Last updated
Jazz bass walking bass lines are traditionally played with pizzicato. Jazz pizzicato technique, shown above, is different from traditional pizzicato technique. Jazzbass.jpg
Jazz bass walking bass lines are traditionally played with pizzicato. Jazz pizzicato technique, shown above, is different from traditional pizzicato technique.
Middle C, pizzicato Play (help*info)
. Middle C pizz.png
Middle C, pizzicato Loudspeaker.svg Play  .

Pizzicato ( /ˌpɪtsɪˈkɑːt/ , Italian:  [pittsiˈkaːto] ; translated as "pinched", and sometimes roughly as "plucked") [1] is a playing technique that involves plucking the strings of a string instrument. The exact technique varies somewhat depending on the type of instrument:


When a string is struck or plucked, as with pizzicato, sound waves are generated that do not belong to a harmonic series as when a string is bowed. [2] This complex timbre is called inharmonicity. The inharmonicity of a string depends on its physical characteristics, such as tension, composition, diameter and length. The inharmonicity disappears when strings are bowed because the bow's stick-slip action is periodic, so it drives all of the resonances of the string at exactly harmonic ratios, even if it has to drive them slightly off their natural frequency. [3]


The first recognised use of pizzicato in classical music is found in Tobias Hume's Captain Humes Poeticall Musicke (1607), wherein he instructs the viola da gamba player to use pizzicato ('thumpe'). Another early use is found in Claudio Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (around 1638), in which the players are instructed to use two fingers of their right hand to pluck the strings. Later, in 1756, Leopold Mozart in his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule instructs the player to use the index finger of the right hand. This has remained the most usual way to execute a pizzicato, though sometimes the middle finger is used. The bow is held in the hand at the same time unless there is enough time to put it down and pick it up again between bowed passages.

Used in various styles of music

In jazz and bluegrass, and the few popular music styles which use double bass (such as French modern chanson, American psychobilly and rockabilly), pizzicato is the usual way to play the double bass. This is unusual for a violin-family instrument, because regardless whether violin-family instruments are being used in jazz (e.g., jazz violin), popular, traditional (e.g., Bluegrass fiddle) or Classical music, they are usually played with the bow for most of a performance. In classical double bass playing, pizzicato is often performed with the bow held in the hand; as such, the string is usually only plucked with a single finger. In contrast, in jazz, bluegrass, and other non-Classical styles, the player is not usually holding a bow and is therefore free to use two or three fingers to pluck the string.

In classical music, however, string instruments are most usually played with the bow, and composers give specific indications to play pizzicato where required. Pieces in classical music that are played entirely pizzicato include:

Antonio Vivaldi, in the "Ah Ch'Infelice Sempre" section of his cantata Cessate, omai cessate , combined both pizzicato and bowed instruments to create a unique sound. He also included pizzicato in the second movement of "Winter" from The Four Seasons .


In music notation, a composer will normally indicate the performer should use pizzicato with the abbreviation pizz. A return to bowing is indicated by the Italian term arco. A left hand pizzicato is usually indicated by writing a small cross above the note, and a Bartók pizzicato is often indicated by a circle with a small vertical line through the top of it above the note in question or by writing Bartók pizz at the start of the relevant passage.

In classical music, arco playing is the default assumption; as such, if a music notation part starts and no indication is given as to whether the notes are arco or pizz, the player assumes that the notes are bowed.

Bowed string instrument technique

Practical implications

If a string player has to play pizzicato for a long period of time, the performer may put down the bow. Violinists and violists may also hold the instrument in the "banjo position" (resting horizontally on the lap), and pluck the strings with the thumb of the right hand. This technique is rarely used, and usually only in movements which are pizzicato throughout. A technique similar to this, where the strings are actually strummed like a guitar, is called for in the 4th movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol (Scena e canto gitano), where the violins, violas and cellos are instructed to play pizzicato "quasi guitara", the music here consists of three- and four-note chords, which are fingered and strummed much like the instrument being imitated.

Other pizzicato techniques

Another colorful pizzicato technique used in the same Rimsky-Korsakov piece mentioned above is two-handed pizzicato, indicated by the markings m.s. and m.d. (for mano sinistra, left hand, and mano destra, right hand); here, the open E string is plucked alternately in rapid succession by the left and right hands.

The music notation for left hand pizzicato

One can also use the left hand fingers for pizzicato, either when they are not in use or as they are leaving their previous position. This allows pizzicati in places where there would not normally be time to bring the right hand from or to the bowing position. Use of left-hand pizzicato is relatively uncommon and is most often found in the violin solo repertoire; two famous examples of left-hand pizzicato are Paganini's 24th Caprice and Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen. Left hand pizzicato can also be used while bowed notes are being held, an effect appearing primarily in repertoire of the late 19th century and beyond. Examples of this technique can be found in the works of Wieniawski, Berg ( Violin Concerto ), Stravinsky ( Three Pieces for String Quartet ) and many others.

