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Typical fretless 'guitar zither'
Courtesy of Musopen

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Zither is originally a German word for a musical string instrument. Historically it has been used to describe an instrument of the cittern family, or an instrument consisting of many strings stretched across a thin, flat body - similar to a psaltery. This article describes the second variety[1][2][3]

Zithers are played by strumming or plucking the strings, either with the fingers (sometimes using a tool called a plectrum), or sounding the strings with a bow. Varieties of the instrument like the santur or cimbalom are sounded by beating the strings with specially shaped hammers. Like a guitar or lute, a zither's body serves as a sound box, but unlike them, a zither has no distinctly separate neck assembly. The number of strings varies, from one to more than fifty.

The term 'zither' organologically refers to a broad family of Eurasian and African musical instruments. The modern use most commonly refers to one of three specific instruments: the concert zither, it's variant the Alpine zither (both using a fretted fingerboard) and the fretless zither. These types of zithers are most commonly found in Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, north-western Croatia, the southern regions of Germany and alpine Europe. Fretless zithers similar to the instrument in the photograph also became popular in North America during the late 19th and early 20th century. These variants all use metal strings, similar to the cittern.


The word zither is derived through Latin cythara, which was used in this form for the title covers on many 16th and 17th century German printed manuscript books originally for the cittern - from the Greek word kithara, an instrument used in Ancient Greece. The German scholar Michael Praetorius described a small English cittern as a Klein Englisch Zitterlein in his treatise Syntagma Musicum published during the early 17th century, recording the language consonant shift. It is not fully understood how 'zitter' or 'zither' came to be applied to the instruments in this article as well as German varieties of cittern. Other types of zither also exist in Western Europe, mostly drone zithers like the scheitholt (which was mentioned by Praetorius) or hummel, these generally have their own individual regional names.

The term 'zither' may classify the entire family of stringed instruments in which the strings do not extend beyond the sounding box, including the hammered dulcimer, psaltery, Appalachian dulcimer, guqin, guzheng , tromba marina, koto, gusli, kantele, valiha, gayageum, đàn tranh, kanun, autoharp, santoor, yangqin, santur, swarmandal, and others. Pedal steel guitars, lap guitars (where the neck serves no separate function other than to extend the string length), and keyboard instruments like the clavichord, harpsichord and piano could be considered within this broader categorical use.

The word has also been used in conjunction with brand varieties of other string instruments, for example the zither banjo.

History and development[edit]

Zitherist before 1850 in Ausseerland, Styria

The earliest known surviving instrument of the zither family is a Chinese guqin [a fretless instrument], found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng dating from 433 BC.[4]

The instrument has a prominent solo in one of Johann Strauss II's most famous waltzes, "Tales from the Vienna Woods" (sometimes played on a mandolin, when a zither is not available). In Slovenia, at the end of the 19th century, they were used in small towns or villages and for concerts.

The zither went through two periods of great popularity in the United States. The first of these was in the late 19th through early 20th century, when it was greatly in vogue as a parlour instrument in many homes. During that period, a number of U.S. based instrument manufacturers, many of them founded by, or employing European (and especially German and Austrian) luthiers, were producing concert zithers. Fretless zithers were often marketed under confusing brand names like 'guitar zither', 'mandoline zither' or 'Marxophone'. The recently rediscovered recordings of the gospel singer Washington Phillips, who used two fretless instruments simultaneously have revealed what the instrument was capable of to modern musicians seeking to revive it. By the 1920's, this popularity had begun to wane, as other instruments (notably guitars) increased in popularity.

In the 1950s, interest in zithers resurfaced due in great measure to the success of the 1949 British film noir The Third Man. The soundtrack music for the film, which featured only a concert zither (no other instruments) - was performed by the Viennese musician Anton Karas. His "The Third Man Theme" was released as a single in 1949/50 and became a best-seller in the UK.[5] Following its release in the U.S. in 1950, it spent eleven weeks at number one on Billboard's U.S. Best Sellers in Stores chart from 29 April to 8 July.[6] The exposure made Karas an international star,[7] a Time magazine film preview stated that "the famous musical score by Anton Karas" would have the audience "in a dither with his zither".[8]

This new popularity lasted until well into the 1960s with many successful albums during the period from performers such as Karas, Ruth Welcome, and Shirley Abicair. German-born American Ruth Welcome released a number of very popular theme-based zither albums between 1958 and 1965 (e.g., Romantic Zither; Zither South of the Border; Zither Goes to Hollywood). Australian-born singer Shirley Abicair popularised the fretless zither when she used it for accompaniment in her TV shows, live performances and recordings in Britain in the 1950s and '60s. Zither music also featured in a Twilight Zone episode - Mr Bevis in 1960.

