Pizzicato is a playing technique that involves plucking the strings of a string instrument. The exact technique varies somewhat depending on the type of stringed instrument.
The first known use of pizzicato in classical music is 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.
In jazz and bluegrass, and the few popular music styles which use double bass (such as 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, pizzicati are often performed with the bow being 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, so they are 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. There are some pieces in classical music which are played entirely pizzicato, including the second movement of Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony, the ninth movement of J.S. Bach's Magnificat, the "Divertissement: Pizzicati" from act 3 of the ballet Sylvia by Léo Delibes, the third movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony, and the fourth movement of Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 4. Vivaldi, in his cantata Cessate, omai cessate, in the "Ah Ch'Infelice Sempre" part, combined both pizzicato and bowed instruments to create a unique sound.
"Pizzicatto" or "Pizzi" or various forms thereof are also the names of numerous presets in music-producing programs and synthesizers, and the sound is becoming progressively more mainstream in modern hip-hop music.
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.
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 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.
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.
It is also possible to execute a pizzicato with a finger of the left hand (the hand that normally stops the strings). This allows pizzicati in places where there would not normally be time to bring the right hand from or to the bowing position. This technique is quite rarely called for, but was used as a special effect by Niccolò Paganini in the 24th Caprice from his 24 Caprices, Op. 1. Left hand pizzicato is also 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.
One can also imitate the sound of a pizzicato by striking the strings near the tip of the bow. This allows the player to produce a faster run of pizzicato-like sounds by alternating between the finger and the bow. This technique is used in Variation 9 of Caprice 24 by Paganini, and also in the latter part of Zigeunerweisen by Pablo Sarasate.
Johannes Brahms calls for slurred pizzicati in his Cello Sonata No. 2. 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.
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 sometimes known as the Bartók pizzicato (or colloquially as "slapping" or "snap pizzicato"), after one of the first composers to use it extensively. On the double bass, this style of snap pizzicato, which is called "slapping", was used in jazz since the 1920s. 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, for example.