Often called a pick or plec, a plectrum 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, the plectra are attached to the harpsichord's jack mechanism.

Plectrum for guitars and similar instruments

A plectrum for guitars is typically a narrow, isosceles triangle 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 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 occasionally use fingerpicks.

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 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

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.


Plectra for guitars are made of a variety of materials, including celluloid, metal, and rarely other exotic materials such as stone, but today plastic 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.

Plectrum for harpsichords

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 past, plectra were made of sturdy feather quills, usually from crows or ravens. In Italy, some makers (including Bartolomeo Cristofori) used vulture quills. [Jensen 1998, 85] . Other Italian harpsichords employed plectra of leather. [Hubbard 1967] 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. [Hubbard 1967]

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.

Usage note

"Plectrum" has both a Latin-based plural, "plectra", 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.



*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

*Guitar pick
*Hybrid picking
*List of guitarists
*String instrument

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • plectrum — 1620s, from L. plectrum, from Gk. plektron thing to strike with (pick for a lyre, cock s supr, spear point, etc.), from plek , root of plessein to strike (see PLAGUE (Cf. plague)) …   Etymology dictionary

  • Plectrum — Plec trum, n.; pl. L. {Plectra}, E. Plectrums . [L., fr. Gr. ? anything to strike with, fr.? to strike.] A small instrument of ivory, wood, metal, or quill, used in playing upon the lyre and other stringed instruments. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Plectrum — (v. gr. Plektron), ein hölzernes od. elfenbeinernes Stäbchen, womit die Saiten der Lyra u. der Phorminx angeschlagen wurden …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Plectrum — Plectrum, s. Plektron …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Plectrum — Plectrum, bei den Alten Stäbchen aus Holz oder Elfenbein, zum Spielen der Leier …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • PLECTRUM — Graece πλῆκτρον, pecten est, sive radiolus, quô citharam pulsabant, a verbo πλήςςειν, i. e. percutere. Pulsabant nempe alterâ manu, alterâ premebant nervos certis intervallis. Primus Demopoectus Sicyonius plectri officium ad solam manum… …   Hofmann J. Lexicon universale

  • plectrum — has the plural form plectrums or (in technical use) plectra …   Modern English usage

  • plectrum — ► NOUN (pl. plectrums or plectra) ▪ a thin flat piece of plastic or tortoiseshell used to pluck the strings of a guitar or similar musical instrument. ORIGIN Greek pl ktron something with which to strike , from pl ssein to strike …   English terms dictionary

  • plectrum — [plek′trän΄, plek′trən] n. pl. plectra [plek′trəplek′trəm] n. plectrums or plectra [plek′trə] [L < Gr plēktron, device for plucking the lyre < plēssein, to strike: see PLAINT] a thin piece of metal, bone, plastic, etc., used for plucking… …   English World dictionary

  • plectrum — /plek treuhm/, n., pl. plectra / treuh/, plectrums. 1. a small piece of plastic, metal, ivory, etc., for plucking the strings of a guitar, lyre, mandolin, etc. 2. Anat., Zool. an anatomical part resembling a plectrum in shape. [1620 30; < L… …   Universalium

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