It’s A Zither-ing Good Time!

When you hear the word zither, what comes to mind?  Would a stringed instrument from Austria leap to yours?

The zither made its debut in Salzburg Austria, but over time has had a great impact all over the world, including the United States.  Merriam-Webster defines a zither as “a musical instrument that has strings stretched across a shallow wooden box and that is played with your finger or a pick”.  Zithers were played on a table top or the players lap and can have up to 40 strings.  Zither Musik describes playing the zither: “The fingers of the left hand play the melody on the five fret board strings while the pick on the thumb of the right hand plucks the melody strings, the index and middle finger play the accompaniment strings and the ring and little finger play the bass strings to form the harmony and rhythm.”  There are several types of zithers, but the two we will focus on are the Pianoette Zither and the Guitar Zither, both of which we have in our collection here at the High Plains Museum.

High Plains Museum | MI013 Pianoette Zither

High Plains Museum |
MI013
Pianoette Zither

The Pianoette Zither had 12 brass strings with four hammers lifted by the thumb and forefingers.  The hammers were arranged in such a way that the hammer would only strike those strings needed to make a particular chord.  How the Pianoette Zither got its name has two possibilities.  One is that some of these instruments had piano keys painted onto the wood.  The second was that it took its name from Marx Pianolin, who produced zithers.  The Pianoette we have in our collection was purchased around 1910 for $45.00, and can be seen on the left.

The second zither is the Guitar Zither.  Invented by Friederich Menzenhauer of the United States, he was granted his patent on May 29, 1894.  In 1897 he and Oscar Schmidt founded the U.S. Guitar-Zither Co. and the next year Menzenhauer also started

High Plains Museum | MI012 Guitar Zither

High Plains Museum |
MI012
Guitar Zither

the Menzenhauer Guitar-Zither Co.  According to the patent the guitar zither got its name for having some of the advantages of the guitar placed on the zither.  The Guitar Zither in our collection can be seen on the right and is one of Menzenhauer’s.

The Zither has had a very interesting story in the United States.  It is believed that German descendants were the ones to ignite a passion for the zither in the States.  Zithers were popular during the Civil War, and one story about a German zither player, fighting for the Union can be read here.  By 1949 the zither had almost become a thing of the past.  Unable to compete with new musical instruments like the accordion, the zither was no longer purchased and played.  According to some sources, it was not until the movie “The Third Man” starring Orson Welles came out that the zither regained its popularity.  Carol Reed, one of the producers of the film, was looking for the right music to set the film to.  He heard Anton Karas playing the zither and hired him to compose the music.  The result was the Harry Lime Theme, which can be heard here.  Click here to see and hear the playing of a zither to Let It Be.

Zithers are musical instruments that are played by plucking strings with both hands.  The left hand plays the melody while the right the accompaniment.  The instrument has had a very interesting history throughout the years and while not a popular instrument today, the zither still fascinates us with its beautiful music. Can you play the zither?  Please leave your comments in the section below.

Look for more posts in this series about our wonderful collection of Sherman County history.

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