A Christmas Zither

by Rich on February 10, 2010

A zither is about as simple a stringed instrument as you can get, at least when it comes to finding something for a young child to play. I built a Zither for my three year old daughter for Christmas. It’s a small, 10 string harp. Really, it’s little more than a trapezoidal box with some strings stretched across it. So the strings are directly over the soundboard and resonating chamber as they are with a guitar.


I built it out of materials which were mostly on-hand. The frame is made of maple 1×2 from Menards — nothing special. The sounds board and back are made from 1/4″ plywood. I used an oak veneered plywood since that’s what was available locally for a good price. I’d have preferred maple so it would better match the frame, but it still looks pretty nice. I built bridges to support the strings at each end out of scrap maple, and topped them each off with a length of brass brazing rod.

The brazing rod provided a much harder surface for the strings. This keeps them from cutting into the comparatively soft maple bridges, lets them transfer their pressure down into the soundboard more effectively, and gives them a more stable platform, allowing them to stay in tune better. Not bad for $.15 worth of material I already had lying around.

Strings are plain old ball-end electric guitar strings. I used 16’s, as those were heavy enough that I figured they’d be hard for my daughter to break, but are still plain strings. I drilled up through one side of the frame and recessed holes to retain the strings, but keep the ball ends out of sight. I was able to use a single gauge of strings since they get shorter as they move up the instrument. It kept things very simple.

I did have to use one specialized kind of hardware. The plain end of the strings needed to be anchored and adjustable for tuning. For this, I had to use autoharp pins. They fit by friction, and priced similarly to guitar stings, provide a very economical way to tune the harp.

I tuned the instrument in G. We’re predominantly a guitar household, and G tuning works well for a lot of guitar music. I could have tuned to C as well, but coming up to G gave me a little more tension on the strings which seems to work better. With ten strings, it gives me an octave plus a third, which works well for a lot of songs.

Overall, I think it was a huge success. For under $20, I was able to put together a really nice sounding instrument which plays well, fits well into a lot of songs, and is able to stand up to being used by a young child.

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