Pizzicato: Wikis


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Jazz bass walking bass lines are traditionally played with pizzicato. Jazz pizzicato technique, shown above, is different from traditional pizzicato technique.

Pizzicato (pronounced /ˌpɪtsɪˈkɑːtoʊ/, from the Italian: pizzicato, roughly translated as plucked)[1] is a playing technique that involves plucking the strings of a string instrument. The exact technique varies somewhat depending on the type of stringed instrument.

  • On bowed string instruments it is a method of playing by plucking the strings with the fingers, rather than using the bow. This produces a very different sound from bowing, short and percussive rather than sustained.
  • On a keyboard string instrument, such as the piano, pizzicato may be employed (although rarely seen) as one of the variety of techniques involving direct manipulation of the strings known collectively as "string piano".
  • On the guitar, it is a muted form of plucking, which bears an audible resemblance to pizzicato on a bowed string instrument with its relatively shorter sustain. For details of this technique, see palm mute.



The first known use of pizzicato in classical music is in Claudio Monteverdi's Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (around 1638), in which the players are instructed to use two fingers of their right hand to pluck the strings. Later, in 1756, Leopold Mozart in his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule instructs the player to use the index finger of the right hand. This has remained the most usual way to execute a pizzicato, though sometimes the middle finger is used. The bow is held in the hand at the same time unless there is enough time to put it down and pick it up again between bowed passages.

Use in various styles of music

In jazz and bluegrass, and the few popular music styles which use double bass (such as psychobilly and rockabilly), pizzicato is the usual way to play the double bass. This is unusual for a violin-family instrument, because regardless whether violin-family instruments are being used in jazz (e.g., jazz violin), popular, traditional (e.g., Bluegrass fiddle) or Classical music, they are usually played with the bow for most of a performance. In Classical double bass playing, pizzicati are often performed with the bow being held in the hand; as such, the string is usually only plucked with a single finger. In contrast, in jazz, bluegrass, and other non-Classical styles, the player is not usually holding a bow, so they are free to use two or three fingers to pluck the string.

In classical music, however, string instruments are most usually played with the bow, and composers give specific indications to play pizzicato where required. Pieces in classical music that are played entirely pizzicato include:

Antonio Vivaldi, in the "Ah Ch'Infelice Sempre" section of his cantata Cessate, omai cessate, combined both pizzicato and bowed instruments to create a unique sound. He also included pizzicato in the second movement of "Winter" from The Four Seasons.

"Pizzicatto" or "Pizzi" or various forms thereof are also the names of numerous presets in music-producing programs and synthesizers, and the sound is becoming progressively more mainstream in modern hip-hop music.


In music notation, a composer will normally indicate the performer should use pizzicato with the abbreviation pizz. A return to bowing is indicated by the Italian term arco. A left hand pizzicato is usually indicated by writing a small cross above the note, and a Bartók pizzicato is often indicated by a circle with a small vertical line through the top of it above the note in question or by writing Bartók pizz. at the start of the relevant passage.

Bowed string instrument technique

Practical implications

If a string player has to play pizzicato for a long period of time, the performer may put down the bow. Violinists and violists may also hold the instrument in the "banjo position" (resting horizontally on the lap), and pluck the strings with the thumb of the right hand. This technique is rarely used, and usually only in movements which are pizzicato throughout. A technique similar to this, where the strings are actually strummed like a guitar, is called for in the 4th movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol (Scena e canto gitano), where the violins and cellos are instructed to play pizzicato "quasi guitara"; the music here consists of three- and four-note chords, which are fingered and strummed much like the instrument being imitated.

Other pizzicato techniques

Another colorful pizzicato technique used in the same Rimsky-Korsakov piece mentioned above is two-handed pizzicato, indicated by the markings m.s. and m.d. (for mano sinistra, left hand, and mano destra, right hand); here, the open E string is plucked alternately in rapid succession by the left and right hands.

One can also use the left hand fingers for pizzicato, either when they are not in use or as they are leaving their previous position. This allows pizzicati in places where there would not normally be time to bring the right hand from or to the bowing position. Use of left-hand pizzicato is relatively uncommon and is most often found in the violin solo repertoire; two famous examples of left-hand pizzicato are Paganini's 24th Caprice and Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen. Left hand pizzicato can also be used while bowed notes are being held, an effect appearing primarily in repertoire of the late 19th century and beyond. Examples of this technique can be found in the works of Wieniawski, Berg (Violin Concerto), Stravinsky (Three Pieces for String Quartet) and many others.

