cittern ATLAS of Plucked Instruments

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guitars modern
Europe West
Europe East
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The instruments of the cittern type look like relatives of the mandolins. Not just because of the shape, but both also have metal strings. However historically they developed separately.

Some were named "guitar" and nowadays - with the (Irish folk music) similar looking flat-back mandolins and bouzoukis - names have become even more confusing, as the name cittern is sometimes also used for some of those instruments.

Note that the German name "zither" is also the name used for the instrument family of the table-harp type (like the Austrian concertzither, etc.), which may give rise to some confusion. An earlier German name for the cittern was "Zister".

This page starts with some medieval instruments.
For some other wire-string instruments like the orpharion and bandora, see the Lute page.
For modern cittern like the Portuguese guitarra see EuropeWest, and for the Corsican cetera see EuropeSouth.
On EuropeEast you can find the 7-string Russian guitar, which is by some regarded as a guitar-shaped cittern (steel strings and open tuning).




First some nice pictures from the beautiful manuscript : Cantigas de Santa Maria (1270, Spain), with lots of plucked stringed instruments (some of which we don't even know the proper name) but there are gittern, citoles, lutes, etc.

For more about these Cantigas and its instruments, see Alfonso X.
example :
custom made by Tamara Jovanovic, Utrecht 2001,
after a design based on a window of Lincoln Cathedral, UK
L=830 B=250 H=110mm
scale 530mm
You Tube

The citole is the medieval guitar, known only from pictures in manuscripts and statues in churches. It looks like a medium size guitar, hold horizontally and usually played with a long plectrum. It seems made from one carved block of wood, hollowed out and with a thin wooden front. The body is much thicker near the neck than at the bottom side. Some sources suggest that it had a very thick neck, with a hole in it for the thumb. Usually there is a raised fingerboard with frets (probably some were made of wooden pieces.
The citole probably had gut strings, but maybe wire ones.

For lots of information about the citole see the (very large!) page of Paul Butler : Citoleproject, and also Citole.

Only one highly decorated example has survived (in the British Museum, under the wrong name gittern), but that one has been converted into a violin, some centuries ago.

Left the examples we used to design the citole. Even a cardboard model was made to decide the size of the thumbhole. The 3 leaves are made like tuning pegs and can be taken out, to avoid damage during transport.

The cat that modeled for the carving was called Joopy [U.P.] and so that is now the nick-name of my instrument.
example :
from book Zistern,
Leipzig Museum
L=00 B=00 H=00mm
scale ~500 à 650mm
You Tube
Italian cittern

At the end of the 16th century the citole developed from a figure-of-eigth shape into a more teardrop-shaped body with a long neck, which got the name cittern.

In the north of Italy these cittern were still carved from one piece of wood, hollowed out. It differs from the West European cittern (see under). Often the Italian name cetera is used for this type.

The body outline follows a teardrop shape, with straight lines for the top half ("Paduan outline"). It tapers in two directions : the bottom is less deep than near the neck, and the back is much smaller than the front.

The neck is carved from the same piece of wood as the body, and has a P-shape : the actual neck is only on the discant side; the bass side only has a fingerboard.
The frets on the raised fingerboard are made of brass, in a meantone scale, with some frets not over the full length. They are inlayed in conical sawcuts, and fixed with a wooden wedge.

The peghead has usually 12 friction pegs inserted from the front, in 3 rows of 4 : one row in the middle, and the others slanting to both sides.The back of the peghead has a carved hook-like extension. The strings run over a loose wooden bridge to a comb-like stringfastener at the edge of the body, also carved from the same wood as the body.

The Italian cittern has usually 12 metal strings in 6 courses.
Tuning would be : aa c'c' bb g'g'g d'd' e'e'.

For lots of information see Zistern - "cetera" (in German).

example :
home made 1979 from kit of Early Music Shop UK
L=735 B=230 H=50mm
scale 450mm
You Tube
You Tube
with half frets

In large parts of Europe (but specially France, the Low Countries and England) the cittern became popular as a folk instrument in the 16th and 17th century. However in this type the body was not carved, but built from separate pieces of wood, glued together. This type of cittern seems very likely the descendent of the citole : you can still recognize the small "wings", the tapering body and the sickle-shape peghead.

