Wanting to acquire a better appreciation for the music of his homeland, Tom Leoni has recently started to learn the zither under the expert tutelage of Jane Curtis. Before taking up new challenges, it's important to gain an understanding of the road ahead. In this article, Tom presents his "lessons learned" which will surely prove highly informative for anyone desiring to take up the zither.

Advice and General Musing on Taking up the Zither

Zither players often warn beginners that the instrument they’ve just taken up is slow to learn and difficult to master. And they have a point. Although I don’t believe in absolute metrics as to which may be the toughest instruments to play, I can safely say that the zither will not yield the kind of early satisfaction that a guitar or even a piano will—even to someone with considerable musical experience. In general, it would be ambitious to expect to play your first piece complete with melody, bass and full accompaniment in less than a month of daily practice.

To understand why, let’s take a quick look at the technique of zither-playing.

Zither Technique Quickly Explained

The zither is an instrument composed of two main parts: the chromatic fretboard, containing five strings (the Griffbrettsaiten), and a number of open strings typically ranging from 27 to 37.

The role of the Griffbrettsaiten is mainly melodic. Their standard (or Munich) tuning is like that of a viola with an extra a, that is a’ – a’ – d’ – g - c. The sound is produced with a metal ring around the right thumb; this is analogous to a metal thumb-pick, but with the portion that strikes the string much smaller than on a conventional banjo-style pick. The Griffbrettsaiten may be played in single melody, in parallel thirds and sixths or even chordally, with more purist players avoiding empty strings almost entirely. All notes played on the Griffbrettsaiten are played as downstrokes, i.e. strokes moving away from the player, a factor that makes it challenging to perform fast runs. Notes are fingered with the ring, middle, index and thumb of the left hand.

The unfretted strings are, in turn, divided into three sections: the accompaniment strings, the bass strings and the contrabass strings. With the standard tuning, the accompaniment strings go from the f above middle c to the f# below it, and the bass strings have the same range but an octave lower. The accompaniment and bass strings are not tuned in chromatic order, but in the circle of fifths, making it challenging for beginners to locate notes. Finally, the contrabass strings (low f and below) are tuned chromatically, but the bad news is that they are only seldom played. The unfretted strings are struck with the index, middle and ring finger of the right hand. The little finger of the right hand is used sparingly, and only by some players.

So, let’s put all this together and see how the zither is actually played. Although a zither in the Munich tuning is a fully-chromatic instrument with the potential to play even complex classical pieces, let’s stay simple and see how one would play a typical folk Waltz with an oom-pah accompaniment. Ready?

Believe it or not, the easy part is the melody. If you can imagine laying a guitar flat on a table, picking a melody with your thumb and fingering the notes with the left hand, palm down, you would be getting the general idea. Except that with the zither, the highest string is closest to you, but let’s not get too technical. So far so good, right? Well, not quite. Now comes the tough part.

The classic major-key zither oom-pah accompaniment consists of the “oom” being struck on a bass string with the ring-finger of the right hand and the “pah” on three accompaniment strings—two with the index, one with the middle finger. Sounds tough? Now, try to put it all together with the thumb that has to act completely independently and strike away at the Griffbrettsaiten!

And here’s another consideration. The goal of the exercise is not only to get good music out of the instrument, but also to do it correctly and with the proper form—also because proper form is a requisite of precise note-production and good sound. All notes struck by the right hand need to be played as confident rest-strokes, i.e. with the thumb-ring or fingers ending the stroke by resting on the string adjacent the one(s) just played. This is hard enough when each finger strikes only one string; but when the index has to strike two while the middle-finger only one (or vice-versa in the case of minor chords), it initially feels so awkward and convoluted to make you wonder what sort of evil genius could have possibly conceived this instrument!

Oh, and where to look when you play? Here’s another tough one for beginners. Follow the left hand as it fingers the Griffbrettsaiten, and you’ll miss the accompaniment. Do it the other way around, and… you get the idea. So, if you thought that sight-reading a piano piece was challenging, try looking at paper while playing the zither!

