The concert zither is a modern instrument although the name has been applied to many other instruments though the ages. The zither evolved as a folk music instrument in Bavaria and Austria and, at the beginning of the 19th century, was known as a Volkszither. Its counterparts were the Hummel in Sweden, the Langeleik in Norway and the Noordsche Balk in Holland. All of these instruments were played with the instrument lying on the table and consisted of strings attached to a sounding board with a series of frets underlying several of the strings. The zither is played by stopping the frets with the fingers of the left hand and striking these strings simultaneously with a plectrum attached to the thumb of the right hand while the other fingers of the right hand pluck the remaining strings.
The kantele plays a central role in Finnish culture. Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem, first published in 1835, has a kantele-plucking hero. Resembling the zither, the instrument has been played in Finland for some 2,000 years, and variations exist in other eastern Baltic countries.
The most basic version has five strings but there are up to 39 on large concert models. “It’s a nice, easy way to start.” That’s why the kantele has been a key element of Finland’s celebrated music education system since the 1970s. Back then nobody was playing the kantele, but musician and composer Martti Pokela saved the instrument.
The psaltery is a type of medieval zither. It is an ancient instrument is seen in many forms (trapezoidal, wing-shaped and hog-nosed to name a few). The instrument’s name may have began in the Middle East, around the Mesopotamia area, where Iran and Iraq are today. It is thought to be about three thousand years old, only slightly younger than the oldest stringed instrument, the harp.
In ancient China, all scholars and gentlemen were expected to be well versed in four arts, namely, qin, qi, shu, hua, or the string music instrument, chess (go), calligraphy and painting.
Here, qin refers specifically to guqin, a seven-string Chinese zither. With a history of more than 5,000 years, guqin has long been regarded as the crown of all music instruments in the country and the symbol of Chinese high culture.
The word Gusli is in modern times used by Russians and other Slavic peoples for a range of stringed instruments (rather like the word harpa in Swedish), but we use the word as it is used in the early Bylinys (early Russian literature) to refer to Kantele type instruments, both with and without a playing window.