Meet the Veteran marine that makes handcrafted picks from coins
I had a talk with a Marine veteran that collects coins and turns them into guitar picks, which by the way have also been used by Nine Inch Nails. Stephen Morrow not only changes the shape of the coin but also engraves on the pick various designs such as skulls, the moon landing, superheroes and well-known pop culture characters. Morrow is medically retired from the Marine Corps and suffers from traumatic brain injury. He had bad memory problems to the point he had forgotten many of his childhood friends and memories. Below is what he had to say about his work, his injuries and the plans he once had for the future.
How did you start making picks from metal & coins? Did someone else help you in the beginning?
Well, I think every guitarist has grabbed a quarter at some point when they couldn't find a pick. Billy Gibbons used a Peso for years and Brian May from Queen still uses a sixpence. I grew up working on tractors and welding a lot so working with metal and my hands have always just been something I've liked to do. I made my first pick when I was laid up from knee surgery and in the beginning, I just sat in my recliner with a file and tin snips and made them while I watched TV. I've never had anyone teach me anything about the engraving part, I just kinda fly by the seat of my pants on that.
How did you end up with “D Face” Picks?
The name was actually a reference to defacing currency, which everyone thinks is illegal. It's legal to do as long as it isn't done to defraud someone.
Are you a guitarist yourself?
I don't know if you'd call the noise I make on guitar music or not but yes, I am a guitar player. I am also a banjo player. On guitar, I play a lot of rock and metal from the '80s and '90s. Again, I'm a terrible guitarist but that's ok, I enjoy playing my terrible music. I like using a heavy pick, as heavy as I can get, and that's why I wanted to use a quarter. They tend to sound raspy if you just use a regular quarter but after I cut, file, and polish them it makes for a smooth surface on the exposed copper in the coin and sounds surprisingly good. I know a lot of resonator players like my picks, which makes sense, but if you've got a decently developed picking hand you can get a good sound regardless of what you're trying to play.
I've shoved a sharp chisel into the bone of my left index finger from slipping when I was trying to engrave a pick early on, and then shoved a graver through my palm trying to put a homemade handle on it.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of making your picks? What tools are you using?
I do as much as I can by hand. I cut them with tin snips and hand-file them to shape. I sand the edges smooth by hand and then I use a rotary tool to put on the final polish. I try to get the ball bearing smooth so they can slip off the strings without any hangup, which helps to alleviate that raspy sound. My engraved picks are all done by hand as well. I push-engrave them all rather than using a power engraver. It's just something I enjoy doing. At first, I used a rotary tool but once I taught myself how to engrave I quit using the rotary tool. Most of what I use is handmade. I can't afford the real engraving vises and power engravers so I just made my own tools. My vise is half a bowling ball sitting in a dog dish with a cheap drill press vise bolted on top. I even made my own graves for a while out of punches. It worked, but I never could get the angles perfect enough to cut smoothly. I actually lost feeling in my hand for over a month because the handles I made were way too big and I had to push really hard to get them to cut right. Now I have a proper handle and graves and some sharpening tools that let me get the proper angles and gets the graves extremely sharp. I have had zero training on engraving so most of what I've learned has just been on accident. Trial and error mainly.
How much time does it take for a pick to be completed? Is this different for each pick?
It depends on what I'm doing. When I started I was holding the quarters by hand and filing them. It'd take two hours to make one from cut to polish. I finally made a jig with a vise and bar clamp. Now I can do one in about twenty minutes. If I'm engraving one then you're looking at anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours added to that. The time depends on the amount of work involved and if it's something I'm used to doing or if it's a custom piece. I'm very primitive in my process. I hand draw whatever I'm going to engrave. I use an extra-fine felt tip pen to draw the artwork on the coin so if it's something I've never done before I have to first learn to draw it. Then I try and use the lines that are already on the quarter to support the image. Washington's ponytail becomes the nose bridge of a skull, or his head and face turn into a butterfly. On most of my work, I want someone to be able to hold the coin and see the art I've engraved along with the details of Washington. I think it makes for a more dynamic piece.
Have you ever injured yourself while making one?
Oh yeah, I've shoved a sharp chisel into the bone of my left index finger from slipping when I was trying to engrave a pick early on, and then shoved a graver through my palm trying to put a homemade handle on it. My fingers are always getting cut up on sharp shards of metal and as I've said before, I lost complete feeling in my right hand for quite a while. Now that I'm getting more knowledgeable about the process I tend to see a lot fewer injuries.
I have a traumatic brain injury. My TBI is another issue altogether. I have bad memory problems now and blank out sometimes. It used to be very bad, to the point I had forgotten many of my childhood friends and memories and lost fine control of my hands and fingers
What can you tell us about the sound of your picks? Do you get a different sound by using different coins?
I've made picks out of several different coins. I've used Irish and Canadian coins on special request and used modern dollar coins and half dollars but a regular US clad quarter seems to give me the best balance of size and sound and workability. You can get a lot of great tone out of a quarter. They do tend to produce a little tinny sound if you limp-wrist them but if you are a heavy pick user then they can give you a good heavy and warm tone and make pinch harmonics easier to do as well. I'm convinced the copper in the core of the quarter is what makes them sound so rich, and the size, being just a little smaller than a Jazz III helps with the pinch harmonics.
Also do you think your picks are perfect for a specific kind of music? Or do you make them in order to be used in many genres?
