A plectrum (plural: plectra) is a device for plucking or strumming a stringed instrument. In guitars, banjos, and similar instruments, the plectrum is a separate tool held in the player's hand. In harpsichords, the plectra form part of the mechanism of the instrument.

Plectra for guitars, etc.

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Various guitar picks

Main article: Guitar pick

A plectrum for guitars typically takes the form of a narrow isosceles triangle with rounded corners; the acutest angle is the one commonly used to pluck the string. Such a plectrum can also be called a pick (or a flatpick to distinguish it from fingerpicks). They are made of a variety of materials, including Tortoise shell and celluloid, but today plastic is the most common. The size, shape and thickness may vary considerably. Items such as small coins may successfully be used as a substitute plectrum if the need arises, and in fact Brian May (guitarist from the band Queen) has made the use of a coin part of his signature sound.

Banjo and guitar players may wear a metal or plastic thumb pick mounted on a ring, and bluegrass banjo players almost always wear metal or plastic fingerpicks on their fingertips, which guitarists may also occasionally use.

The plectra for the shamisen are large, and those used for the Arabic Oud are longer and narrower.

In general, guitarists from the Classical, Flamenco and "fingerpicking" musical traditions do not use a pick, but rather use the fingertips or fingernails on the right hand. This affords many more possibilities in the number of strings plucked simultaneously, and in the case of the Flamenco guitarist, a wide variety of strumming and percussive effects. These musicians also use nylon or gut strings on their guitars, which have a mellower sound and are more gentle on the hands. Guitarists in the Rock, Blues, Jazz and Bluegrass world tend to use a plectrum, partly because the use of steel strings tends to wear out the fingernails quickly, and also because a more focused and aggressive sound may be achieved. Many guitarists also develop the use of the plectrum and remaining right-hand fingers simultaneously, affording most of the advantages of both techniques.

Among guitar players the plectrum is sometimes referred to by the slang version of the term, plec.

Plectra for harpsichords

Upper portion of a harpsichord jack holding a plectrum
Upper portion of a harpsichord jack holding a plectrum

In a harpsichord, the plectra (one for each string) are very small, often only about a centimeter long, about 1.5 millimeters wide, and perhaps 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.

Historically, plectra were made of sturdy quills (that is, large feathers). Crow quills were considered best, followed by raven quills. In some Italian harpsichords, leather plectra were used. 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 that produced a delicate pianissimo. Of these materials, quill was by far the most common.

Modern harpsichords often substitute a more durable plastic, such as delrin or celcon, for quill; thus modern harpsichordists need not spend much of their time, as J. S. Bach did, requilling their instruments.

See also

de:Plektrum fr:Plectre hu:Pengető it:Plettro ko:피크 nl:plectrum pl:Plektron ru:Плектр


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