All string instruments produce sound from one or more vibrating strings, transferred to the air by the body of the instrument (or by a pickup in the case of electronically-amplified instruments). They are usually categorized by the technique used to make the strings vibrate (or by the primary technique, in the case of instruments where more than one may apply.) The three most common techniques are plucking, bowing and striking.
Plucking (Italian: Pizzicato) is used as the sole method of playing, on instruments such as the guitar, oud, sitar, banjo and harp, either by a finger or thumb, or by some type of plectrum. This category includes the keyboard instrument the harpsichord, which formerly used feather quills (now plastic plectra) to pluck the strings.
A variant of the hammering method is found in the clavichord: a brass tangent touches the string and presses it to a hard surface, inducing vibration. This method of sound production yields a soft sound. The maneuver can also be executed with a finger on plucked and bowed instruments; guitarists refer to this technique as a hammer-on. After the invention of electric pickups guitars could be played solely by hammer-ons. Since both hands then can be used it is often called "two-handed tapping". Guitar-/bass-like instruments are being manufactured mainly for this purpose, like the Bunker Touch Guitar, the Chapman Stick, the Warr Guitar and the Megatar.
Violin-family string instrument players are also occasionally instructed to strike the string with the side of the bow, a technique called col legno. This yields a percussive sound along with the pitch of the note. A well-known use of col legno for orchestral strings is the Gustav Holst's "Mars" movement from The Planets suite.
Some string instruments have keyboards attached which are manipulated by the player, meaning they do not have to pay attention to the strings directly. The most familiar example is the piano, where the keys control the felt hammers by means of a complex mechanical action. Other string instruments with a keyboard include the clavichord (where the strings are struck by tangents), and the harpsichord (where the strings are plucked by tiny plectra).
With these keyboard instruments too, the strings are occasionally plucked or bowed by hand. Composers such as Henry Cowell wrote music which asks for the player to reach inside the piano and pluck the strings directly, or to "bow" them with bow hair wrapped around the strings, or play them by rolling the bell of a brass instrument such as a trombone on the array of strings.
Steel-stringed instruments (such as the guitar, bass, violin, etc) can be played using a magnetic field. An E-Bow is small hand-held battery-powered device which can be used to excite the strings of an electric guitar. It provides a sustained, singing tone on the string which is magnetically-vibrated.
In bowed instruments, the bow is normally placed perpendicularly to the string, at a point half way between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge. However, different bow placements can be selected to change timbre. Application of the bow close to the bridge (known as sul ponticello) produces an intense, sometimes harsh sound, which acoustically emphasizes the upper harmonics. Bowing above the fingerboard (sul tasto) produces a purer tone with less overtone strength, emphasizing the fundamental, also known as flautando, since it sounds less reedy and more flute-like.
Similar timbral distinctions are also possible with plucked string instruments by selecting an appropriate plucking point, although the difference is perhaps more subtle.
In keyboard instruments, the contact point along the string (whether this be hammer, tangent, or plectrum) is a choice made by the instrument designer. Builders use a combination of experience and acoustic theory to establish the right set of contact points.
In harpsichords, often there are two sets of strings of equal length. These "choirs" usually differ in their plucking points. One choir has a "normal" plucking point, producing a canonical harpsichord sound; the other has a plucking point close to the bridge, producing a reedier "nasal" sound rich in upper harmonics.
Modern frets are typically specially shaped metal wire set into slots in the fretboard. Early frets were cords tied around the neck, still seen on some instruments as wraps of nylon monofilament. Such frets are tied tightly enough that moving them during performance is impractical. The bridges of a koto, on the other hand, may be moved by the player, occasionally in the course of a single piece of music.
The middle Eastern string instrument the qanun, though it has many strings to give a selection of notes, is equipped with small levers called mandal that allow each course of multiple strings to be incrementally retuned "on the fly" while the instrument is being played. These levers raise or lower the pitch of the string course by a microtone, less than a half step. Similar mechanisms which change pitch by standard intervals (half-steps) are used on many modern Western harps, either directly moved by fingers (on Celtic harps) or controlled by foot pedals (on orchestral harps).
It is sometimes said that the sounding board or soundbox "amplifies" the sound of the strings. Technically speaking, no amplification occurs, because all of the energy to produce sound comes from the vibrating string. What really happens is that the sounding board of the instrument provides a larger surface area to create sound waves than that of the string. A larger vibrating surface moves more air, hence produces a louder sound.
Achieving a tonal characteristic that is effective and pleasing to the player's and listener's ear is something of an art, and the makers of string instruments often seek very high quality woods to this end, particularly spruce (chosen for its lightness, strength and flexibility) and maple (a very hard wood). Spruce is used for the sounding boards of instruments from the violin to the piano.
In the early 20th century, the Stroh violin used a diaphragm-type resonator and a metal horn to project the string sound, much like early mechanical gramophones. Its use declined beginning about 1920, as electronic amplification came into use.
Amplified string instruments can be much louder than their acoustic counterparts, which allows them to be used in relatively loud rock, blues, and jazz ensembles. Amplified instruments can also have their amplified tone modified by using electronic effects such as distortion, reverb, or wah-wah.
Bass-register string instruments such as the double bass and the electric bass are amplified with bass instrument amplifiers that are designed to reproduce low-frequency sounds. To modify the tone of amplified bass instruments, a range of electronic bass effects are available, such as distortion and chorus.