Zithers as a family were small, flat instruments designed to be played either resting on the players lap or on a table-top.* Their front aspect included a lot of different shapes which varied in size from small designs that would fit within a one foot square, to instruments that were as much as a foot and a half wide and slightly more that two feet long. (There is a half-bowed, half-plucked variety that is nearly three feet long though only some eight inches wide.)
*Some had feet that contained a small, sharp spike on the bottom which kept the instrument from sliding around on the table-top and increased the connection to the table as a soundboard thereby making the instrument a little louder. Tables in those days must have been assumed to be of rough and crude workmanship!
The most common shape was vaguely a 4:5 rectangle seated on it's narrow end, with the top right corner removed by a diagonal cut that took away one half of the top width and half of the right side height. Despite that generality zither shapes varied through triangles, trapezoids, long rectangles, harps, and even to crescent moons.
Seen from the side, as a general rule they are relatively shallow, ranging from one to two inches thick, and relatively crudely constructed, both for reasons of market cost and as well for the mechanical strength needed to withstand the tension of up to forty strings.
It is the author's opinion that the earliest instruments to represent this family came into being simply because the low, flat, rugged shape was simple and cheap to make. It required no great wood-working skills. Anyone could manage a picture frame with two opposite sides thicker than the other two, which was then enclosed to become a hollow box by simply gluing a flat sheet of wood on the front and back surfaces. There were no warped faces, no internal bracing and no sound posts. It did not even require any great quality in the selection or finishing of the woods involved. The one requirement was (is) that the fattest frame member be of a fairly hard wood in order for the tuning pegs to stick tightly and the instrument to stay in tune.
The Psaltery fits the above description and shows up well before the Bible. The Plucked Psaltery is still in production, usually as a child's first instrument. The string diameter and tension were kept constant and the notes of the scale were accomplished by varying the string length alone which often gave the box a trapezoidal face.
The bow came into being quite early in history. Scraping a dry, sticky thread across a tight musical string produced two obvious benefits. One was volume - the sound produced could easily be made louder then mere plucking. The other was sustaining the musical note produced - for as long as the player could keep the bow in motion.
The Bowed Psaltery is also still being made although as a specialty instrument for those who love things medieval. The physical design only required a little subtlety to allow the bow to rub only one string at a time (if desired.) The best known solution was to alternate the strings down both sides of a long triangle, starting from the longest string going from the tip of the triangle to the center of its' base. The subtlety lay in having the end pins uniformly higher than the bridge which has the affect of producing a slight downward dip in the plane in which the strings lie. By merit of this trick a bow, laid across the plane, can only touch the two outermost strings (and none of the strings in between.)
The Lyre was also an early member of this group. It was basically a hand-held harp. The common shape was a crescent box with its' tips extended upwards like horns to support a cross-piece to which the top of the strings were attached. It seems to be the first of these instruments to produce different notes by varying the tension or the diameter of the string.
The time period covered here runs from the seventeen hundreds to the present day with the really interesting "numerical instruments" period starting in the early eighteen hundreds and finally dwindling out with the great depression in this country in 1929. Essentially every European country has some type of zither in its' musical repertoire or its' early musical history, and the variety of tunings, shapes and appointments is astonishing. For that reason I am not out to detail specific instruments here except as they are representative of the evolution of the family.
Early on there appeared zithers in which groups of four strings were set aside as a pre-tuned chord. These were usually offered with four to six such chords and two octaves of melody strings without the "black keys" (the sharps and flats of a fully chromatic scale.) In the most common pattern, three of the chords formed a key group such as C - G - F, and a D minor. This allowed playing tunes in one major and one minor key. Occasionally, if the tune had any subtlety to it, you were forced to fudge around a missing sharp note in the melody. The result of this was that these instruments were very limited musically and never got much serious talent attention or use in public performance.
It is worth notice that there were several zithers made that had only chords (no melody strings). Such a zither might be used to accompany a singer but I take this as evidence that somewhere in this history there were zither groups (like the harmonica bands) that made up for the limitations of the instrument by using a collection of instruments tuned to different keys. Another possibility is that the chording zither was intended to be played together with a truly chromatic instrument without chords at all, though I have never seen such a zither.
