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What are Plectrum Instruments?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Plectrum instruments are instruments which are played with the assistance of a plectrum, a tool which is used to pick at or strum the strings of the instrument to produce sound. You may also hear a plectrum referred to as a “pick,” and playing as “picking.” Plectrum instruments are found in many cultures, and they produce a wide range of sounds. Many are designed to be enjoyed as solo instruments, in intimate settings where people can clearly hear the sound, although they can also be played in small groups and in concert.

There are two main types of plectrum instruments. Some are played with a handheld plectrum; the guitar is a classic example of such an instrument. The plectrum may be worn on the hand, or held between the fingers, depending on the instrument and the musician. Others have a mechanism with plectrums mounted in it; the harpsichord is an example. The piano, which has a similar mechanism, in is not a plectrum instrument, because the strings are struck, not plucked or thrummed, producing a very different type of sound.

Some examples of plectrum instruments from Europe include guitars, lutes, zithers, and mandolins. In the Americas, the banjo, an instrument developed by slaves imported from Africa, is a native plectrum instrument. Middle Easterners are familiar with the sound of the oud, while Indians enjoy the sitar. In East Asia, the shamisen and sanxian are familiar instruments included in many musical arrangements.

Picked instruments can produce a range of sounds, depending on how the user manipulates the plectrum. He or she can also adjust the vibration of the strings to generate specific desired sounds; some traditional songs, for example, call for slapping the strings of the instrument to disrupt the vibration, and some instruments can be played with a hand plectrum and the bare hands at the same time, for a more complex sound.

Many musicians start out learning plectrum instruments, because the principles are fairly simple. Some go on to develop incredible levels of skill on such instruments, while others may move on to other types of instruments, such as other string instruments and wind instruments. Instruction in plectrum instruments is offered in most regions of the world, since these instruments are popular and often very affordable; people who want to learn can try looking up “music lessons” and their region to see what comes up.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Emilski — On Jun 11, 2012

@Izzy78 - Harpsichords are really cool when you know how they work. My grandmother used to have an old harpsichord that she knew how to play. Basically, you have all the strings running away from the keys like in a piano. Instead of the keys triggering a hammer, they push up long bars that have a small piece coming off of them. This little piece is what picks the string. Because the pick coming back down would play the note again, there is a little piece of rubber or plastic or something similar that dampens the string on the way down.

You may have also noticed that most harpsichords have two sets of keys. This is because each note is repeated twice in the instrument. If you play the same note on the top and bottom keyboard, it will trigger two different strings that vibrate together. It makes the same effect as the two strings of a 12 string guitar playing. Without the two sets of strings, the harpsichord would have a unique sound, but it wouldn't be nearly as recognizable.

By Izzy78 — On Jun 11, 2012

@titans62 - Interesting question. I am pretty sure harps are generally just played with the fingers. A player may wear a thumb pick, but I'm not positive on that. I guess even though plectrum instruments are typically played with some type of picking device, the fingers would still be classified as plectrums. I wonder if there are any other instruments like that.

The thing I really found interesting here was learning that the harpsichord actually uses plectrums to vibrate the strings. I have always wondered why the sound of a harpsichord was so odd, but never really looked into it. The thing I am wondering, though, is what exactly the picks look like and how they work. It seems like there would have to be a lot of pulleys and inner workings to pick all those keys. How much work is it keeping a harpsichord in good condition?

By titans62 — On Jun 10, 2012

@TreeMan - I believe the guitar is by far the most versatile instrument in existence when you start to consider all the different varieties. Besides the electric, acoustic, and bass you mentioned, you also have all the different versions of lap and petal steel guitars as well as dobros. Once you start to add in all of the different available tunings there is really no end to the types of sounds you can make.

This isn't to say that wind instruments or pianos or even other stringed instruments like violins aren't versatile, but they are basically limited to one general timbre of sound.

Something I was wondering as I was reading this is whether or not harp instruments were played with a plectrum. I have seen a couple of them played at concerts before, but I have never been close enough to see how they are played. Also, what is the classification of stringed instruments only played with the fingers?

By TreeMan — On Jun 09, 2012

I was not aware that there were so many "exotic" instruments that weren't very common in America. I knew about the sitar, because it is a fairly common instrument, but I have never even heard of a shamisen or sanxian. What are these instruments like?

What I think is really interesting about plectrum instruments is how many different sounds there are from instruments that are built in similar ways. Just the number of different guitar styles is amazing. There is the regular acoustic guitar which has its own sound. Then you have things like electric and bass guitars. Once you get into electric guitars, you can get almost any sound you want just by manipulating the settings on the amps and other output equipment.

Speaking of that, are there any other plectrum instruments that are primarily electric?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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