable durability, their “grab” on strings and their in-hand feel. Real tortoiseshell guitar picks were in fact quite popular well into the 20th century, but their use dwindled as less-expensive celluloid guitar picks appeared around the 1920s and gained popularity, and as genuine tortoiseshell was later outlawed.

After centuries of exploitation worldwide, all marine turtle species were declared endangered in the early 1960s, including hawksbill sea turtles (which were deemed critically endangered in 1996). Consequently, worldwide commerce of genuine tortoiseshell was banned in 1973 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Hawksbill sea turtles in particular are protected in the United States under the Endangered Species Act. Nonetheless, marine turtles remain exploited in some overseas markets.

Long before the early 1970s, however, many manufacturers switched to less-expensive faux tortoiseshell made of celluloid, or had only ever used faux tortoiseshell in the first place. Fender is a good example.


Fender Faux Tortoiseshell Pickguards

As noted, Fender never used anything but faux tortoiseshell for its tortoiseshell pickguards. The real thing would’ve been most impractical as it was far too brittle, far too expensive and, in due time, quite illegal.

Fender experimented with pickguard materials throughout the 1950s. The earliest Esquire guitars had white pressed-fiberboard guards; early ’50s “Blackguard” Telecasters and the first Precision basses had black “Phenolite” pressed-fiberboard guards. Single-ply white plastic guards were adopted in 1954 with the debut of the Stratocaster. Gold anodized aluminum first appeared in 1956 on student-model Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic guitars, and was also used for the Precision Bass in 1957 and the first Jazzmaster guitars in 1958.

Fender introduced its faux tortoiseshell pickguards in 1959, and the style has been a mainstay ever since, as seen here on a 2013 Jazz Bass model.
Fender introduced its faux tortoiseshell pickguards in 1959. The style has been a mainstay ever since, as seen here on a 2013 Jazz Bass model.

Faux tortoiseshell pickguards made their first appearance in 1959, when most (but not all) Fender instruments were revised with multi-ply pickguards made of celluloid—the patented name for cellulose nitrate, the world’s first semi-synthetic plastic, which had been around for almost a century by then. Telecasters and Stratocasters received three-ply white-black-white “nitro” pickguards that year; the Precision Bass, Electric Mandolin and Jazzmaster received four-ply pickguards with a faux tortoiseshell layer atop the white, black and white layers.

Celluloid had vexing drawbacks, however—aside from being so extraordinarily flammable that few dared work with it, it was prone to shrinking, warping and cracking. Consequently, Fender switched to less temperamental plastics for its multi-ply pickguards around 1965. The faux tortoiseshell top layer of these improved pickguards, however, remained celluloid (as it does to this day), which originally presented a problem: As the celluloid faux-tortoiseshell layer inevitably tried to shrink, it would warp the non-shrinking plastic layers beneath it into a bowl shape. Fender designers of the 1960s compensated for this troublesome tendency by increasing the number of pickguard screws, which did the trick.


Fender Tortoiseshell Picks, Faux and Otherwise

One of the most popular guitar picks ever—the Fender Medium, in faux tortoiseshell with the classic D'Andrea 351 shape, which dates back at least to the early 1930s.
One of the most popular guitar picks ever—the Fender Medium, in faux tortoiseshell with the classic D’Andrea 351 shape, which dates back at least to the early 1930s.

Fender’s own brand of faux tortoiseshell guitar picks printed with its familiar script logo first appeared in 1955.

They were manufactured for Fender by the New York-based D’Andrea company in a variety of shapes and in thin, medium and heavy thicknesses. And from the very beginning, they were made of celluloid. They were never made of genuine tortoiseshell.

Obviously, however, Fender offered guitar picks before 1955. Most of them were made of celluloid (often advertised in catalogs and other materials using the trade name “Viscoloid”). Celluloid guitar picks date back to at least 1922, which is when D’Andrea started making them, although celluloid mandolin picks date back even farther—to the late 1800s. Celluloid picks bearing the faux tortoiseshell look date back at least to the early 1930s and possibly even as early as 1928, by which time D’Andrea offered dozens of different shapes and looks.

So did Fender ever offer picks made of genuine tortoiseshell?

Surprisingly, yes—in the mid 1950s, Fender did indeed sell small quantities of genuine tortoiseshell picks (clearly noted, for example, in the 1955 catalog; see photo at bottom). But not very many, not for very long, and never with the Fender logo printed on them. These picks were made by D’Andrea, and they were blank; that is, there was nothing printed on them. The small baggies or cases they came in bore the Fender logo, but the picks themselves had no printing on them.

Before 1955, Fender offered Nick Manoloff celluloid picks. Manoloff was a guitarist and music instructor who lent his name to a line of picks identical to D’Andrea’s 351 pick of the early 1930s. This was the “Nick Lucas” pick, so named for the jazz guitarist who popularized playing the instrument with a flat pick (before the 1920s, guitars were mostly played finger-style, or using wrap-around thumb and fingerpicks).

Fender countertop pick display cards from 1955 (top) and 1967 (bottom). Photo courtesy Martin Kelly.
Fender countertop pick display cards from 1955 (top) and 1967 (bottom). Photo courtesy Martin Kelly.

D’Andrea never patented the 351 or any of its other shapes, which meant that the design could be used by anyone. Many companies subsequently adopted the 351 shape, including, eventually, the young Fender corporation.

Perhaps author Will Hoover described it best in his 1995 book, Picks! The Colorful Saga of Vintage Celluloid Guitar Plectrums. Fender, Hoover wrote, parted company with Manoloff and his picks after a chance occurrence:

“Fender dropped Manoloff, so the story goes, when a top (Fender) representative arrived at an East Coast music trade show only to discover he had forgotten to bring guitar picks. The momentary crisis was alleviated when reps from the D’Andrea booth generously, and at no cost, supplied Fender with ample picks for the show. The incident supposedly led to the long relationship between Fender and D’Andrea and the beginning of the most ubiquitous guitar pick on earth, the Fender Medium, No. 351—known to guitarists everywhere as ‘the Fender pick.’”

Hoover then notes that regardless of that story’s veracity, “it’s a fact that in 1955 D’Andrea entered into an agreement to manufacture No, 351-shaped picks with the distinctive Fender logo, as well as Fender picks in various other shapes in thin, medium and heavy gauges. But it was the Fender Medium, No. 351, sometimes called the ‘sideman pick,’ that became universally recognizable.”

It’s unclear when Fender phased out the very few D’Andrea genuine tortoiseshell picks it also offered around the same time, but it’s a safe bet to assume that they didn’t last long—perhaps only a couple years, tops—given the rapidly increasing popularity of the inexpensive faux-tortoiseshell celluloid picks bearing the Fender logo.

Shop Fender pickguards here, and picks here.

Close-up detail from 1955 Fender catalog showing a selection of picks made of metal, "viscoloid" (celluloid) and, yes, "genuine tortoise shell."
Close-up detail from 1955 Fender catalog showing a selection of picks made of metal, “viscoloid” (celluloid) and the real thing—”genuine tortoise shell.”


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