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Plectrum: Wikis


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Three plectrums for use with guitar

A plectrum (or pick) is a small flat tool used to pluck or strum a stringed instrument. For guitars and similar instruments, the plectrum is a separate tool held in the player's hand. In harpsichords and other keyboard instruments, the plectra are attached to the harpsichord's jack mechanism.



The word "plectrum" is the Latinized form of the Greek πλῆκτρον (pléktron), "anything to strike with, an instrument for striking the lyre, a spear point"[1] and that from the verb πλήττω (pletto), the Attic Greek form of πλήσσω (plesso), "to hit, to strike, to smite, to sting”[2]. "Plectrum" has both a Latin-based plural, plectra (from Greek plural πλήκτρα) and a native English plural, plectrums. Plectra is used in formal writing, particularly in discussing the harpsichord as an instrument of classical music. However, plectrums is more common in ordinary speech. In vernacular speech the abbreviation pleck or "plec" (plural: plecks) is sometimes used.

Guitars and similar instruments

A plectrum for electric guitars, acoustic guitars, bass guitars and mandolins is typically a narrow, isosceles triangle made of plastic with rounded corners; the most acute angle is the one used to pluck the string. A plectrum can also be called a pick (or a flatpick to distinguish it from fingerpicks). The size, shape and width may vary considerably. Thin items such as small coins, bread clippers or broken CD's and credit cards can be used as substitute plectra. Banjo and guitar players may wear a metal or plastic thumb pick mounted on a ring, and bluegrass banjo players often wear metal or plastic fingerpicks on their fingertips. Guitarists also use fingerpicks.

Plectra for guitars are made of a variety of materials, including celluloid, metal, and rarely other exotic materials such as turtle shell, but today tortex is the most common. For other instruments in the modern day most players use plastic plectra but a variety of other materials, including wood and felt (for use with the ukulele) are common. Guitarists in the rock, blues, jazz and bluegrass genres tend to use a plectrum, partly because the use of steel strings tends to wear out the fingernails quickly, and also because using a plectrum allows for a more 'focused' and 'aggressive' sound. Many guitarists also develop the use of the plectrum and remaining right-hand fingers simultaneously, affording most of the advantages of both techniques. This technique is called "hybrid picking".

Non-Western instruments

Risha for Oud

The plectra for the Japanese biwa and shamisen can be quite large, and those used for the Arabic oud are longer and narrower, replacing the formerly used eagle feather. Plectra used for Chinese instruments such as the sanxian were formerly made of animal horn, though many players today use plastic plectra.


Upper portion of a harpsichord jack holding a plectrum

In a harpsichord, there is a separate plectrum for each string. These plectra are very small, often only about a centimeter long, about 1.5 millimeters wide, and half a millimeter thick. The plectrum is gently tapered, being narrowest at the plucking end. The top surface of the plectrum is flat and horizontal, and is held in the tongue of the jack, which permits it to pluck moving upward and pass almost silently past the string moving downward. In the 1700s and 1800s, plectra were made of sturdy feather quills, usually from crows or ravens. In Italy, some makers (including Bartolomeo Cristofori) used vulture quills.[3]. Other Italian harpsichords employed plectra of leather.[4] In late French harpsichords by the great builder Pascal Taskin, peau de buffle, a chamois-like material from the hide of the European bison, was used for plectra to produce a delicate pianissimo.[4] Modern harpsichords often substitute a more durable plastic, such as delrin or celcon, for quill. This cuts down substantially on the time that must be spent in requilling.


  1. ^ Plektron, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, at Perseus
  2. ^ Plesso, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, at Perseus
  3. ^ Jensen 1998, 85
  4. ^ a b Hubbard 1967


  • Hubbard, Frank (1967) Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Jensen, David P. (1998) "A Florentine Harpsichord: Revealing a Transitional Technology" Early Music, February issue, pp. 71–85.

See also

Simple English

Guitar picks

A plectrum or pick is a small object used to play certain types of string instruments. The plectrum is held in the hand and used to pluck a string. This makes a hard, metallic, "twangy" sound. The instruments most commonly plucked include the guitar, lute and mandolin. The strings of a harpsichord are also plucked, although the plectra in this instrument are called "jacks". They pluck the string when the player presses a key down.

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