Lastly, a purely physical note. To get a good, clean and strong sound on the zither—the sort of sound that will carry nicely in a crowded mountain Stube—you need to exert some pressure on the Griffbrettsaiten and to “bite” the strings with your right hand. This will not only hurt initially and develop some pretty good calluses, but in the case of the index, middle and ring finger of your left hand, it will leave some permanent grooves that I’ve only observed in zither players.

Still, even in spite of all these difficulties, there is something enchanting about the zither that will make you carry on. And the first time you play through a piece it really feels like magic, with the instrument vibrating in harmony under your fingers and the sweet mountain sound speaking directly to your heart.
Next, advice on learning the zither.

The Three Ingredients

If you’re considering taking up the zither as a new instrument, there are three indispensable ingredients you need to think about. First, ask yourself if you’re ready for a pretty serious commitment. Secondly, find a teacher. Thirdly, find a good instrument. The reason why I listed the conditions in this order is that without step 1, steps 2 and 3 will be for naught, and without steps 1 and 2 you’d be buying a beautiful, frustrating wall-hanger if you were to proceed to step 3.

The commitment comes in the form of hours of smart practice. You need to be ready to sit at the instrument virtually daily, and practice with concentration and diligence by following your instructor’s advice. You’ll also need to be able to read music, a skill without which you’ll be severely handicapped. Oh, and you need to have patience: Geduld überwindet alles, patience conquers all. There’s no getting around this, no matter how much talent you have (or think you have): the zither may be a folk instrument, but mastering even its fundamentals is all but easy and intuitive. Come think of it, this tells you a lot about the wonderful culture that produced it.

Once you have decided that yes, you are ready to devote the necessary time and energy to the instrument, finding an instructor may be the real challenge. Let’s face it—dreamy though it may be, the zither is a pretty obscure instrument. So, chances are that there is not a zither teacher in your area—although you’d be surprised to see how many competent instructors there are outside of the Alpine regions of middle-Europe, such as in the USA and (somehow, not surprisingly) in Japan.

A quick Internet search will reveal where to find competent teachers, and I strongly recommend that you get in touch with one and talk to him before proceeding any further. So, what if the nearest teacher is a plane-ride away? Well, if your desire to learn the instrument is strong enough, you need to ask yourself if you might want to go see him once every couple months, at least initially while you learn the basics. Make it a long weekend and take your sweetheart—it may not be all that bad a deal after all.

Finding a good zither is the easiest part of the process, although if you don’t know what to look for, it can get expensive and frustrating. It can be done in three main ways: looking for a used one on eBay (high risk, low cost), ordering a new one from a manufacturer (low risk, high cost) or finding a good used one in a music store (mid-point both risk- and cost-wise).

Some Advice on Evaluating a Zither

If you decide to gamble and find a used zither on eBay, here’s the skinny. Most sellers will prominently announce the disclaimer “I don’t know much about this kind of instrument, so I can’t say in what condition it really is; please look at the pictures, good luck and all sales are final.” So it’s up to you to figure it all out. Here’s a quick list (by no means exhaustive) of the things to look for.