The bowed psaltery (or bowed dulcimer) became fashionable in the post-World War II folk music revival, while it's simple construction served as an introduction to the craft of stringed instrument manufacture for both amateur and later professional luthiers. The Appalachian dulcimer was used by the Canadian musician Joni Mitchell on many of her recordings, and also became a favourite instrument for enthusiasts to construct.

Judith Durham of 'The Seekers' used the autoharp on the group's 1965 hit recording A World of Our Own. The televised appearances introduced the instrument to a new generation of folk musicians, while the relative ease with which chords could be played soon endeared it to those looking for an alternative to more difficult instruments.

Increasing interest in so-called 'World Music' has brought wider recognition to other zither family members like the Japanese silk strung koto, the kanun and santur, more recently the valiha - a tube zither from Madagascar (with strings arranged around the circumference of a section of bamboo). The koto has been sampled and included among the available sound banks of most modern music synthesisers.

Zithers continue to be used by modern musicians from different global regions and musical genres, including new varieties of electric instruments among more traditional forms.

Liam Finn's Electric Drum Zither

Concert and Alpine zither[edit]

Concert zither, with a fretted fingerboard. This variety is a Salzburger Konzertzither

The concert zither may have from 29 to 35 strings, with 34 or 35 being most typical. These are arranged as follows: 4 or 5 fretted melody strings, placed above a guitar-like fretboard; 12 unfretted "accompaniment" strings; followed by 12 unfretted "bass" strings; a varying number of "contrabass" strings, with 5 or 6 being the most common number.

Alpine zither

The Alpine zither has 42 strings, and differs from the concert zither primarily in requiring the addition of an extension to the body of the instrument to support both tuners and the longer additional contrabass strings. Both are tuned in a similar manner, with the accompaniment and bass strings each providing a full set of 12 chromatic pitches arranged in a cycle of fifths. Contrabass strings are arranged in a descending chromatic scale. There are two popular tunings for the fretted melody strings: Munich and Vienna. The Zither Tuning Chart below, gives tuning details including pitches and octaves employed. Munich tuning is given on top, with Vienna tuning below; unfretted strings are tuned the same on both instruments.


Tuning chart for concert and Alpine zither:

Zither Tuning Chart
Fretted Accompaniment Basses Countrabasses
String 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42
Pitch A4 A4 D4 G3 C3 Eb4 Bb3 F4 C4 G3 D4 A3 E4 B3 F#3 C#4 G#3 Eb4 Bb3 F4 C4 G3 D4 A3 E4 B3 F#3 C#4 G#3 F3 E3 Eb3 D3 C#3 C3 B2 Bb2 A2 G#2 G2 F#2 F2
A4 D4 G3 G3 C3 NOTE: Unfretted string #6 is closest to fretted string #5. Concert Alpine

Playing techniques[edit]

Zitherist in Maribor, Slovenia

The zither is played by plucking the strings while it lies flat on a table (which acts as a resonator to amplify the sound), or it can be held on the lap.

Larger instruments like the koto rest on the floor. The musician varies the pitch of the string by moving the separate bridges while playing and pressing the string behind the bridge to execute ornamental pitch bending. The kanun has small pitch changing devices mounted alongside the edges of the soundboard next to the tuning pins which can be flicked to achieve the same function.

On concert and Alpine zithers the melody strings are pressed to the fingerboard ("fretted") with the fingers of the left hand, and plucked with a plectrum on the right thumb. First and second fingers of the right hand pluck the accompaniment and bass strings, and the third finger of the right hand plucks the contrabass strings (there are variants on this technique).

The fretless zither may have from 12 to 50 (or more) strings, depending on design. All the strings are played "open," in the manner of a harp. Strings on the left are arranged in groups of three or four, which form various chords; strings to the right are single melody strings. Tuning can vary widely from manufacturer to manufacturer and even from model to model, but the tuning is usually indicated on the instrument itself, in the form of a painted chart or paper chart glued under the strings.


  1. ^ "zither". Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-26. 
  2. ^ "zither". Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-26. 
  3. ^ "zither". Oxford Dictionaries Online. Oxford University Press. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-26. 
  4. ^ Stephen Jones. "Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China". Oxford Journals. 
  5. ^ Music: Zither Dither, a 28 November 1949 article from Time magazine
  6. ^ "Song title 199 - Third Man Theme". Tsort.info. 2007-10-08. Retrieved 2013-06-24. 
  7. ^ "The Third Man" DVD review, Sean Axmaker, Turner Classic Movies.
  8. ^ The Ultimate Trailer Show. HDNet, 22 September 2010.


  • "Zither" from the University of Michigan School of Information's CHICO project

External links[edit]