Maurice Delage calls for slurred pizzicati in the cello part of his Quatre poèmes hindous for soprano and chamber orchestra. This is achieved by playing one note, and then stopping a new note on the same string without plucking the string again. This technique (known as "hammering-on" to guitarists) is rarely used on bowed instruments.

The music notation for Bartók pizzicato

A further variation is a particularly strong pizzicato where the string is plucked vertically by snapping and rebounds off the fingerboard of the instrument. This is known as snap pizzicato or Bartók pizzicato, after one of the first composers to use it extensively (e.g. in the 4th movement of his Fourth String Quartet, 1928). Gustav Mahler famously employs this kind of pizzicato in the third movement of his Seventh Symphony, in which he provides the cellos and double basses with the footnote 'pluck so hard that the strings hit the wood' (bar 401).

On the double bass, this style of snap pizzicato, or "slapping", was used in jazz since the 1920s and later used in rockabilly. Because an unamplified double bass is generally the quietest instrument in a jazz band, many players of the 1920s and 1930s used the slap style, slapping and pulling the strings so that they make a rhythmic "slap" sound against the fingerboard. The slap style cuts through the sound of a band better than simply plucking the strings, and allowed the bass to be more easily heard on early sound recordings, as the recording equipment of that time did not favor low frequencies.

Bartók also made use of pizzicato glissandi, executed by plucking a note and then sliding the stopping finger up or down the string. This technique can be heard in his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta .

Related Research Articles

Cello Bowed string musical instrument

The cello ( CHEL-oh; plural celli or cellos) or violoncello ( VY-ə-lən-CHEL-oh; Italian pronunciation: [vjolonˈtʃɛllo]) is a bowed (and occasionally plucked) string instrument of the violin family. Its four strings are usually tuned in perfect fifths: from low to high, C2, G2, D3 and A3. The viola's four strings are each an octave higher. Music for the cello is generally written in the bass clef, with tenor clef and treble clef used for higher-range passages.

Double bass Acoustic stringed instrument of the violin family

The double bass, also known simply as the bass, is the largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra. The Double bass has a similar structure to the cello.

Violin Wooden bowed string instrument

The violin, sometimes known as a fiddle, is a wooden chordophone in the violin family. Most violins have a hollow wooden body. It is the smallest and thus highest-pitched instrument (soprano) in the family in regular use. The violin typically has four strings, usually tuned in perfect fifths with notes G3, D4, A4, E5, and is most commonly played by drawing a bow across its strings. It can also be played by plucking the strings with the fingers (pizzicato) and, in specialized cases, by striking the strings with the wooden side of the bow.


A harmonic is any member of the harmonic series. The term is employed in various disciplines, including music, physics, acoustics, electronic power transmission, radio technology, and other fields. It is typically applied to repeating signals, such as sinusoidal waves. A harmonic is a wave with a frequency that is a positive integer multiple of the frequency of the original wave, known as the fundamental frequency. The original wave is also called the 1st harmonic, the following harmonics are known as higher harmonics. As all harmonics are periodic at the fundamental frequency, the sum of harmonics is also periodic at that frequency. For example, if the fundamental frequency is 50 Hz, a common AC power supply frequency, the frequencies of the first three higher harmonics are 100 Hz, 150 Hz, 200 Hz and any addition of waves with these frequencies is periodic at 50 Hz.

An nth characteristic mode, for n > 1, will have nodes that are not vibrating. For example, the 3rd characteristic mode will have nodes at L and L, where L is the length of the string. In fact, each nth characteristic mode, for n not a multiple of 3, will not have nodes at these points. These other characteristic modes will be vibrating at the positions L and L. If the player gently touches one of these positions, then these other characteristic modes will be suppressed. The tonal harmonics from these other characteristic modes will then also be suppressed. Consequently, the tonal harmonics from the nth characteristic modes, where n is a multiple of 3, will be made relatively more prominent.

String instrument Class of musical instruments with vibrating strings

String instruments, stringed instruments, or chordophones are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when a performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner.

Slapping (music) Musical technique

Slapping and popping are ways to produce percussive sounds on a stringed instrument. It is primarily used on the double bass or bass guitar. Slapping on bass guitar involves using the edge of one's knuckle, where it is particularly bony, to quickly strike the string against the fretboard. On bass guitars, this is commonly done with the thumb, while on double bass, the edge of the hand or index finger may be used. Popping refers to pulling the string away from the fretboard and quickly releasing it so it snaps back against the fretboard. On bass guitar, the two techniques are commonly used together in alternation, though either may be used separately.