I have one chording zither in my collection that is bowed! It makes a very interesting variant with plucked melody against a bowed harmony. It has the standard four chords of the numerical instruments but it does not fit into the standard physical pattern for zithers. Imagine a square coke bottle with one four-string chord group from the standard 15-4 zither pattern on each face! Stranger still it has a small sound knob on the center bottom and a handle on the top so that a standing player can place it on the table in front of himself and spin the instrument to make the chord he desires available to the bow! I am told that "Grandpa Jones" used to play this particular instrument in his frequent appearances on the Grand Old Opry radio show.
Serious creativity in zither design seems to first show up in Bavaria in the early seventeen hundreds when someone combined the fretted neck of the lute family and the bass string arrangement of a small harp into the format of the zither. The fretted finger-board was placed up along the long left side of the box and contained five strings on which the melody and some near harmony could be chorded. The harp portion consisted of 27 to 32 bass strings. It is played with the fingerboard on the side nearest the player. The fret board is chorded with the left hand and plucked with the thumb of the right hand. This leaves the fingers of the right hand free to reach the bass strings of the harp.
This pattern is called the Bavarian Zither or the Fretted Zither and is almost the only zither that has any true musical versatility. It can be played in any key, major or minor, and all possible chords. A good example of its' music is the theme music for the movie "The Third Man".
There is also a beautiful Ukranian variant of this pattern called the Bandoura. The body is basically round with the neck/fingerboard rising tangentially from the edge of the body. The fingerboard is fretless and contains twelve strings. The harp another twenty-five.
Perhaps the most colorful and prolific period in the history of Zithers came predominately in this country. The thirty or so years preceding the American Civil War were a time of very chaste moral standards and very strict rules of social behavior; particularly with regards to "proper" young ladies. All young women aspired to be considered Proper which required that her honor and her virtue be spotless. In addition a proper young lady did not work. More than merely not pursuing a job, she should never appear to labor at all. However, her leisure must never be idle! She had to have demonstrable skills in the womanly arts.
These arts included homemaking skills, but the connection to our train of thought was that her skill set absolutely had to include some musical skill, whether or not she had any innate ability in this field! A proper young lady had to be able to entertain family guests or suitors with her music. This created a market for simple musical instruments that could be learned easily and played without the need for serious musical skills.
Creative inventors came up with dozens of modifications on the old zither pattern. The instruments all had labels under the strings that told the user how to tune them and which chord to strike. On Some instruments each individual tuning peg was labeled. On a label near the bridge the strings were numbered and shown in their place in the staff. Many came with sheet music shaped to fit under the strings which showed the player which strings to pluck simply by following a line and plucking the string that the next dot showed up under. There were no staffs or keys or timing marks, just follow the dots. Most of this manufacture seems to have sprung up in the American north-east although I do have one made by the Menzenhaur Guitar Zither company of Sherman, Texas.
These simple zithers became such a popular success that they became known as a family as "Numbered Instruments" and erudite books were written about their use. Godie's Ladies Book (the leading ladies periodical of the day and the Bible for the definition of "Proper"), wrote articles about Parlor Performances and published lovely sketches of young ladies with impossibly tiny waists and floor length skirts holding a room full of guests enthralled with the crystal clarity of their voices or the exquisite delicacy of their playing!
For those that could not manage to pluck more than one string at a time, the Chartola Company of Jersey City, New Jersey produced a zither that featured small, spring loaded hammers that were lifted by the left thumb. The player allowed her thumb to slip off the tip of the lifter and the falling hammer struck all four strings of a chord at once for you. If you wanted to alternate patterns (like the Um-Pa-Pa of the waltz rythm) you were on your own!