The body has a more rounded tear-drop outline, and it has a flat back. The round soundhole has an inlayed rosette made from carved wood or cut out parchment. Where the sides meet the end of the neck some half round "pillars" hide the join.

The tuning head ends in a scroll, or often a carving of a human head. It has usually 9 tuning pegs, devided on both sides of the open tuning head.
The neck is P-shaped: one side is rounded, the other (the thumb-side) is flat. It has a raised fretboard with brass frets (fixed with wooden wedges), layed out in meantone tuning.

Some cittern did not have frets under all strings (partly short frets). This was probably because the instrument was in so-called "meantone tuning", so some notes would be too far out of tune to play in proper harmony. The only other instrument with this feature of partly short frets is the kabosy from Madagascar (see Africa).

The cittern has metal strings in 4 courses, some even with 3 strings. They run over a loose wooden bridge to some pins at the edge of the body.
Tuning would be : bb g'g'g d'd' e'e' , or in "french tuning" : a'a' g'g'g d'd' e'e' .

Compared with the lute and guitar, hardly any solo music was printed for it - mainly because it was most often used for strumming to accompany singing. However in England the cittern was part of the so-called "Broken Consort" (a small house band - which further contained a lute, a bandora, a violin, a viola da gamba and a flute), but even here it was mainly playing chords.

The sound is very rich and singing, like on most wire instruments. The little solo music that is found for it (in tablature), is of high quality. See for much more information about the cittern : Theaterofmusic.

example :
custom made by
Jo Dusepo, London 2021
L=660 B=250 H=55mm
scale 360mm
You Tube

cithrinchen / bell cittern

The bell cittern derives its name from the distinctive outline of its body. It was first made in the 17th C. in North Germany, with the name (Hamburger) Cithrinchen ("small cittern"). In England it became known as the Bell Cittern. It was also popular in Scandinavia, under the name cithrinchen.

The cithrinchen is rather small, and has the tapered sides of the older citterns and the d-shape neck. It has 3 soundholes : one central one and two smaller ones in the lower ends; these are usually covered with carved wooden rosettes. Some instruments had a more guitar-like body, but still three rosettes and 10 strings.

The neck has a separate fingerboard which extents over the front, with (at least) 12 metal frets (often in meantone tuning). The tuning head is half open and has 5 friction pegs on both sides. The top usually ends in a carved head of a man or an animal.

The 10 thin wire strings run over a loose wooden bridge and are fixed to some pins at the end of the body.

Tuning of a cithrinchen could be in 5 courses :
bes bes d'd' f'f' a'a' d''d'', or : c'c' e'e' g'g' b'b' e"e".
Sometimes it had more courses (with single bass strings) and then the tuning could be like : a c' f' a'a' c''c'' e''e'' a''a''.

The cithrinchen was played with a plectrum. Some manuscripts with (French) tabulature have survived.

For lots of information see Zistern - Hamburger cithrinchen (in German).

guittar / English guitar
example :
original Preston,
bought via eBay UK, 2008
restored 2012 by
L=650 B=290 H=75mm
scale 420mm
You Tube
You Tube

guittar / English guitar

In England the cittern survived for a long time, and developed halfway the 18th century into the more robust, almost mandolin-like English guitar (sometimes called cittern or cetra, or most often : guittar). This instrument was also used in Scotland and Ireland, and has continental European relatives like the French cistre (see under), and later the German waldzither (see under), the Swiss halszither (see under) and the still popular Guitarra Portuguese (see EuropeWest).

The guittar has a body like a large (flat-back) mandolin, but other, more wavy outlines were also used. The back is flat or slightly rounded. The sides are often less high near the neck, slanting from halfway. The soundhole is usually covered with a separate carved rosette (often a black/white star), or made of brass or (gilded) wood.
The back of the neck is half round (over the full width). The finger-board is raised above the front, and slightly rounded, with brass frets in meantone tuning. Often a special capodastre can be screwed in the holes in the front of the fingerboard. The strings run over a large loose wooden bridge (on two feet) to 10 separate pins at the bottom of the body.

The guittar has 10 wire strings in 6 metal courses: 4 double and the 2 lowest single.
The tuning is an open C tuning : c e gg c'c' e'e' g'g'.

Playing was fingerstyle, to accompany songs and some solo music. The sound is quite soft. Printed music was in stave notation, not in tablature.

