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Typical chord (or fretless) 'guitar zither'
Courtesy of Musopen

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Zither is the name of both a class of musical stringed instruments, and of certain particular instruments within that class. The word 'zither' is a German rendering of the Latin word cithara, from which the modern word 'guitar' is also derived. Historically it has been used to describe any 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 and due to the manner of playing, a zither has no need for a distinctly separate neck assembly. The number of strings varies, from one to more than fifty.

Modern common use refers to three specific instruments: the concert zither (German: Konzertzither), its variant the Alpine zither (both using a fretted fingerboard) and the chord zither, (more recently described as a fretless zither). Concert and Alpine zithers are traditionally found in Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, north-western Croatia, the southern regions of Germany and alpine Europe. Emigration from these areas during the 19th centuries introduced the concert and Alpine zither to North and South America. Chord 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 existed in Germany, mostly drone zithers like the scheitholt (which was mentioned by Praetorius) or hummel, but these generally have their own individual regional names and may have been in use before the introduction of 'cythara' and its German derivative cognate into the lexicon.

The term 'zither' is also used by the Hornbostel-Sachs system of describing musical instruments to classify the entire family of stringed instruments in which the strings do not extend beyond the sounding box. These include examples like 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 may 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. Chord zithers were often marketed under confusing brand names like 'guitar zither' or 'mandoline zither'. The recently rediscovered recordings of the gospel singer Washington Phillips, who used two instruments simultaneously have revealed the virtuosic capability of the chord zither to modern musicians seeking to revive it. By the 1920s, this popularity had begun to wane, as other string instruments (notably guitars) increased in popularity along with the new fashion for jazz music.

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 chord 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 its structural simplicity 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, also becoming a favourite instrument for enthusiasts to construct.

Judith Durham of 'The Seekers' used an 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.

Canadian musician Jeff Healey who featured in the film thriller Road House in 1989 used a zither technique to play electric guitar. Blind from the age of one, Healey began playing when he was three with the instrument flat on his lap, left hand above the fingerboard in the same manner as a zitherist. Although he used a Fender Stratocaster guitar throughout his career, the instrument was in effect being used as an electric zither.

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 parallel with each other 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 contemporary 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 discant 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. Anton Karas and Ruth Welcome used similar instruments to the one illustrated

According to zither scholar Günter Wittenstein (who was acquainted with him); after World War II Karas performed on an instrument of larger dimensions than normal - with a 43mm standard scale length for the fingerboard strings. He used Viennese tuning, but with an altered chromatic sequence for the fingerboard and open strings. The accompaniment strings g and f# were tuned an octave higher, while contrabass strings tuned eb, f, d, e, c# replaced the regular cycle of fifths bass strings. This brought the contrabasses closer to the fingerboard, enabling them to be reached easier.

For the The Third Man Karas tuned the zither a semi-tone lower, giving a particularly distinctive tone to the contrabass strings. The resulting lower string tension also enabled Karas to perform an expressive vibrato on the fingerboard melody strings. Film director Carol Reed, (on whose oak kitchen table the music was performed on), described the sound as "gritty and dirty", perfectly reflecting the atmospheric mood of the film.

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.

Alpine zithers are tuned in a similar manner to the concert zither, with the accompaniment and bass strings each providing a full set of 12 chromatic pitches also arranged in a cycle of fifths. Contrabass strings are arranged in a descending chromatic scale. Late 19th and early 20th century versions of the instrument were often called 'harp zithers' - named after the pillar extension. The extra contrabass strings ran parallel to the other strings on these earlier instruments, the diagonal arrangement illustrated developed later to assist the right hand in reaching the strings.

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 normally 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.

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).

As an advanced technique was required to play anything more than simple tunes, the vast majority of the instruments sold never attained more than amateur or (mostly) ornamental use, Washington Phillips was a rare exception. Manufacturers attempted to simplify the instrument with various keyboard devices attached to the melody strings (Marxophone, Dolceola, Celestaphone, etc.), but the invention of the autoharp is probably the most successful adaptation. This uses bars (with mute pads attached underneath) placed across and above the strings. Springs raise any bar not in use free of the strings. Each bar has a button indicating the chord - with mutes arranged allowing the corresponding strings to vibrate freely. Simply depressing the button with one finger stops unwanted strings from sounding as the mutes under the bars come into contact with them.

The chord 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. The concept of playing is different to the previous zithers. The strings on the left are arranged in groups of three or four, which form various chords to be played by the left hand. The strings to the right are single (or pairs of) strings intended for the right hand to pick out the melody. Tuning can vary widely from manufacturer to manufacturer and even from model to model, but is usually indicated on the instrument itself, in the form of a painted or paper chart glued under the strings.

Larger instruments like the koto rest on the floor. The musician adjusts the pitch (note) of each string prior to playing moving separate bridges allocated to each string. Pressing the string behind the bridge executes 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 - raising or lowering the string pitch in a similar manner to the mechanism employed on a pedal harp.


  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.


External links[edit]

  • "Fretless Zithers" at MinerMusic.com English language site dedicated to the chord zither. The authors present arguments for the instrument to be renamed 'fretless zither'. Contains some dead links.
  • "Zither collection of the University of Leipzig" German language site with pictures of vintage instruments including bowed zithers (here called Streichzithern)
  • "Zither US" English language site based in the U.S.A.. Contains biographies of early performers and personalities associated with the history of concert and Alpine zithers, mainly in the U.S. Also contacts for resources like instrument maintenance, enthusiast clubs and events.
  • 'Zithernhistorie' German language site describing transition from drone zither to 19th century Mittenwald and Salzburg concert zither
  • Zitherseite von Werner Wölfing. German language site with photographs, history and different types of zither, links to further information and resources, zither makers and players
  • Anton Karas page by his Grandson (English version) von Werner Chudik. Contains article by Günter Wittenstein discussing the zither tuning used by Karas