The word zither will often describe any stringed chordophone that has strings stretched across a flat soundboard and these include a diverse range of instruments including: autoharps, dulcimers, clavichords, pianos, harpsichords and the concert zither. What sets this list apart from a guitar, for example, is that they do not have a neck, yoke arm or any extension from the resonator box.
History of the Zither
The zither's ancestry dates back to the ancient greeks and a similar stringed instrument called a psaltery. There are also records to show early instruments resembling a zither as far back as 400BC in China. The concert zither became popular in the 16th and 17th century in Europe and by the 19th century, the viennese style of tuning and playing was well-established. Composer Carl Ignaz Umlauf was among the first to document the creation of the modern viennese or alpine zithers. Anton Karas famously played the concert zither (a well-known viennese zither) for the Carol Reed film ‘The Third Man’ which spawned a huge boost in zither sales at the time. The zither’s popularity has plummeted in recent times and many tunings and styles have been lost. A zither today most often describes the more popular 5-chord, guitar zither which has a simpler playing style and fewer strings than the early alpine zithers.
Inventor: Unknown

Where to Buy

£180 to £1,000

How to Play

A 5-chord guitar zither is played on 27 to 32 open strings. There are two sets of strings: one for the plucked melody with the right hand and one for the open, unstopped chord accompaniment. Meanwhile a concert zither has five fretboard strings and approximately 27 accompaniment strings. The melody is played with the right hand thumb picking and the left hand on the fretboard, while the accompanying part is played with the remaining right hand fingers on the strings furthest from the player.

In Popular Music

Singer-songwriter PJ Harvey plays a zither on her album 'Let England Shake', for example on the track 'On Battleground Hill'. She has been a recent pioneer of experimentation with zithers and autoharps in popular music recording. The zither is also famously prominent in the scenes in Vienna from Carol Reed's classic film 'The Third Man' (1949) in which Orson Welles appears.

Famous Players

Shirley Abicair, Basia Bulat, PJ Harvey.

Close Relations


Video Credit: Etienne de Lavaulx

Understanding the Zither


Central Europe


19th Century






Instruments of Music

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