Maurice Delage calls for slurred pizzicati in the cello part of his Quatre poèmes hindous for soprano and chamber orchestra . This is achieved by playing one note, and then stopping a new note on the same string without plucking the string again. This technique (known as "hammering-on" to guitarists) is rarely used on bowed instruments.

A further variation is a particularly strong pizzicato where the string is plucked vertically by snapping and rebounds off the fingerboard of the instrument. This is sometimes known as the Bartók pizzicato (or colloquially as "slapping" or "snap pizzicato"), after one of the first composers to use it extensively. Gustav Mahler famously employs a Bartok pizzicato in the third movement of his Seventh Symphony, in which he provides the violins with the footnote 'pluck so hard that the strings hit the wood'. On the double bass, this style of snap pizzicato, which is called "slapping", was used in jazz since the 1920s. Because an unamplified double bass is generally the quietest instrument in a jazz band, many players of the 1920s and 1930s used the slap style, slapping and pulling the strings so that they make a rhythmic "slap" sound against the fingerboard. The slap style cuts through the sound of a band better than simply plucking the strings, and allowed the bass to be more easily heard on early sound recordings, as the recording equipment of that time did not favor low frequencies.

Bartók also made use of pizzicato glissandi, executed by plucking a note and then sliding the stopping finger up or down the string. This technique can be heard in his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.


  1. ^ "Pizzicato". Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?dict=CALD&key=60336&ph=on. Retrieved 2008-02-08.  

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Simple English

Pizzicato means: playing a string instrument by plucking the strings (pulling a string with the finger and letting go quickly). Instruments such as the violin, viola, cello and double bass are normally played with a bow, but if the composer wants the player to pluck instead of bow, the word “pizzicato” or just “pizz” is written in the music. When the player has to play with the bow again the word “arco” is written in the music (“arco” is the Italian word for “bow”).


How to play pizzicato

When instruments of the violin family are played pizzicato the player usually plucks the string with the index finger (pointing finger) of the right hand somewhere over the fingerboard. Bassists typically use the index and middle finger. Sometimes the player may rest the thumb on the edge of the fingerboard to keep the hand steady. Sometimes more fingers can be used for particularly fast pizzicato sections. Cellists and double bass players can use the thumb for plucking, especially for playing chords.

It is also possible to play pizzicato with the left hand (the hand which is normally doing the fingering). It is not difficult to pluck an open string with the left hand. Stopped strings are harder, and the brilliant violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini wrote some virtuoso pieces with extremely difficult left hand pizzicato.

Very occasionally violinists may be asked to pluck their instruments holding them down in their laps. This is normally when they are deliberately imitating a guitar.

Changing from pizzicato to arco

Very often players have to change very quickly from bowing to plucking and back again. It is easy to play a bowed note and then immediately a plucked note if the bowed note finished near the heel of the bow (the end where the bow is held). If the bowed note finishes near the tip the player needs a moment to get the hand ready to pluck. It can take a little more time to go back to bowing again because the player has to get the bow back into playing position.

If there is a long pizzicato section then it is more comfortable to put the bow down instead of holding it in the right hand all the time. This is fine so long as the player has time to pick the bow up again when it goes back to arco.

The sound of pizzicato

Pizzicato notes sound short and detached (staccato). The player can get different sounds by plucking in different parts of the string. High notes sound very short and dry. Pizzicato notes on the double bass sound much more resonant (big and boomy). Double basses often play pizzicato to give extra rhythmic and harmonic support. For example: in a waltz the cellos and violas might be accompanying the tune with an “um-cha-cha, um-cha-cha” while the double basses just pluck on the “um” (the first beat of the bar). Double basses usually play pizzicato when playing with jazz groups.

One special effect can be made by pulling the string hard and letting it go so that it snaps against the fingerboard. Bartók used this effect several times. This is not the same as jazz bass players who slap the strings at the end of a note (“slap bass”).

Pizzicato in music history

In orchestras composers used pizzicato in the 17th century. Monteverdi used it in his opera Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. In the 19th century the Romantic composers often asked for pizzicato. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no 4 has a whole scherzo movement for pizzicato strings. Johann Strauss wrote a Pizzicato Polka and in the 20th century Britten wrote a whole movement for pizzicato strings in his Simple Symphony.

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