A famous maker of guittars was John Preston in London (working 1735-1770); many of his instruments survive until today. Often the tuning head of his instruments was not with friction pegs (like the original 16th century cittern and the top example picture), but with a metal tuning device (designed by Preston) with 10 sliding parts, that could be moved up and down with a watch-key.
A quite similar tuning device is still used on Portuguese plucked instruments (see EuropeWest) and on the Hamburger type waldzither in Germany (see under).

Guittars sometimes had a special hammering device (known as "Pianoforte guitar") : a box with 6 keys which when pressed, make a small hammer beat on the strings of one of the courses to produce the sound, in stead of by plucking the strings. It probably would make a rather quiet sound....
Some hammering devices where on the outside and could be taken off in case you wanted to play the instrument normally. Other models were fixed inside the body and hammer the strings from underneath through the rosette.

For more information about the guittar and its music, see RobMackillop.
example :
from book Zistern,
Leipzig Museum
L=0 B=0 H=0mm
scale ~470mm
You Tube

In France and Flandern the cittern also survived for a long time in its original shape, but developed around 1750 into an instrument, quite similar to the English guitar. It was called cistre, or cythre, or guitthare allemande ("German guitar", to differenciate it from the "Spanish guitar", that had gut strings).

The main difference with the guittar is that the body shape looks more like a pear, and it is slightly larger.
Many have a tuninghead with the Preston machines. Some are decorated (like rosette and purfling) in the style of the baroque guitar.

It has 10 wire strings in 6 metal courses (4 doubles, the two basses single), in a tuning, different from the guittar : E A dd ee aa c#'c#' e'e'.

Playing was fingerstyle, using more chords than the more single-line guittar.

The cistre was in use up to around 1800. In Germany and Austria a similar instrument, called sister, was popular around the same time, but often with single strings. And in Russia the 7-string Russian guitar became popular, which was tuned in a open G-tuning.




In Germany and Switserland the cittern (with the German name "Zister" or "Zither") had been popular as a folk instrument for a long time, in a shape resembling the old 16th century cittern.

To distinguish these instruments-with-a-neck from the instruments of the table-harp type (like the dulcimers and scheitholz, which had taken over the name "zither" to describe this family of instruments), these were often called after the area : so "Thüringer Zister" (or "Thüringer Wald zither") in Thüringer Wald, and "Harzzither" in the Harz mountains, while in Switzerland they were called "Halszither" (see the instruments furtheron).

Thüringer Zister
example :
bought via eBay, 2009
L=760 B=290 H=70mm
scale 410mm
You Tube
Thüringer Zister 

The body shape of the Thüringer Zister still looks very much like the original cittern (although not tapering anymore), and the back of the neck still has a P-shape (it is only on the discant side).

It has metal frets on a raised fingerboard (free of the soundboard). The rosette is decorated, carved wood or parchment. The tuning head is often sickle shaped, but some more recent instruments had a flat head, with machine tuners. The strings run over a loose (metal) bridge to a metal stringholder on the edge of the body.

The tuning however had changed from the old cittern : the 9 metal strings were now in 5 double courses (except the lowest), and tuned : c gg c'c' e'e' g'g' (open C-tuning). Some regard this as 4 courses, with an extra (single) bass string.

The playing is usually fingerstyle, rarely with a plectrum.

The Thüringer Zister is hardly used anymore.

For lots of information see Zistern (in German).

Sächsiche theorbezister
example :
from book Zistern,
Leipzig Museum
L= B= H=mm
scale ~460/640mm
You Tube
without the bass strings
Sächsische theorbenzister

Although the Zister normally had 9 strings in 5 courses (4 double courses with one single bass string), often extra bass strings were added; sometimes on a second peghead (arch cittern). Around 1700 in the area of Sachsen a special model of Zister was used : the Sächsische theorbenzister, which has a very typical wavy body shape. The curves have vague connections with those of the orpharion and the bandora (see lutes), which also have wire strings.

The body is flat and has hardly any tapering. Although the body outline is quite similar in all surviving instruments, the rest of the instrument differs between the different makers. It can have one large or two separate bridges; it can have the strings fixed to the bridge or to the edge of the body, and often it has multiple rosettes.

The theorbenzister has usually 4 double courses over the fingerboard, and 8 single bass courses on the second peghead.

Tuning would be : B C d e f g a b / c'c' f'f' a'a' c'c'.