Another solution for the chord problem was a European manufactured zither promoted by "The Pianoette Advertising Co." (with offices in Chicago and San Francisco). This design involved a set of twelve bass strings and four thumb - and -forefinger lifted hammers that had multiple heads arranged so that dropping a hammer struck only those of the group that were needed for that particular chord. This produced fuller richer chords that the standard four-string pattern.
Yet another attempt at the chord problem was a zither produced by the famous Oscar Schmidt Co. which had twenty-two melody strings. This is an odd number so I am not sure how it was tuned, but hovering over the lower two-thirds of the string set was a series of seven hammer bars with hard felts alligned to strike only the strings needed for that particular chord. Along the long edge of the instrument are seven levers that will cause their chord bar to strike. The obvious advantage is that the chords have more than four notes in them giving them a richer sound. I have never played one of these and have no idea how practical the device was.
For those who had trouble plucking the melody strings one company offered a zither with a plucking device suspended over the melody strings with numbered buttons on it. The player pressed the button with a finger (right hand) and with her thumb drew the board to the side plucking the string with a quill not unlike that of the harpsichord (an early plucked predecessor to the piano.) A sprint returned the board to its starting position. I have tried this device and found it much more awkward than simply plucking the strings directly, but then who am I? While it tried to help the player with plucking the melody, you were on your own with plucking the chords.
Another attempt to solve the melody problem was made by the Marx company who offered a zither called the "Marxophone" which featured a series of small spring-shafted hammers mounted across the base of the instrument that could be pressed down (abruptly) to strike single melody strings. These played somewhatly like a tiny piano without any black keys. Again, each key was numbered and labeled on the cover over the hammers.
For the record the Oscar Schmidt Company (still in business today making autoharps) also produced a similar instrument with a small round-button keyboard mounted above the bottom end of the melody strings. On this zither (sold under the name "The Mandolin Guitarophone") the chord string-groups were set diagonally across and above the melody strings so that the latter could be spread across the entire width of the instrument allowing for a more comfortable spacing of the keyboard buttons.
For the terminally inept I have seen an example of one zither that had a sort of music box mechanism inside it which could be wound up and which would pluck the tune for you! Are we to believe that the "performer" was supposed to sit with it and pretend to be playing it? Of course it could only play one tune (at least on its own). The only example I could find has only eight strings which further limits its' capabilities.
A much more unabashed attempt to help the musically inept was a very nice 25-6 zither produced by the Triola Company. The chords allowed for two major and two minor keys and the harp portion was fully chromatic for two octaves. But the selling feature of this instrument was a complete (if small) player mechanism with a miniature paper roll similar to the player pianos of the day. A variety of tunes were available and the player turned a hand crank to produce fairly elaborate melodies. Musicly his only contribution was plucking the appropriate bass chords. The bar across the chord section was apparently a stabilizing rest for the heel of the player's left hand.
While there is humor in reviewing these designs, there was also a lot of happy creativity applied to zither designs that did require some skill and practice on the part of the performer. Early on there was a popular pattern that used the same 31 strings (four chords of four strings each, plus two octaves in the form of fifteen melody strings.) The chord strings lay in a parallel group while the melody strings were brought to the edge of the box in such a way that they could be bowed like the ancient Psaltry. The combination of sustained, bowed melody notes and plucked chords is very successful and pleasing to the ear.
Another interesting zither employed the same sixteen strings of the chord group but used only a single melody string. Mounted on the frame of the instrument was a mechanical arm holding a steel roller and a plectrum. The player moved this combination up and down the melody string like the 'bar' of a slide guitar. This produced music with plucked chords and a Hawaiian quality to the tunes. The one I have was manufactured in Europe somewhere and marketed in America under the name "Tremola" by the Manufacturers Advertising Company of Jersey City.
Zithers are not very loud. There was not much that could be done about it but there were several models offered double stringing to increase the volume. Both strings in each pair were tuned to the same note so that it was played just as though there were only single strings involved. The idea seems to have come from the stringing pattern of the mandolin and these zithers often were sold with fanciful names like "Concert Mando-Harp", and the Concert Mandolin Zither, and the Mando-Zither.