All of my picks are made the same. The sound is going to come from the player. There isn't any magic or special formula behind it, once it's been cut and polished that is. What I offer is a heavy, durable pick that's going to last and give you a rich tone. How you wish to express that tone is completely up to you.
You are a veteran making picks, was it difficult for you to start a business and what kind of problems do you have to cope with since you started?
I am medically retired from the Army. Before that, I was a US Marine. My background was infantry so my job was extremely physical and detail-oriented. I have a traumatic brain injury and problems with all of my joints now after thirteen years of beating my body up. For several years I was lost because everything I've ever done in my life has been extremely physical, but I just can't keep up with things like that anymore. Doing this lets me sit in one spot and focus on details and figure out answers to the problems I run into without beating myself up physically. If anything, being medically retired has helped as I have the time to do the work without having to worry about a major source of income. I also have a wife and three kids so being a stay-at-home parent sometimes interferes with my work or vise versa. My TBI is another issue altogether. I have bad memory problems now and blank out sometimes. It used to be very bad, to the point I had forgotten many of my childhood friends and memories and lost fine control of my hands and fingers but over the years my brain has been rewiring itself. I still have problems remembering things and regrettably, it has caused me to be late on a few projects but as long as I can fit everything into my normal workflow I can get things done. I love doing custom work for people too, but I have to kinda re-tool my mind and shift gears to work on a custom piece so it takes me longer to complete those projects and a couple has fell through the cracks on me too. I'm upfront on the time it takes me to complete them and people seem to be very understanding with it. I won't try and stretch myself too thin because it causes way too much stress on my family and forces me to take shortcuts in my work. I don't like taking shortcuts either.
Is there a specific type of artist that uses your picks?
I have sold picks to a few different artists. By far the most involved have to be the blues artist Charley Hicks. He has been a huge supporter of my picks and I'm glad for it too. He's got so much talent and I'm just happy to be a very small part of it. I've also sold to Clay Cook from the Zak Brown Band and Danny Lohner from Nine Inch Nails and he has given some of my picks to other artists.
I've spent the better part of my life seeing the worse sides of humanity and while I'm proud of my service and feel that war is a necessary evil sometimes, I'd like to spend the rest of my life making people smile. Could you stop if it were you?
You are using Instagram and an online shop in order to promote your work and sell your products. Do you think social media help small businesses/creators like yourself? Does one have to be able to spend a certain amount of money to really make a living out of his business?
Instagram has been great to me. I wouldn't be anywhere without it, but you still have to be fortunate enough to get a good exposure. I was reposted by Andrew with Stohn Guitars and if it wasn't for that I'd probably still have a dozen followers and no work to do at all. He changed my life with that single repost. It's extremely hard to build a business and you have to be able to help support other small businesses as well. It's only the right thing to do. We have become so connected today with the internet that everyone is out there trying something new and most people live the same template for life. Brand names, big box stores, Walmart, and Amazon, which I am thankful for. They serve a purpose and offer a lot of employment opportunities, but there is still a market for handmade products. We go to college and get degrees that seldom help us do what we want. Most of us end up eventually working for one of those corporations. Starter jobs like fast food stores have turned into almost a career nowadays, and people struggle everywhere just to hold on to what they have. It's hard to find a place that is accepting of individual shops and craftsmen. We accept mediocracy and mass production, which is understandable, but it comes with a price. It has killed craftsmanship and honest labor. I'm not saying it's completely a bad thing, but it's pushed the individual out of most markets. It's killing middle-class America. The internet and social media is the new corner market nowadays. We still have large corporations looming over us, but at least now we have an audience and a way to reach them. However fortunate I've been through social media it still worries me that it's going to be fleeting. That's the downside of everyone having an audience. Opinions and trends change so fast. You have to follow the migration I guess. I'm not a tech-savvy guy so I stick to things I know. Maybe in a few years, I'll have to get one of my kids to do my promotions on social media for me. However fluid the market is I still hold on to the belief that most people can appreciate a product that has had so much work and individual attention put into it. When you buy a pick, put on a guitar strap, wind new strings on your ax, or stomp on a boutique effects pedal that's hand made you know that someone has put their heart and soul into that product. It comes with its mojo, vibe or soul, whatever you want to call it, as long as the builder is competent that is. It's like picking up a vintage instrument that's been played hard. You can just feel the life it has taken on. It isn't a cookie-cutter, machine-made product, it's something different altogether. Something better than what's usually being force-fed to us.
Starter jobs like fast food stores have turned into almost a career nowadays, and people struggle everywhere just to hold on to what they have. It's hard to find a place that is accepting of individual shops and craftsmen. We accept mediocracy and mass production, which is understandable, but it comes with a price.
What are your plans for the future as a maker/businessman? Have you ever thought of stop making picks or making something else?
I like making picks and engraving, it lets me escape myself and healthily battle my demons. I also engrave motorcycle parts but the simplicity and pace of making picks suit me. Plus I collect coins as well. When I started this I used to joke with my friends that I accidentally started a business because it came on so fast and I'm just now starting to settle into what I'm doing. I get messages from people telling me how much they love my picks and making other people happy is good for my soul. I've spent the better part of my life seeing the worse sides of humanity and while I'm proud of my service and feel that war is a necessary evil sometimes, I'd like to spend the rest of my life making people smile. Could you stop if it were you?
Stephen Morrow designed and crafted various picks which are still up on his Instagram page for the people to see. His website went dark and his Instagram hasn't been updated since 2019.