You may have heard of (or even used) a guitar pick but not known it by another name: the plectrum. But what exactly is a plectrum? Is there a difference between the two?  

What Is a Plectrum?

The Latin word plectrum comes from the Greek plēktron, which means “something to strike with”—and that’s exactly what it is: a small flat object used to pluck or strum the strings of an instrument. 

Plectra (the plural of plectrum) are used to play the mandolin, guitar, bass guitar, banjo, oud, sitar, and many other stringed instruments. The main purpose of a plectrum is to protect the fingers and fingernails, as well as to produce a louder, brighter tone. 

Plectra can be made from a variety of materials, such as nylon, celluloid, wood, metal, or stone. They also come in many different shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. All of these factors affect the sound that the instrument produces when plucked with the plectrum. 

Some plectra need to be held between the player’s fingers, while others are ring-shaped, so they can be worn on the tips of the fingers. In harpsichords, there’s a separate plectrum for each string, and a mechanism allows them to be plucked every time the player presses down the corresponding key. 

guitar picks
Source: instagram
A collection of flat guitar picks via @doubledspickpage

What Is the Difference Between a Pick and a Plectrum?

Guitar plectrums are most commonly referred to as picks. If you’ve ever seen or used a thin, teardrop-shaped plectrum made of plastic, you probably know it as a pick. 

You may be wondering then—is there a difference between a plectrum and a pick? Aren’t they just the same thing?

Well, when it comes to guitar picks, yes, they’re technically the same. However, picks are just one type of plectrum. In other words, all picks are plectra, but not all plectra can be referred to as picks. 

In fact, plenty of plectra look nothing like a typical guitar pick. For one, there’s the harpsichord—its plectra are used as part of a mechanism inside the instrument. 

Here are a few more examples of plectra you may not know about: 

  • The Japanese biwa is played with a large triangle-shaped plectrum called the bachi. Unlike the guitar pick, the bachi is as big as, if not bigger than, the player’s palm. 
  • The Middle Eastern oud is played with a long flat plectrum called the risha. Traditionally, rishas were made from eagle feathers or cow horns. 
  • The sitar is played with a metal plectrum called the mezrab. It’s made from a long strand of iron bent into shape and is worn on the player’s index finger. 
guitar with sticks on it
Source: instagram
A collection of oud rishas via @yaron.naor

How to Use a Plectrum

Guitar picks are the most versatile and widely used plectra. Whether you want to play the mandolin, guitar, or banjo, you’ll be able to use the same pick. 

For this reason, for the rest of this article, we’ll focus on how to use a guitar pick.

Is It Necessary? 

If you’ve never used a pick before, you may be wondering—is it even necessary? Can you play without it? 

If you’re learning guitar or banjo, you don’t have to play with a pick. In fact, there are certain styles of playing that are celebrated for their natural, soft sound and freedom of movement. 

However, if you’d like to play or record mandolin music, you’ll almost definitely need to use a pick. This is because mandolins have double strings, which can be hard on the fingers. Plus, the instrument is quite quiet on its own, so the pick will help amplify the sound. 

Types of Guitar Picks

The two basic types of guitar picks are flat picks and finger picks (not to be confused with the term “fingerpicking”, which often refers to playing with just one’s fingers). Here’s how to use both:

Flat Picks

To use a flat pick, hold it firmly between your thumb and index finger. Practice plucking one string, first in a downward motion (starting with the pick on top of the string), then in an upward motion (starting with the pick below the string). 

You’ll be using both upward and downward strokes. You can alternate between them if you’re plucking the same string multiple times or going up and down the scale. 

Next, try strumming. Holding the pick in the same way, strum it against some or all of the strings in a downward or upward motion. Again, you’ll be alternating between the two when you play. 

Once you’ve mastered playing with a flat pick, you can also try “hybrid picking.” With this guitar technique, you can play some strings with your pick, while playing others with just your fingers. 

Finger Picks 

Finger picks are similar to flat picks, but they have a ring-like shape and can be worn on the tips of your fingers. Most players use three finger picks—on the thumb, index, and middle finger—but you can use fewer or more if you’d like. 

With finger picks, you can use the same motions you would if you were playing with just your fingers, but you get the benefit of a louder, brighter tone. 

finger picks
Source: instagram
A banjo player wearing finger picks via @steveplaysbanjo

Try Using a Plectrum

Whether you play electric guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin, or any other stringed instrument, you can amplify your sound and protect your fingers using a plectrum. Try it for yourself and see the difference it makes! 

Get Strumming Today!

Learn Guitar: The Complete Beginners Guide

Written By

Sayana Lam

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