This theorbenzister is not used anymore.

For lots of information see Zistern (in German).

example :
made by Werner Oelze, Braunlage Germany,
bought from him 2021
L=715 B=305 H=70mm
scale 415mm
You Tube

In the German area of the Harz mountains the cittern (with the German name "zither") developed over the centuries quite similar to the Thüringer Zister. It was called Harzzither, or Bergzither.

At the beginning of 20th century the Harzzither changed : the neck with the P-shape gave way to the normal rounded neck. The same happened with the tuning head : the cittern-like long curved peghead with friction pegs on both sides was abandoned (under influence of the spanish guitar), in favour of a slotted peghead with mechanical guitar-tuners. This zither resembles (with 4 courses) a flat-back mandolin.

Harzzithers were always made by local crafsmen, often by the players themselves. So - although there are lots of similarities between them - they all look different. However the body outline is quite similar in all surviving instruments, with a flat back and hardly any tapering of the sides. The soundhole is sometimes covered with a woodcarving - either a separate inlay, or cut in the front. The strings run over a loose bridge to a wooden stringholder at the edge of the body.

The Harzzither usually has 8 metal strings in 4 double courses.
Tuning depends on the size, but is usually : gg c'c' e'e' g'g'.

Playing is with a plectrum (only upwards), often as part of an folk orchestra, or to accompany singing.
It is hardly used anymore.

For lots of information see Zistern (in German).

(vogtländer model)
example : bought second hand in 1984
L=750 B=290 H=75mm
scale 460mm
You Tube
normal 9-string waldzither
You Tube
14-string Hauzither
(Thüringer) waldzither 

The waldzither became popular in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. It is a far relative of the English guittar, but has only 5 courses (missing the 2nd lowest bass string). It is like a (4 course) Harzzither, with an extra (single) bass string.

The body shape still looks much like the original cittern, but the tuninghead is shaped like the mandolins, or the guitars, or the guitar-lutes ("vogtländer model" - see example) from the same period (and from the same area). Others have a tuning mechanism like that of an English guittar, and these are called Hamburger waldzither (see under). The others are since then known as Thüringer waldzither, or just : waldzither.
For a short period names like "Lutherzither" (for a 4 course instrument), or "Wartburglaute" were used.

The 9 metal strings are in 5 double courses (except the lowest), and tuned :
c gg c'c' e'e' g'g' (open C-tuning).

The German maker Hans Hau made in the 1930's waldzithern with 14 strings (4 top courses triple, the bass double. They look quite similar to a 14-string banduria from the Philippines (see SouthEastAsia).

The playing is usually fingerstyle, less with a plectrum.

Although in Germany there seems to be quite some trade on eBay in these instruments, they are not much used anymore.

For more information about the waldzither and its relatives, see (in
German) and Waldzither Page.

Hamburger waldzither
example :
Böhm zither,
bought via eBay 2009
L=670 B=320 H=70mm
scale 460mm
You Tube
Hamburger waldzither 

Around 1915 the Hamburger instrumentmaker C.H. Böhm developed a waldzither from the Portuguese guitarra, with the watch-key tuning mechanism and even with the curl at the end of the peghead. Soon this curl was left out, resulting in a very typical compact tuning head. Soon also other makers around Hamburg made quite similar models (like GEWA, Becker, Sampo), and so this type of waldzither is known as the Hamburger waldzither, or the Böhm waldzither. Böhm also made similar looking instruments with 8 strings to use as mandolines or mandolas, which he called "Waldolines".

The body outline resembles very much the Portuguese guitarra, with the back slightly rounded, and often made from several separate pieces of wood. The loose bridge is often made of white (or black) glass (!). The back of the neck is halfround.

The strings have a loop on both sides : they are fixed to small pins on the mandolin-type metal stringholder at the end of the body, and the other loop is hooked on a small hook of the tuning-mechanism. With a small watch-key you can turn the screw, which moves the hook up and down to tune the string. Notice that the shape of the mechanism is fanshape, not parallel like on the Preston English guittar.

The 9 metal strings are in 5 double courses (except the lowest), and tuned :
c gg c'c' e'e' g'g' (open C-tuning).

The playing is usually fingerstyle, rarely with a plectrum.

Although there is quite some trade on eBay with these instruments, they are not much used anymore.



