Instruments | Zither | Stringed

To most people, the word ‘zither’ evokes The Third Man film theme and an image of a flat box with a lot of strings. But in organological classification it is a term covering a substantial proportion of the world’s stringed instruments.

The technical definition is a little convoluted, but in effect a zither is one or more stretched strings, usually with a resonating board, box or other vessel. Those instruments with necks – such as lutes – aren’t classified as zithers, neither are harps.


A twanged hunting bow can be seen as the common ancestor of all three – zithers, lutes and harps. More developed, the limbindi of the Baka pygmies is a musical bow in which the string is tucked under the player’s chin, dividing it into two parts, and then goes back across the bow, making three. It is not loud, but the player can hear through bone conduction and by holding a reflecting palm leaf. Some other bows use the mouth as a variable-volume resonant cavity that can amplify as well as change the timbre. A player of the Ivory Coast dodo puts its tape-like string across his mouth and hits it with a stick. Some other mouth-bows worldwide are played with the wood resting against the side of – or in – the mouth.


In parts of Europe, a pig’s bladder was once used as a resonator. In Africa the most common resonator is a gourd tied to the bow shaft – for example in Angola’s ungo, the progenitor of the Brazilian berimbau or urucungo. Stiffen the bow and more strings can be stretched, as on the Malian orozo. The mvet of Equatorial Guinea has a notched stick attached to the gourd; the strings pass through the notches to make two sounding lengths each.

The bow of the Malawian bangwe is a flat board, along which multiple strings are stretched side by side. The resonator of the multi-stringed Afghan waji or wuj is a box with a skin soundboard, through which the bow-shaft is threaded; in it meet bow, harp and spike-lute. The Malian dan or bambara has multiple bows whose strings pass over the curved side of a hemispherical calabash.

The single string of the Vietnamese dan bau runs from one end of a long rectangular wooden soundbox to near the top of a flexible stick inserted vertically into the other end. The player bends the stick back and forth with his left hand to change the string’s tension and thus pitch – in effect like flexing a bow – while with his right hand he picks the string and simultaneously touches it momentarily with the edge of the same hand, producing ringing harmonics.

Stick Zithers

Stick zithers are in effect straight bows. They consist of a string-bearing stick with a series of raised sections that function as frets, to which is attached a resonator. The jejy voatavo of Madagascar is...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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