AskDefine | Define plectrum

Dictionary Definition

plectrum n : a small thin device (of metal or plastic or ivory) used to pluck a stringed instrument [syn: pick, plectron]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative forms


From plectrum, from πλήκτρον “anything to strike with, an instrument for striking the lyre, a spear point”, from πλήσσειν “to strike, to smite, to sting”.


  1. A small piece of plastic, metal, ivory, etc for plucking the strings of a guitar, lyre, mandolin, etc.
  2. In the context of "anatomy|zoology": An anatomical part resembling a plectrum in shape.





From πλήκτρον < πλήσσειν


  1. A plectrum; tool for playing a stringed instrument.
  2. A lyre, lute.



Extensive Definition

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 or a bread clippers 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.. Other Italian harpsichords employed plectra of leather. 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.
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.
plectrum in German: Plektrum
plectrum in Estonian: Plektron
plectrum in Spanish: Plectro
plectrum in Esperanto: Plektro
plectrum in Persian: زخمه
plectrum in French: Plectre
plectrum in Korean: 피크
plectrum in Italian: Plettro
plectrum in Hebrew: מפרט
plectrum in Hungarian: Pengető
plectrum in Macedonian: Плектрум
plectrum in Dutch: Plectrum
plectrum in Polish: Plektron
plectrum in Portuguese: Palheta
plectrum in Russian: Плектр
plectrum in Simple English: Plectrum
plectrum in Finnish: Plektra
plectrum in Swedish: Plektrum
plectrum in Turkish: Mızrap
plectrum in Chinese: 撥子
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