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Plucked instruments

Table of contents

What are plucked instruments?

Plucked string instruments are a diverse group of

stringed instruments

in which the strings are made to vibrate directly by plucking or striking them with the fingertips or a plectrum. There are two main categories of plucked instruments, which differ in the way they produce sound.

The first group includes instruments such as




banjo and balalaika. Here the pitch is produced by shortening the strings with the fingers, with or without a fingerboard.

In the second group, which includes zithers,


and lyres, there must be at least one string for each note which is not shortened with the fingers.

The main difference between plucked and stringed instruments lies in the way the strings are made to vibrate. On plucked instruments, this is done by plucking the strings with your fingers or a pick. String instruments, on the other hand, produce sounds by bowing the strings, as with the







double bass


The distinction between plucked and keyboard

keyboard instruments

is particularly important in the orchestra. Although the second group includes unabridged strings, plucked pianos such as harpsichord, virginal and spinet are also included.


are also included. These keyboard instruments are characterized by the fact that the strings are plucked indirectly via a keyboard and a lever mechanism. Interestingly, the classification as a plucked instrument in the

Hornbostel-Sachs classification

is not a decisive classification criterion.

History of plucked instruments

The history of plucked instruments spans thousands of years and bears witness to a fascinating development of cultural forms of expression. The first forms of plucked instruments in the form of musical bows, where the strings were attached to the ends of a bow, emerged as early as the Paleolithic Age. These stick zithers, which were made from plant fibers, hair, silk or animal sinew, developed into a variety of plucked instruments that shaped the musical landscape of the most diverse cultures.

The Mesopotamians in the 4th millennium BC used the lyre as the Sumerian national instrument, which was later developed into the hand lyre. In the 3rd millennium BC, Egypt was familiar with the large bowed harp, while in Palestine the kinnor, a tragleier, was often used to accompany singing in the temple. In India, it was the vina bow harps that were used in the Vedic period right up to the 1. Zithers were played in the 2nd millennium BC, including the guqin and the pipa.

Greece in the 5th century BC produced a variety of plucked instruments, including the phorminx, the kithara, the lyre and the barbitone. In the Roman Empire, the lute, lyre, kithara and harp played a role in accompanying solo singing. In the Middle Ages, plucked instruments were increasingly used by trobadors and minstrels.

The multifaceted history of plucked instruments reflects not only technical progress, but also the cultural richness and diversity of artistic expression worldwide. From the musical bows of the Palaeolithic Age to the ornate zithers and harps of bygone eras, plucked instruments bear witness to the diversity and creativity of human musical development over the course of time.

Plucked instruments are often used to accompany songs, especially in the context of singer-songwriters, who often use a guitar to accompany their songs. The guitar also plays an important role in popular music and jazz, with the electric guitar and electric bass playing a particularly prominent role alongside the acoustic guitar. There are also various forms of plucked string orchestras in Europe and Australia, balalaika orchestras in Eastern Europe and bluegrass orchestras in North America. Plucked instruments are also used in symphony orchestras and opera. In addition to the concert harp and the harpsichord, the mandolin and the concert guitar are also occasionally used.

Another notable use of plucked instruments is in flamenco music, in which the acoustic guitar plays a leading role. The lively sounds of the guitar shape the characteristic sound of this musical genre. In various musical contexts, from solo performances to large-scale orchestrations, plucked instruments contribute to a diverse and rich soundscape.

Tone or sound production with plucked instruments

The sound of a plucked string instrument is produced by striking the strings. The strings are vibrated directly, usually with the fingertips or a plectrum. In terms of tone production, there are two basic types of plucked instruments:

Shortening the strings with your finger (with or without a fingerboard): On instruments such as the guitar, lute, mandolin, banjo and balalaika, the pitch is produced by shortening the strings with the fingers. It is played on a fingerboard that can be fretted to bring the strings to the desired pitch.

Unshortened strings: For zithers, harps and lyres, there must be at least one string for each attainable note that is not shortened with the finger. Here the strings are struck or plucked without shortening them.

There are also plucked pianos such as the harpsichord, virginal and spinet, where the strings are plucked indirectly via a keyboard and a lever mechanism. Overall, plucked instruments produce a wide range of sounds based on the principle of vibrating strings to produce tones.

List of plucked instruments

  • Chord zither
  • Balalaika
  • Banjo
  • Berimbao
  • Bouzouki
  • Harpsichord
  • Charango
  • Domra
  • Electric bass
  • Electric guitar
  • Guitar
  • Guitar lute
  • Guitarlele
  • Guzheng
  • Harp
  • Celtic harp
  • Cissar
  • Sound chair
  • Body tambourine
  • Concert harp
  • Koto
  • Lute
  • Mandola
  • Mandolin
  • Oud
  • Saz
  • Sitar
  • Spinet
  • Theorbo
  • Ukulele
  • Virginal
  • Zither


Plucked instruments