Plectrum instruments are instruments which are played with the assistance of a plectrum, a tool which is used to pick at or strum the strings of the instrument to produce sound. You may also hear a plectrum referred to as a “pick,” and playing as “picking.” Plectrum instruments are found in many cultures, and they produce a wide range of sounds. Many are designed to be enjoyed as solo instruments, in intimate settings where people can clearly hear the sound, although they can also be played in small groups and in concert.
There are two main types of plectrum instruments. Some are played with a handheld plectrum; the guitar is a classic example of such an instrument. The plectrum may be worn on the hand, or held between the fingers, depending on the instrument and the musician. Others have a mechanism with plectrums mounted in it; the harpsichord is an example. The piano, which has a similar mechanism, in is not a plectrum instrument, because the strings are struck, not plucked or thrummed, producing a very different type of sound.
Some examples of plectrum instruments from Europe include guitars, lutes, zithers, and mandolins. In the Americas, the banjo, an instrument developed by slaves imported from Africa, is a native plectrum instrument. Middle Easterners are familiar with the sound of the oud, while Indians enjoy the sitar. In East Asia, the shamisen and sanxian are familiar instruments included in many musical arrangements.
Picked instruments can produce a range of sounds, depending on how the user manipulates the plectrum. He or she can also adjust the vibration of the strings to generate specific desired sounds; some traditional songs, for example, call for slapping the strings of the instrument to disrupt the vibration, and some instruments can be played with a hand plectrum and the bare hands at the same time, for a more complex sound.
Many musicians start out learning plectrum instruments, because the principles are fairly simple. Some go on to develop incredible levels of skill on such instruments, while others may move on to other types of instruments, such as other string instruments and wind instruments. Instruction in plectrum instruments is offered in most regions of the world, since these instruments are popular and often very affordable; people who want to learn can try looking up “music lessons” and their region to see what comes up.