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How to Tune and Play the Zither

The word
old woodden zither image by Vladislav Gajic from Fotolia.com

The word "zither" can refer to a range of instruments that have strings that stretch over a resonating chamber but do not extend beyond it. The Pennsylvania German zither, an antecedent of the fretted dulcimer; the German concert zither; the guitar zither and certain simple, plucked psalteries are all part of the worldwide zither family.

Things You'll Need:

  • Pitch Pipe (Optional)
  • Electronic Tuner (Optional)
  • Thumb Pick
  • Tuning Fork (Optional)

Tuning a Standard Concert Zither

Place the zither on a flat surface. Keep the fretboard close to you and the accompaniment strings on the other side. Place your tuner directly over the sound hole of the zither.

Tune the two strings closest to you to A on your tuner.

Tune the third string to D, the fourth string to G, and the fifth string to C. In addition to the five strings on the fretboard, standard concert zithers have 27 open strings; harp zithers have 37 open strings.

Beginning closest to the fretboard and proceeding outward, tune the accompaniment strings (the open strings, 1 through 12 ) to E flat, B flat, F, C, G, D, A, E, B, F sharp, C sharp and G sharp.

Tune the bass strings (open strings 13 through 24) to the same notes as the accompaniment strings, just one octave lower: E flat, B flat, F, C, G, D, A, E, B, F sharp, C sharp, and G sharp.

Tune your contrabass strings (open strings 25 through 37) if your zither has them. Many zithers will have at least two or three contrabass strings after the 24th open string, but some zithers have as many as 13 contrabass strings. They usually begin with F (the second F below middle C ) and proceed chromatically downward. Tune them to F, E, E flat, D, C sharp, C, B, B flat, A, G sharp, G, F sharp, and F.

Playing a Zither

Get a metal thumb pick to wear around your right thumb. The metal thumb-pick for zithers is like a banjo-style pick, but with the portion that strikes the string is much smaller than that of a conventional banjo-style pick.

Lie the zither across your knees or on a table. Pluck the strings with the metal pick (also known as a plectrum) on your right thumb. Use your right hand to play accompaniment and your left hand should play the melody on the five-string chromatic fretboard.

Play notes on the five-string fretboard (your right thumb) as downstrokes, i.e. strokes moving away from you. Use the ring, middle, index and thumb of the left hand to finger notes. Strike the unfretted strings with the index, middle and ring finger of the right hand. Many players use the little finger of the right hand sparingly.


After tuning all the strings once, check that they haven't shifted back out of tune during the tuning process.

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