Also in Switzerland the zither was popular, especially at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. And like in Germany to distinguise this zither with the harp-like zither family (played horizontal on a table, with for each tone a string) the zither here was called Halszither ("cittern with a neck").
Usually similar looking models like the Harz zither and Thüringer zister were in use, and also here they had regional names like the Emmentaler Halszither (or "Hanottere"), the Entlebucher Halszither (with 10 strings), the Toggenburger Halszither and the Krienser Halszither.

Emmentaler Halszither
example :
bought from
Hauser-Antiquitäten, Switserland, 2021
(probably made by
Joh.Bütler, ~1850)

L=660 B=260 H=60mm
scale 435mm
You Tube
Emmentaler Halszither / Hanottere 

In the area of Emmental this model was popular : the Emmentaler Halszither, also known by the nice name of Hanottere.

Details to recognize the Emmentaler Halszither are:
- body shape and size very much like the old cittern;
- carved half columns near the side of the neck;
- separate carved inlayed rosette, including ring around it;
- often animal carving at top of tuning head;
- usually 5 courses of 10 metal strings;

Tuning was usually : G dd gg bb d'd' (open G-tuning)

Playing is with a plectrum, often to accompany singing.


The Emmentaler Halszither is since long out of use.



For lots of information see Zistern (in German).


Toggenburger Halszither
example :
bought from Marcel Renggli, Switserland, 2021
(copy made by Josef Scherrer, 1980)

L=990 B=320 H=90mm
scale 515mm
You Tube
Toggenburger Halszither 

In the area of Toggenburg this model became popular for a while : the Toggenburger Halszither.

Details to recognize the Toggenburger Halszither are:

- a large, long instrument;
- body shape like the old cittern;
- rather high body sides;
- carved half columns at the side near the neck;
- rosette covered with decorated cardboard cutting;
- two extra rosettes, with small holes next to the bridge;
- a loose large stringholder, fixed to the edge of the body;
- 13 thin metal strings in 5 courses, usually tuned : c ggg c'c'c' e'e'e' g'g'g';
- quite a large scale length;
- often painted decoration on the fingerboard.

The Toggenburger Halszither is now hardly used anymore.


For lots of information see Zistern (in German).


Krienser Halszither
example :
bought from Marcel Renggli, Switserland, 2021
(made by Anton Amrein, 1922)

L=~680 B=270 H=70mm
scale 365mm
You Tube
Krienser Halszither 

Although most of the Swiss halszithers looked quite similar to the original cittern, for some reason also a small guitar-shaped halszither became popular. This one is known as the Krienser Halszither, named after the area where they were in use.

The Krienser Halszither is made like a small guitar, with a loose bridge and a mandolin-like stringholder. The neck does not touch the front.
The tuning head may look like a spanish guitar, a cittern, or a mandolin.
It has 9 tuning pegs (or machines) : 4 on the right side and 5 on the left.

The 9 metal strings are in 5 double courses.
The tuning is usually : G dd gg bb d'd' (open G-tuning).

It is often played single-line, with a plectrum (mandolin-like).

The Halszither is nowadays hardly used, although there were projects for its revival.


Celtic cittern
example :
bought via internet from, 2011
L=940 B=345 H=105mm
scale 590mm
You Tube
(Irish or Celtic) cittern

The modern "Irish" or Celtic" cittern seems to have evolved from the Greek bouzouki (and the Irish bouzouki) and isn't directly related to the ancient cittern instrument
(see the Irish bouzouki at the end of the page EuropeWest).

This cittern is usually similar to an Irish bouzouki, so a large mandolin-type instrument, with a flat back and a guitar-like neck. Although some call the Irish bouzouki also an "Irish" or "Celtic" cittern, the name cittern is nowadays often only used for the 5 course instrument. The scale is about the length of the Irish bouzouki.

The body shape varies, depending on the maker (these instruments are often handmade). The tuning head is usually flat with tuning machines from behind : 5 on each side. The 10 metal strings run over a loose wooden bridge to a metal string fastener (often mandolin-like) at the edge of the body.

Tuning of the Celtic cittern varies a lot, depending on the player, but usually it will be some open tuning like : GG dd aa d'd' g'g'.

Playing is normally with a plectrum, or fingerpicking style.


If you want to know more about all the differences in cittern/bouzoukis in folk music, see the website of Hobgoblin.

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