"Enter a world of zither and guitar music..."
Etienne de Lavaulx
This delightful instrument became very popular from the late 1800s to the mid to late 1900s.
The Chord-Zither is sometimes known as Mandolin-Guitar or Guitar Zither.
Around 1870 some German settlers in America set out to design an instrument which would be easy to play, using numerical notation, and easy to manufacture. Soon, chord zithers were mass-produced and exported all over the world.
In Australia, door to door salesmen took these instruments to every corner of the country, offering tuition in the form of a correspondence course. Thousands were sold, mainly during the 20s and 30s, when they became known as “the poor man’s piano”.
Many people still have one hidden away in their attic, often in its box, complete with music sheets, hammer and picks.
THE AUTO HARP
Very popular in America
Similar origin as the Chord-Zither
THE CONCERT ZITHER
Traditional German and Austrian instrument
Made famous by the Third Man’s Theme
To begin, let us define a zither: it is an instrument consisting of a sound box with strings running parallel to it without extending beyond it. Zithers constitute a vast family of instruments.
A well-known member is the “Concert Zither”, of German/Austrian origin, which is fretted and has a series of bass strings. It was made famous by the theme from “The Third Man”. The concert zither must not be confused with the chord-zither, a more recent innovation.
During the late 1800’s, a group of unusual instruments began to appear in America. Sometimes called combination instruments, these were intended to be easier to play even by the layman as opposed to the classical instruments, which required years of practice to learn. There was the “Ukelin”, the “Dolceola”, the “Harmolin”, the “Apollo Harp”, the “Autoharp”, the “Violin Zither” and many more… The chord-zither was one of them. Often designed by German immigrants, these instruments were first patented, then mass produced and sold door to door, or through catalogues, (Eg: Sears and Roebuck).
Most of them are no longer played but can be seen in museums, or found in antique stores or attics. One, which stands out, is the Autoharp, which holds an important place in folk music especially in America.
The one closest to my heart, however, is the chord-zither. After the boom years of the early to mid 1900’s, when chord-zithers were being made and sold throughout the western world, their popularity declined.
The chord-zither can have many names such as “Columbia Zither”, “Mandolin Guitar”, “Guitar Zither” or “Jews Harp”. It is played on one’s lap or on a table: a melody is plucked by the right hand while the fingers of the left hand strum across pre-tuned chords.
Many chord-zither players follow dots and numbers printed on a melody card placed under the strings. This system provides rapid results, but I believe it is underestimating the instrument’s potential.
I have developed my own method of playing.
Over the years, I gradually altered the original tuning until I could play the type of music I wanted and designed a system of diamonds and dots to identify the strings as an alternative to the markings on the instrument.
I believe the chord-zither could be learnt by a growing number of people, especially by those seeking to learn a musical instrument later in life. A musical background is not necessary, and there is no need for great dexterity.
One can no longer buy a new chord-zither in Australia. They were taken off the shelves when the manufacturer, an East German company had to raise their prices as a result of German re-unification in 1989.
However, old zithers turn up in antique shops, or at sales. Many people have kept their instrument under a bed or on top of an old wardrobe, unused…
Alternatively, one can build one’s own instrument relatively easily.
It is my hope that the era of the chord-zither is just beginning.
In an age of shortcuts, it provides us with an achievable musical goal, and in the ever-increasing complexity of life, it remains an object of simplicity and harmony.