Instruments that You Pluck

The ‘plucked’ string instrument that most people know is the guitar, but there’s a fantastic variety of plucked, guitar-like instruments to be found around the world. Here you can hear music played on a mandolin, which you also pluck or strum with one hand, as well as two zither-like instruments that are played with two hands: the Kantele from Finland and the Guzheng from China. 



The mandolin is a member of the lute (western) or oud (middle-eastern/north African) family. It originated in Italy in the 18th century, and its metal strings are usually plucked with a plectrum or ‘pick’. Like the guitar and lute, the mandolin has ‘frets’ that mark out each note on the fingerboard, and its back is usually rounded and bowl-shaped.

A number of classical composers have written for the mandolin, notably Antonio Vivaldi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gustav Mahler, but it is more common in traditional music cultures around the world, such as Bluegrass in the United States.

Avi Avital is an extraordinary mandolin virtuoso from Israel. Virtuoso is an Italian word for someone who is completely technically brilliant. He plays his little instrument with amazing power, commitment and flexibility – performing musical pieces by people like Vivaldi, traditional music from around the world, and brand new music written especially for him.



One of the most beautiful plucked instruments comes from Finland, the kantele. As part of the dulcimer or zither family, it consists of a number of strings stretched over a wooden body, and is plucked by both the player’s hands. Kanteles can have as few as five strings, and as many as 39, and they are a central part of Finnish traditional music culture. As you can hear in Andrew Cronshaw’s short improvisation, the 29-string kantele he is playing makes a gorgeously dreamy, bell-like sound.

Kanteles are normally played horizontal, on the lap or a table. In the photograph here, Andrew is playing a marovantele, which is his own design, made for him by Kimmo Sarja in Finland. Unlike other kanteles, it is double-sided – a feature borrowed from the Madagascan marovany (a box-type zither) – and double-strung (11 pairs of strings on each side). 



Andrew Cronshaw demonstrates here the ancient Chinese zither, the guzheng. When we say ‘ancient’, we don’t just mean a few hundred years. We mean two and half thousand years! Once upon a time, the guzheng’s strings were made of stretched silk, but now they are made of steel. A modern guzheng has 25 separate strings stretched over a long wooden box, and each string has movable bridges (like the wooden bridges on violins, though these stay fixed in position), which change the pitch. In south-east Asia, the guzheng’s equally beautiful younger cousins are the Japanese koto, the Korean gayageum and the Vietnamese đàn tranh.

British musician Andrew Cronshaw is one of those clever, lucky people who plays lots and lots of instruments – although his speciality is zither-like instruments, such as the kantele and guzheng. He is truly a ‘musician of the world’ because he plays instruments from every corner of the globe, including China and Madagascar. He has contributed to many books, including the Rough Guide to World Music.