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Autoharps and Zithers

String instruments like the zither, autoharp, guitar, harp, and dulcimer have a common origin, but they are played and orchestrated in different ways. The guitar, and to a lesser extent the harp and the dulcimer, are widely used, but the zither and autoharp are relatively obscure instruments. These two instruments are similar in appearance, and are used in a similar way.

What is a zither?

The zither is essentially any instrument with multiple strings on a thin, flat body. To produce sound, the strings are strummed or plucked with the fingers or a with a pick. The earliest known form of this musical instrument is the Chinese guqin, which dates to 433 B.C. Contemporary versions of this musical instrument are made with a long, rectangular sound box with a melody and drone strings. By the 1800s, the zither became a prominent musical instrument in Austrian an German folk music. Austrian and German immigrants brought the stringed instrument to the United States, where it became a parlor instrument during the late 1800s and the early 1900s.

How are the zither and autoharp constructed?

This instrument typically looks like a flat box with a diagonal cut across the right corner and a hole in the middle, but they can come in different shapes and sizes. Depending on the type you’re playing, it can have between 30 to 42 strings. Some of the strings sit above a guitar-like fretboard and the remaining strings are above the instrument’s body. They are arranged in this manner:

  • Strings 1 to 5, above the fretboard, are for the melody.
  • Strings 6 to 17 are used for accompaniment.
  • Strings 18 to 29 are used for the bass.
  • Strings 30 to 42 are used for the contrabass.
Who are some musicians who play these instruments?

Over the years, the pair of string instruments have primarily been played by amateur musicians. Even so, there are a few notable musicians who have played these instruments. They include:

  • Linda McCartney: She was a member of Paul McCartney and Wings and was married to Sir Paul McCartney.
  • Dorothy Carter: Carter was a prominent musician in psychedelic folk music and the medieval music revival movement.
  • Ruth Welcome: Trained at the Juilliard School of Music, she was known for being the only professional zither player in the United States.
  • John Sebastian: He was the founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted group, The Lovin’ Spoonful.
  • Anton Karas: He was known for his soundtrack composition for the British film noir “The Third Man.”
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