This is a review of a zither, a musical instrument sometimes called a plucked psaltery or lap harp. This one was made by James Jones of
James Jones Instruments.
Here is the video James made of his 2-octave models.
Ripply, as I call her because of the beautiful sound, is my personal, custom made instrument. I’m sharing this review to demonstrate this wonderful zither, not for any compensation. So with all that said, here we go!
To get right to some original songs and other demos, you can listen to this playlist. Press Play to listen straight through, or click on a track to go directly to that one.
As a blind musician, I sometimes have trouble picturing instruments if I can’t hold them in my hands. I apologize in advance if my description deepens any confusion for others!
The zither has a flat soundbox that is a trapezoid shape. If you’ve ever held a lap harp with song sheets that slide under the strings, played flat on your lap, this is the same shape, only larger.
The longest side runs parallel to the longest, lowest strings. On this instrument, it’s about 19″ long. This is the largest dimension on this zither.
The shortest side runs parallel to the shortest, highest strings. It’s about 10″ long.
The 2 remaining sides are the same length and run on an inward, upward slope from bottom to top. These sides are about 11″ long.
The instrument depth (back to front) is around 3″ including the pins.
This might sound like a large instrument, but the longest reach for strings, from string 1 to 22, is only about 11″. I can pick up the instrument with one hand, and even play it cradled in one arm. Considering the 3-octave range, this is a very compact size.
The instrument has a top or soundboard, over which the strings run, the sides as described above, and a back, which faces your lap if you play in that position.
James uses all solid wood, no plywood or laminates. This creates a sturdy, quality instrument that vibrates well, produces a consistent sound, and will last a long time if cared for properly.
On this instrument, the soundboard is spruce, and the back and sides are walnut. I could smell the wood when I opened the box. 🙂
With the long side toward you, there are 22 square, metal zither pins on the right side, one for each string. These are for tuning.
On the left side are 22 smaller, round metal pins. These are hitch pins that hold the strings in place. They are not used for tuning.
Moving inward from the pins, each side has a stationary wood bridge with a saddle. These determine the vibrating length and break angle of each string. That is, they keep the strings at the right length for tuning, and on the same plane for a smooth playing experience.
It’s hard to feel the soundhole in the top of the zither, but I managed to slide my little finger between the strings. The soundhole is kind of a 3-pointed star design I like very much.
Strings and Range
As I said, this zither has 22 strings, or 3 octaves. Most are smaller and have 15 strings for a 2-octave range. In scientific pitch notation, tuned in C the range is C6-C3. This means there are 2 octaves above Middle C, and one below. You can hear this in my scale sample. I requested this range specifically for playing original songs and chord-melody arrangements. The strings are steel, and those from C3-A3 are wound. Using steel strings rather than nylon, like a harp, means you can have a smaller instrument. A nylon-strung harp with this range of notes would be at least 28″ long, and it would be awkward to play horizontally.
Holding the Instrument
There are many ways to hold this zither! Here are just a few.
1. Horizontal on your lap, with bass strings toward you.
If you’re new to this or any instrument, this way is easiest. The notes get higher as you move away from your body.
2. Horizontal on your lap, with treble strings toward you.
This is how I usually play. It reminds me of playing harp, except it’s flat instead of upright. It’s also easier on the back and shoulders. I play with both hands, left hand bass and right hand treble.
3. Upright in one arm, playing with your dominant hand.
This makes me feel like a Bard. 🙂
4. With the back against your chest.
This position puts the strings in front of you, and you bring your hands inward toward them. It works well for therapeutic purposes or meditation.
You can play with your fingers like I do most often. You can play with a pick as in “Grant us Love” in the playlist. You can play with the tuning wrench, just like my “Scary Zither” clip. And yes, if you’re either bored or curious, you can play with a fork. Play with both hands or one finger. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you enjoy playing.
Getting in Tune
I will have other posts on tuning as a blind musician who does not have perfect pitch. Suffice it to say that the more strings you have, the more you have to tune. This is no easy task without an electronic tuner or a keyboard for reference pitches. But again, that’s another story for another time. Just know that if you can’t see and you choose an instrument like this, you had better have a tuning plan in place. And maybe you should have a plan A B C D E F G… Because you just might need them.
The Wrap Up
This is the perfect instrument for my purposes. What purposes? Well, mainly songwriting, meditation, sound healing, and accompanying poetry. It’s portable, very well crafted, durable, and fun to play. And for its size, the range and resonance are wonderful. I really chose it as a harp replacement, and it does that for me as well.
Thank you, James, for this beautiful zither!