While we are talking about volume it is interesting to note that the recording industry was also in its' infancy during this time and one of its' problems was that microphones were not very sensitive. They had a hard time making recordings of quiet instruments. Electronic amplification was not here yet so inventors tried to make the instruments louder. There is a zither of the Bavarian pattern in my family which has a separate recording horn built across the top allowing the strings to directly vibrate a wooden megaphone so that a microphone, placed in the end opening would get clear focused sound of adequate volume for the needs of the day. For the fun of it look up a Stroh Violin.
In an effort to make these non-Bavarian zithers more versatile there was one offered that had five chord groups (20 strings) and two fully chromatic octaves of melody strings (25 more strings). This was a big instrument as zithers went and that also gave it a little more volume and tonal richness but serious musicians were only interested in the Bavarian pattern and the big market was in the simpler form of the 'numbered instruments so this zither never became popular. Also it is difficult to play because the "black key" strings are not visually different.
One other odd and interesting zither comes from India and Pakistan and is known as a Bul Bul. It is a long rectangle held across in front of the player. It has two (and sometimes three) melody strings that are stopped down their length by a set of old fashion typewriter keys for two fully chromatic octaves. In addition to this there are two or three drone bass strings. The whole set of strings is bowed or plucked simultaneously producing a tinny music which has connections (drones) to the music of the bagpipe or the Hurdy Gurdy.
There is one other member of the zither family which is fascinating for several reasons. That is the instrument now known as the autoharp (although it has also been known as a stopped zither, and a autochord). Looked at from the point of its basic construction it has all the defining characteristics of the zither family, but musically it is an entirely different approach. I know very little of the history of its' evolution. Two different men thought of the idea within the same year and there are both a German and an American patent and an interesting story around its introduction to the world at large. Read the article in this section. The autoharp has no separate groups of strings devoted to chords or to bass notes. All it has is three octaves of chromatic strings. That is to say it has all the sharps and flats, (all the black keys). Over the string plane are suspended a series of bars that are lined, on their underside, with a thick felt so that when the bar is pressed downward the felt surface presses against (and silences) the strings. Each separate bar has a unique series of notches cut into the felt to allow specific strings to ring undamped.
What this arrangement does is to form a system employing a sort of backwards logic. On virtually any other instrument you can name you pluck the strings of the notes you want (either melody or chords), but on the autoharp you indiscriminately pluck (strum) all the strings and the bar pressed kills all the notes you don't want, allowing only the ones participating in that particular chord to ring! The instrument is played on the lap and there is a separate bar for any chord you want, with some instruments offering as many as thirty three bars!
Probably the reason that this zither has survived in common manufacture to this day is that with the chord names marked on the bars, anyone can take the words to a known tune and, with the chord named over the crucial words, accompany their singing with full and rich chords with no technical skill what so ever. It is still a popular instrument with school teachers of young children.
Up to this point it is only a versatile chording instrument, but in the 1920's and 1930's musicians in the Appalacian mountains developed a method of playing both melody and chords on it simultaneously. The style was popularized almost single-handedly by Mother Maybelle Carter who, with her family, made hundreds of recordings of old folk and gospel tunes throughout the 1930's.
For the first time a zither was not played on the lap but snuggled up against the breast, cradled in both arms of the player. The fingers of the left hands manipulate the chord bars and the thumb and fingers of the right hand strum the strings. The notes of melody line stand out because they are always plucked as the highest note in each chord. Concurrent with this is the fact that each and every melody note is part of a chord.
The result is quite astonishing and very versatile. The only limitation lies in which chords are made available in the bar set. It does require the ability to hear in which chord the desired melody note is going to show up. This rather restricts it to players who play by ear. There is no successful tableture available for written music for this instrument.
The above information is distilled from forty years of love of stringed musical instruments and is in no way to be considered as an authoritative account. If you know of any point in which this paper is in error, I would be delighted with the education. If you know of some pertinent gem that should be included in this effort, I would be delighted with the contribution! Feel free to use the “Contact Us” link on our home page.
John McCrady - 2006