The Scheitholt may have derived from an ancient Greek instrument for theoretical education in music and physics, the so-called monochord (an oblong wooden box with only one string). Scheitholt originally referred to firewood cut into logs (Scheit = piece, chip; Holz or Low German Holt = wood). Since the 16th century, the instrument was called by that name, presumably because it had a similar shape or size. The best known description of this instrument is by Michael Praetorius in 1619. A number of regional names for the instrument exist. In northern Germany the instrument is often called 'Hummel', meaning bumble bee (a reference to the humming sound of the drone strings—the same word was also used for the bagpipe). In the Bavarian/Austrian region, the scheitholt can be traced back to the 14th century. Similar instruments are found in other parts of Northern Europe; in America, the scheitholt was probably brought to Pennsylvania by German settlers and spread into the Appalachian mountain region, where it is known today as the Appalachian dulcimer.
The original scheitholt usually consisted of a wooden soundbox about 50cm (19.7 in) long and 5cm (2 in) wide, with a simple headstock and two or three strings. Besides brass, these strings were often also made of simple materials such as animal hairs, gut or waxed linen. There is no fingerboard but there are wires which are set in the wood under the strings as frets. Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Scheitholte had three to four strings. In the further development the size of the soundbox was increased, and an independent fingerboard was glued on. From the Scheitholt with a change of form the Kratzzither or Scherrzither developed around the mid-18th century.
The Scheitholt was played similarly to the modern zither. It was placed horizontally on a table or on the player's lap, the left hand pressed the strings with a wooden stick sometimes called a 'noter', while the thumb and index finger plucked the strings either directly, or with a horn or wooden plectrum, or with a goose quill. Some strings functioned as drones.
Literature and websites
- Kulturreferat der Landeshauptstadt München (Hrsg.): Das Tiroler Raffele und die Allgäuer Scherrzither, September 1990
- Andreas Michel: Scheitholt und frühe Formen der Kratzzither(German)