  • In general, the older the instrument, the higher the probability of there being something wrong with it (duh!).
  • Look at the bridge area for signs of cracks or of the wood crumbling. You can generally see this from the pictures. If the bridge doesn’t look solid, pass.
  • Look at the area where the pin-block is, i.e. where the loops of the strings hook to the right side of the zither. This is where a good number of old instrument show signs of separation, which you should also be able to see from the pictures. Although this can be repaired in many cases, I would also pass unless the instrument is really spectacular and you can get it for a good price.
  • Look for signs of separation in any part of the instrument body.
  • Look at the strings. If they look new, there’s a greater chance that the zither is in playing condition. If the strings look old and rusty, or if a good number of them are missing, be careful.
  • Look for visible cracks (again, duh!) but also for hairline cracks. In some places, like on the fretboard, hairline cracks may not immediately affect the playability of the zither. In others, though, like around the tuning pegs, they can spell trouble: a loose tuning peg is a tuning peg that cannot bear the necessary tension of a string in its correct pitch, making the instrument unplayable in its current condition. This may be worth asking the seller a question—even a musically-illiterate individual can see cracks if you tell him where to look.
  • Look for warping, which may also be visible from the pictures.
  • Look that the feet of the instrument are all in place.
  • The condition of the fretboard is as important as it is tough to assess, because you have no way of really seeing it from the pictures. If you see an instrument that looks promising but want to be surer about this, ask the eBay seller a question. Even if he is not a musician, he can give you an idea of the *general* condition of the fretboard by placing the straight edge of a ruler against the frets, parallel to the strings and above the zero fret. A true fretboard will allow simultaneous contact between all the frets and the ruler. But if any of the frets do not touch the ruler’s edge, the fretboard has problems, and it may take more money than the instrument is worth to make it playable. Or, if the seller has any musical experience, he can manually try sounding the tones at each fret to spot any signs of buzzing. Since the zither is a relatively high-tension instrument, bowed fretboards are a common problem, especially with older instruments.

On a personal note, I am the not-so-proud owner of two eBay-begotten lemons, so take this advice as the bitter fruit of personal experience.

A fair price to pay for a plain (i.e. unadorned) used old zither in playable condition is, at the time of this writing, approximately $200 to $450 (US). A zither with a case and tuning key will fetch more than one without, while one from a known maker (e.g. Meinel, Schwarzer, Framus) will likely close for more than an unsigned instrument or one from an obscure craftsman. An used instrument of recent manufacture will also fetch more. And if the maker is a truly prestigious name like Wuensche, don’t expect to touch one for less than $1,000—that is, if you’re lucky.

A good mid-way avenue to get a good zither is to search online for a used one in a music store. Although you may pay a bit more than on eBay, you have a greater assurance that the instrument is playable; plus, you can negotiate an inspection period to completely safeguard yourself against buying a wall-hanger. Asking your prospective teacher if he knows of one for sale anywhere would also be a comparable deal.

By far the safest way to get an instrument in perfect condition is of course to order a new one, although you certainly won’t get to brag about the deal you got. There are a number of Web sites that list the most prominent manufacturers, who in turn have their own sites where you can go and delight yourself in the variety of their offerings. Expect to pay over $1,000 US for a new zither, with elaborate models from the best manufacturers costing as much as four times that—but the instrument is new, is yours and is exactly what you want.

What Next?

Well, next... is hopefully making music! Once you get over the first proverbial hump—and believe you me, it is a substantial hump—you’ll suddenly realize that you have under your fingers an instrument that can play virtually any kind of music and make it sound fantastic. Remember that Bach minuet you plonked your way through as a kid on the piano? That same piece sounds perfect on the Zither. That old, haunting mountain melody you heard years ago in a forgotten European Bierstube? Perfect on the Zither. Or that schmaltzy song your grandma liked to sing?

Again, perfect on the Zither.

Tom Leoni was born in Locarno, Switzerland, and grew up in the Brianza region of Northern Italy. He studied historical keyboard performance at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (Basel, Switzerland) under the late Rolf Junghanns, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition from Texas Christian University. Although his love for Alpine music dates back to his boyhood, Tom took up the zither recently, under the tutelage of Jane Curtis. Fellow zitherist and Curtis pupil Elisabeth Lloyd and Tom play as a duet called Liab und Schneid, with a repertoire consisting mostly of Alpine and Classical music, including some original compositions and arrangements of Haydn’s and Mozart’s chamber pieces.

Tom’s other musical interests include early music, bluegrass, gypsy jazz, old time and his first passion—the keyboard music of Haydn, Mozart, CPE Bach and other 18th-Century composers. He is pictured here performing a duet with Elisabeth Lloyd.

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