No, it’s not an autoharp, but it looks like one and is played similarly. You might notice that the strings on the left half of the instrument are thicker (thus deeper-sounding). These are the chords that would be strummed as the harmony to the melody which is played on the thinner strings on the right half of the zither.
I remember my father playing these chord strings, often in an oom-pah-pah rhythm, but not necessarily always so. Using his thumb, he’d play a thicker light-coloured string once for “Oom” and stroke the three strings to the left of it twice for the “pah-pah.”
This would be timed to go with the notes of the melody played with his right-hand thumb which wore the “pick” you see beside the zither, just above the big tuning key.
This zither came with us to Canada in 1953, packed in its box, along with music sheets printed especially for the zither. The music sheet would be inserted under the strings and lined up so the heavy line lay under the C-string. That way it was easy to pluck the strings marked by a dot on the paper.
You would start at the top of the page and basically follow the line to the next dot and play each dot as you came to it. In this way, even a beginner could play a passably good version of the song. Of course, you could play tunes without the crutch of these music sheets, or even make up your own sheets if you had a favourite song.
But what about the accompanying chords? Even those are made easy. Each of the five chord sections are numbered, as you can see in the first photo, the numbers going from the middle to the left side from 1 – 5, and with the letters of the chords listed as well. Those same numbers show on the music sheet, so you can know which chord to strum with which notes on the melody.
This zither has a lot of history. It had a lot to do with how my father met my mother. Basically he serenaded her with it. Later when they married and had children, the zither was still a part of the family.
I have such fond memories of evenings when I lay in bed and (before the days of TV), my dad would bring out the zither and he and my mother softly sang their old folk songs in the semi-darkened living room. It was the most beautiful music I had ever heard and I still hear it in my mind, mixed with those tender emotions of love for my parents.
I borrowed the story of how they met, and the role the zither played, in my novel Julia’s Violinist. It is a fictional book but I wanted to include the zither in the story, so you can find it there is you ever choose to read that novel. Just click on the image of the book cover at the side of this page.