A pull-off is a stringed instrument playing and articulation technique performed by plucking or "pulling" the finger that is grasping the sounding part of a string off the fingerboard of either a fretted or unfretted instrument. This intermediate- to advanced playing technique is done using the tip of a finger or fingernail on the fretting hand. Pull-offs are done to facilitate the playing of embellishments and ornaments such as grace notes. Pull-offs may be notated in sheet music or improvised by the performer, depending on the musical style and context.


In music, inharmonicity is the degree to which the frequencies of overtones depart from whole multiples of the fundamental frequency.

The fingerboard is an important component of most stringed instruments. It is a thin, long strip of material, usually wood, that is laminated to the front of the neck of an instrument. The strings run over the fingerboard, between the nut and bridge. To play the instrument, a musician presses strings down to the fingerboard to change the vibrating length, changing the pitch. This is called stopping the strings. Depending on the instrument and the style of music, the musician may pluck, strum or bow one or more strings with the hand that is not fretting the notes. On some instruments, notes can be sounded by the fretting hand alone, such as with hammer ons, an electric guitar technique.

Extended technique Unorthodox methods of singing or of playing musical instruments

In music, extended technique is unconventional, unorthodox, or non-traditional methods of singing or of playing musical instruments employed to obtain unusual sounds or timbres.

Double stop

In music, a double stop is the technique of playing two notes simultaneously on a stringed instrument such as a violin, a viola, a cello, or a double bass. On instruments such as the Hardanger fiddle it is common and often employed. In performing a double stop, two separate strings are bowed or plucked simultaneously. Although the term itself suggests these strings are to be fingered (stopped), in practice one or both strings may be open.

Jazz bass

Jazz bass is the use of the double bass or bass guitar to improvise accompaniment ("comping") basslines and solos in a jazz or jazz fusion style. Players began using the double bass in jazz in the 1890s to supply the low-pitched walking basslines that outlined the chord progressions of the songs. From the 1920s and 1930s Swing and big band era, through 1940s Bebop and 1950s Hard Bop, to the 1960s-era "free jazz" movement, the resonant, woody sound of the double bass anchored everything from small jazz combos to large jazz big bands.

Electric upright bass

The electric upright bass (EUB) is an instrument that can perform the musical function of a double bass. It requires only a minimal or 'skeleton' body to produce sound because it uses a pickup and electronic amplifier and loudspeaker. Therefore, a large resonating structure is not required to project the sound into the air. This minimal body greatly reduces the bulk and weight of the instrument. EUBs must always be connected to an amplifier and speaker cabinet to produce an adequate audible sound. The EUB retains enough of the features of the double bass so that double bass players are able to perform on it.

Articulation is a fundamental musical parameter that determines how a single note or other discrete event is sounded. Articulations primarily structure an event's start and end, determining the length of its sound and the shape of its attack and decay. They can also modify an event's timbre, dynamics, and pitch. Musical articulation is analogous to the articulation of speech, and during the Baroque and Classical periods it was taught by comparison to oratory.

Bowed psaltery

The bowed psaltery is a type of psaltery or zither that is played with a bow. In contrast with the centuries-old plucked psaltery, the bowed psaltery appears to be a 20th-century invention.

Violin technique

Playing the violin entails holding the instrument between the jaw and the collar bone. The strings are sounded either by drawing the bow across them (arco), or by plucking them (pizzicato). The left hand regulates the sounding length of the strings by stopping them against the fingerboard with the fingers, producing different pitches.

Violin acoustics Area of study within musical acoustics

Violin acoustics is an area of study within musical acoustics concerned with how the sound of a violin is created as the result of interactions between its many parts. These acoustic qualities are similar to those of other members of the violin family, such as the viola.

String instruments are capable of producing a variety of extended technique sounds. These alternative playing techniques have been used extensively since the 20th century. Particularly famous examples of string instrument extended technique can be found in the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutosławski, George Crumb, and Helmut Lachenmann.

Piano extended techniques are those in which unorthodox or unconventional techniques are used to create the sound.

Cello technique

Playing the cello is done while seated with the instrument supported on the floor. The fingertips of the left hand stop the strings on the fingerboard to determine the pitch of the fingered note. The right hand plucks or bows the strings to sound the notes.


  1. "Pizzicato". Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 2008-02-08.
  2. Matti A. Karjalainen (1999). "Audibility of Inharmonicity in String Instrument Sounds, and Implications to Digital Sound Systems" Archived 2012-02-09 at the Wayback Machine
  3. Neville H. Fletcher (1994). "Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos in Musical Instruments" Archived 2009-10-17 at the Wayback Machine . Complexity International.