Many people come across zither music and become fascinated by it’s unique sound. Most people go their whole life being familiar with the sound of the zither but don’t have a clue what it looks like.
So what is a zither instrument, how is it played, how many strings does it have and is the zither hard to learn?
In this article we aim to answer all of these questions.
If you are interested in the zither, this guide will give you everything you need to know.
Table of Contents
- In Short, What is a Zither Instrument?
- How Many Strings Does a Zither Have?
- How Do You Tune a Zither?
- What Types of Zithers Are There?
- What Types of Strings Are on Zithers?
- What Does the Zither Sound Like?
- Is the Zither Hard to Learn?
- What Is a Zither Banjo?
- The Zither Requires Patience but Is Worth the Effort
In Short, What is a Zither Instrument?
Zithers are psaltery instruments that are stringed. You play a zither by plucking the strings with a plectrum or your fingers. Much like a guitar, the body of the zither serves as its resonating chamber.
How Many Strings Does a Zither Have?
The number of strings on a zither range from 6 to 50 or more, depending on the maker of the instrument. They classify zithers according to the number of strings they have. The most common zithers have 30 strings. There are zithers that have up to 72 strings.
How Do You Tune a Zither?
One of the most common questions people have about zithers is how you tune them. Tuning a zither is much like tuning a guitar. Most people, especially beginners, use an electronic tuner to tune a zither. Some expert players can tune these instruments by ear. You can also use a pitch pipe or tuning forks, depending on your preference.
- Lay the zither on a flat, secure table.
- Place the electric tuner over the sound hole.
- Start with string A and move to the other strings one by one.
Tuning fret board strings: a a d g c
Tuning accompaniment strings: eb bb f c g d a e b f# c# g#
Tuning bass strings: Eb Bb F C G D A E B F# C# G#
Tuning contrabass strings: F E Eb D C# C B Bb A G# G F# FF
When tuning a zither, there are a few things you need to consider. The way you tune this instrument will depend on the age of the strings, stability of the tuning pins, and the age of the instrument.
What Types of Zithers Are There?
There are two main types of zithers. If you are considering learning to play, you need to know about the types and the playing style they offer.
- Concert Zither
The concert zither is a unique instrument that was developed in the early 20th century. One of the most significant reasons concert zithers differ from other types is the way they are played.
You play the melody strings with a pick attached to your right thumb, and your left hand stops. The open strings of the concert zither form the accompaniment.
There is also the Alpine variant of concert zithers which features a fretted fingerboard.
- Chord Zither
Chord zithers are often referred to as guitar zithers. This type of zither is referred to as a guitar type because of the sound it produces.
This instrument has a sound box with two sets of unstopped strings. One set of the strings is tuned to diatonic and the other set is tuned to various chords to produce a melody.
What Types of Strings Are on Zithers?
Traditional zithers were made with steel strings, but some zithers have other types, including fiber or nylon. Fiber and nylon strings are best for beginners because they make playing the zither much more comfortable.
Some zithers are made with copper or brass instead of steel strings. Copper and brass strings are more difficult to pluck than fiber or nylon, but these metals are softer than steel, so they are easier alternatives to steel.
Those who prefer metal stringed zithers will often choose copper or brass strings because they have a much softer sound and will not cause as much damage to the soundboard.
When you begin playing a zither, you may want to choose one with nylon or fiber strings until you toughen your fingers. Steel strings can be brutal on your fingers and can even cause pain. As your fingertips toughen, you can eventually work yourself up to copper or brass, and in due course, steel.
What Does the Zither Sound Like?
Zithers are beautiful instruments, and makers must study for years to create fine-sounding instruments. The most important zither component for sound is the resonance surfaces.
Zithers have a highly distinguishable sound. While some people compare the sounds of zithers to other instruments, they are incomparable.
You will hear zithers used a lot in classical music. This instrument is also used to add amazing depth to orchestral music.
Zithers are known for their unique polyphony. Polyphony is an ethereal tone that results from the zither playing multiple notes simultaneously. Polyphony is the maximum number of notes an instrument can play simultaneously.
While playing the zither, you create chords. While most chords are written more for guitars, you can chord a zither. Chorded zithers are often more difficult to play by beginners.
Is the Zither Hard to Learn?
Zithers are difficult instruments to master. You will find zithers are more challenging to play because they are fretless. Being fretless means you can use the entire neck to play chords and notes.
One of the biggest challenges for new zither players is learning to change positions quickly to play various notes. When learning to play the zither, you need to appreciate each milestone in your practice, no matter how minute it may seem.
I highly recommend getting together with other zither players. If you do not have other zither players to play with, piano and guitar will both accompany the instrument nicely.
If you are expecting the zither to be as easy to play as the piano or guitar, you will be disappointed. Unlike the guitar or piano, you may find it difficult or even impossible to pay a full piece after a month of practice.
The two main parts you need for playing are the chromatic fretboard, which contains five strings, and the open strings which can range from 27 to 37.
When playing the zither, you have options. You can play in single melody, parallel thirds or sixths, or chordally. As you play, you will always move your hand in a downstroke. The downstrokes make playing the zither more difficult to perform fast runs.
As a new player, you need to realize the unfretted strings are divided into three categories: accompaniment, bass, and contrabass. The accompaniment and bass strings are not in chromatic order, which is why some beginners discover it difficult to find notes. The contrabass strings are tuned chromatically, but you rarely use them.
One of the easiest parts of playing a zither is the melody, which surprises many players. To imagine what it is like playing a zither, consider putting a guitar flat on its back on a table and picking a melody with your thumb. You start fingering the notes with your palm-down left hand. Imagining this will give you a good idea of what to expect when playing the zither.
What Is a Zither Banjo?
If there is one instrument closest to the zither banjo, it would have to be the 5-string classic banjo. There are a few key differences, including the following.
- A zither banjo’s 1st, 2nd, and 5th strings are made of steel. The 3rd string is a gut string. The 4th string is nylon wound with silver or silk.
- The back of a zither is entirely enclosed.
- The zither has six tuning machines, but one of them is a dummy.
- There is no 5th string tuner. This string enters a tunnel and comes out at a nut.
- The skin surface is only 7 to 9 inches.
The strings of a zither banjo are tuned in much the same way as traditional banjos. When playing the zither banjo, players rarely use picks. Players use their thumbs and their first two or three fingers to play the zither banjo.
Another oddity about the zither banjo is the muted sound it produces. The silk-wound strings create a lower sound than an American banjo.
Although the zither banjo is different from other types of zithers, this fact does not make it easier to play. You are still going to have to take the time to practice and gain skill.
The Zither Requires Patience but Is Worth the Effort
The zither is an instrument that produces a beautiful, melodic sound. Although it is difficult to learn to play, it is not impossible. Learning to play the zither is challenging, yet fun.
As you progress in learning, you will become less frustrated. I suggest you start off with learning the strumming technique, since this is one of the initial sources of frustration.
If you have never had the pleasure of learning to play the zither, now is a perfect time to start. This instrument will certainly give you many hours of playing challenges.
Daniel Johnstone is an English writer with a love for stringed instruments from around the world.
He shares his love for these instruments through his writing for folkstrings.com, a website dedicated to all things related to folk string music.
Daniel's passion for music started at a young age, and he has since become an accomplished musician, playing guitar, cavaco, and recently, the harp.
His dedication to learning and sharing his knowledge of stringed instruments is evident in his insightful and engaging blog posts. Whether you're a seasoned musician or a beginner, Daniel's writing is sure to inspire and entertain you.
When he's not playing music or writing, you can find Daniel exploring new instruments and seeking out new sounds to share with his readers.
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