History of Chord Zithers

This history of the chord zither was written by Etienne de Lavaulx who kindly gave permission for it's reproduction. Etienne teaches chord zither playing without the traditional traditional tune sheets. For this he revised their traditional tuning and published an effective tutor with CD. His website and YouTube channel provide a wealth of information about chord zithers.



Stringed instruments fall into two main categories: frames and boxes.
The frames include the harps and the lyres; the boxes include all other instrument: violins, guitars, pianos etc...and zithers.

The Zither family

By definition zithers consist of a sound box with many strings parallel to it. The strings do not extend beyond the edge of the sound box (as in a guitar, for example). The shape of zithers varies as well as the number and tuning of the strings, and the way they are played: Some are plucked, some bowed and some hammered. Some are held on one's lap, some held against the body and some played on a table.

  The European Psaltery


During medieval times, some string instruments from the Middle East were introduced into Europe via Turkey. These instruments were adapted and became known as Psalteries. They were very popular both in the court and in the church. Psalteries can be seen depicted on paintings, played by kings, troubadours or angels. They come in a variety of shapes.

Emergence of the Chord Zither

It is from the psaltery that a number of instruments evolved in Germany: One is the concert-zither (made famous by "The Third Man's Theme"). Another is the hammered dulcimer, still used extensively in folk ensembles in Germany and in North America.
Two instruments appeared during the late 1800's: the Autoharp and the Chord Zither.
Autoharps and Chord Zithers
Both the Autoharp and the Chord Zither were designed not so much for the elite, but for the common people. The chords could be strummed easily and anyone could have the pleasure of making music in their own home. They were also instruments that lent themselves to mass manufacture, due to their simple constructions.
They were first made by German settlers in North America around 1870 then in Europe and exported to the rest of the world, including Australia and New Zealand.

  An instrument with many names

The very first instruments made in America were called "Columbia Zithers" and "Guitar-Zithers". These generally had single strings. Double stringed instruments were made later and were called "Mandolin Guitars" (mandolins have double strings).
However, different names were often given to a new model, or by a different maker, just for commercial purposes, here are a few examples of brand or model names: "Mandolin Zither", "Mandolin Harp", "Guitar Mandolin Banjo", "Concert Guitar Zither", "Concert Mandolin Harp". Some Chord-Zithers bear the label "AutoHarp" or "Concert Zither", which is confusing.
Another term used is "Jews Harp".
Even though the name "Chord Zither" is not commonly used except in textbooks and by some German manufacturers {akkord-zither,) it is a name which best describes the instrument, and causes the least confusion.

Traditional learning methods

1) The melody card system:
A card printed with dots and lines is placed under the strings, each dot corresponding to a string. By following from dot to dot, you could play the tune indicated on the card. There were hundreds of melody cards available in music shops in Germany.

2) With a combination of music notation, numbers and letter names:
In Australia, the purchase of a chord zither included a free correspondence course, consisting of a series of song sheets, each with an old time favorites such as "Nearer my God to Thee", "I miss my Swiss'', "Silver threads among the Gold"," Santa Lucia'', etc. These sheets were written in music notation, with a number and letter for each note corresponding with numbers and letters on the face of the instrument. The first lesson was "Nearer My God to Thee". Many people still remember playing this song, and specially the numbers, which started with: 10,9,8-8,6-6...

Traditional playing method

The instrument was usually played on a table. A melody card was inserted under the strings and held by a clip; alternatively a song sheet was placed on a wire stand, which fitted into two holes on the top of the zither.
It came with a flexible hammer, which produced a "tremolo" sound, and with two metal thumb picks, one for playing the melody, and one for strumming the chords.
To tune up, you would play a well-known melody, and tune the strings until it sounded right. A tuning card was provided for this purpose.

The Chord Zither in Austral i a

Chord zithers were first imported from the US during the late 1890's. They continued to be popular throughout the early 1900's, often being sold door to door. A common model was the brown and gold 4-chord American "Mandolin Guitar" sold around 1920.
During the great depression, people who could not afford a piano would buy a chord zither. Consequently, it became known as the "poor man's piano".
Another very popular model, which came out during the 1930's, was the German-made "Guitar Mandolin Banjo". The label inside the instrument tells us that it was sold by the Austral School of Music - Melbourne - Sydney- Auckland. It was sold door to door throughout the country.
The following typical scenario describes the scene in those days:
A travelling salesman - who was often a university student or somebody with an ear for music  would tune up the instrument around the corner before calling into a house. The housewife would open the door. He would then play a tune or two. He would demonstrate how one could learn by just following numbers. Upon hearing the beautiful sound of the instrument, the housewife would commit to purchasing it. She only had to pay a deposit, and the rest would be paid by installments
The cost included a correspondence course. The first song was "Nearer my God to Thee" and a new song would come in the mail every week.
People living in the metropolitan area would be entitled to a series of free lessons. In Melbourne, these were held in booths upstairs from a music shop in Elizabeth St. Students would reach there by tram carrying their instrument under their arm.