Tips & Tricks

What Is Pizzicato? Understanding the Common Technique

One of the common terms you will come across when learning to play the violin is “pizzicato.” You may have seen it in sheet music or heard your teacher use it during lessons. 

But what is pizzicato?

Don’t let the fancy Italian word scare you; pizzicato is a simple technique that most new violinists learn! Below, we’ll explore pizzicato in violin and offer some tips for refining your technique as a beginner.

What is pizzicato on violin?

Pizzicato (commonly called “plucking”) is a technique used to produce sound by plucking the violin strings with your fingers instead of using the bow. It comes from the Italian word pizzicare, which means “to pinch or pluck,” and you may see it abbreviated as “pizz” on sheet music. 

To play pizzicato, you simply use your right-hand index finger to pluck the string, producing a short and percussive sound. You can anchor your thumb on the corner of your violin fingerboard for stability while plucking. For left-hand pizzicato (more on this below), you’ll use your fourth and (at times) third fingers to pluck the string.

Léo Delibes’s “Pizzicati” (from the ballet “Sylvia”) is a well-known classical music piece that features pizzicato.

But pizzicato isn’t exclusive to the violin; you’ll also find it on other bowed string instruments like the cello, double bass, banjo, and even the guitar. Each instrument may have slight variations in technique, but the concept remains the same — plucking instead of bowing, resulting in a staccato (short and detached) sound.

Pizzicato vs. arco

You’ll also come across the term arco in sheet music. It’s another Italian word that simply means “with the bow” — the standard way of playing the violin

The difference between arco and pizzicato is the type of sound produced. Arco is smooth and sustained, while pizzicato is short and percussive. So, when you see “pizz” in your sheet music, it’s your cue to switch your playing technique from using the bow to plucking the strings with your fingers.

The significance and use of pizzicato in violin music

So, why use pizzicato in violin music? Isn’t bowing enough to create beautiful music on the violin? 

Pizzicato passages in violin music add variety and texture to the piece. It can give a passage a playful, light-hearted feel or create tension in more dramatic pieces. When plucking the strings, you create a different sound than when bowing, adding dynamics and texture to your playing.

Pizzicato is commonly used in orchestral performances to create a richer, layered sound that adds depth to the music. It’s also used in solo pieces, concertos, and chamber music (but these have a single passage or several notes as opposed to an entire piece in pizzicato), showcasing the violin’s versatility and the player’s skill in executing different techniques.

Notable examples of pizzicato 

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, movement 3, is an excellent example of pizzicato in classical music. The third movement, “Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato,” features continuous pizzicato notes played by the strings. The fast-paced, repeated plucking by the string players creates a playful and energetic feel, giving way to the more dramatic fourth movement.

Johann Strauss II’s “Pizzicato Polka” is another famous classical piece that includes pizzicato. The entire orchestra plays it in unison, creating a rhythmic and cheerful sound.

How to play with pizzicato on the violin

Performing pizzicato on the violin requires practice to achieve the right tone and sound. You need good finger control and coordination, particularly your index finger. Use these tips to perfect your pizzicato technique:

  • Hand positioning: Keep your right hand curved, with your thumb anchored on the edge of the fingerboard for support. Your index finger should be slightly bent, hovering over the string you want to pluck. Your remaining fingers, including your pinky, can remain curved and relaxed.
  • Plucking: Gently pluck the string with the fleshy part of your index finger (avoid using the nails). Quickly release after plucking, letting the string vibrate freely. Keep your hand relaxed and try not to tense up, which can affect the tone.
  • Achieving the right tone: Plucking too close to the bridge will produce a harsh, metallic sound. The grease on your fingers can also affect the tone and make it sound dull, along with getting sticky from the rosin on your strings. Aim to pluck closer to the fingerboard for a warmer, more resonant sound. You can experiment with plucking at different points along the open strings and see how it affects the tone.

Additional types of pizzicato techniques

Don’t limit yourself to just one type of pizzicato on the violin. As you gain more experience and confidence as a violinist, there are other variations you can explore for different tones and effects. 

Left-handed pizzicato

Left-hand pizzicato is when you use your left-hand fingers to pluck the strings. Unlike right-hand pizzicato, which uses the index finger, left-hand pizzicato uses your fourth or third finger to pluck the string. 

It’s typically used in fast passages and more advanced pieces like Paganini’s 24th Caprice. To execute left-hand pizzicato, you pluck the string by quickly pulling your finger off it in a downward motion, allowing it to vibrate and produce a sound.

Bartók Pizzicato

20th-century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók pioneered Bartók Pizzicato. It involves plucking the string violently with the index finger, creating a snap-like effect that strikes the string against the fingerboard. This produces a percussive and dramatic sound. In the second part of Bartók’s string quartet No. 4, you can hear the Bartók pizzicato in action. 

Here is how to execute it: place your index finger under the string and sharply pull it up and away from the fingerboard. The string should snap back against the fingerboard, creating a loud and abrupt sound. This requires more force and strength than traditional pizzicato, so be careful not to injure your finger.

Quasi Guitar

Quasi Guitar pizzicato mimics the sound and strumming technique of a guitar. Guitarists use their fingers or a pick to strum multiple strings simultaneously, producing a full and rich sound. You can create a similar effect on the violin by plucking multiple strings at once, typically with two or three fingers. This technique is common in contemporary rock, pop, and jazz. 

To execute Quasi Guitar pizzicato, place your index and middle fingers on the string you want to pluck (usually the D or A string) and use a flicking motion to pluck the strings simultaneously. You can also experiment using multiple fingers on different strings (like the G and D strings) to create a chord-like effect.

Tips for refining your pizzicato

When getting started on pizzicato, it’s common for the plucking to sound choppy and uneven. Your first few attempts may feel awkward and uncoordinated (due to the unnatural finger placement on the violin), but with practice, you’ll be able to play smooth and seamless pizzicato passages. Here are a few practical tips to refine your pizzicato technique:

  • For beginning violinists, the most common approach to playing pizzicato is to do so without the bow. A bow hold can be difficult to maintain while trying to pluck the strings.
  • Make a relaxed fist with your bow hand, and extend for your index finger and thumb, creating a hooked shape. This can help you achieve a more natural and effortless plucking motion.
  • Anchor your thumb on the corner of the fingerboard closest to you to maintain control and stability while plucking.
  • When plucking the string, place the finger over the fingerboard to avoid the sticky rosin on your string where the bow makes contact. 
  • Use the fleshiest part of your index finger to pluck the string to produce a warm sound. Using the nail could produce a metallic tone. 

You can watch videos of professional violinists performing pizzicato for visual reference and observe their hand positioning, finger placement, and plucking motion. Remember, practice makes perfect! So keep plucking away until you have mastered pizzicato and can effortlessly add the new skill to your violin repertoire.

Master pizzicato and more violin techniques with Trala

Pizzicato is a fundamental technique for any beginner violinist. Plucking the strings instead of using the bow produces a unique sound that adds variety and depth to your playing. Remember to experiment with different types of pizzicato, such as left-hand pizzicato, Bartók pizzicato, and Quasi Guitar, for different tones and effects. 

Trala offers beginner violin lessons led by expert teachers who will provide personalized instruction and feedback to help you master pizzicato and other essential violin techniques. 

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