Pluck Play

Music for fun or therapy -- Mostly zithers, lap harps, etc., that have music sheets that slide under the strings for dot-to-dot playing

Friday, October 30, 2009


Tuning these instruments was intended to be the topic of my next post three years ago when I lost continuity on this blog. A recent email inquiry reminded me that it was still pending and provided the nudge to get going.

Proper tuning can make a huge difference to the sound quality, and is neither expensive nor difficult.

For tuning my MusicMaker, Melody Harp, and other Zither & Zither-like instruments, I like my Korg Chromatic Tuner, but I'm not sure similar products aren't just as good. All the tools I mention here are available here, except the clothespin.

You will also need a pickup - mine clips on, but many of the instruments are too thick, which I deal with by clipping to a tuning post (not for the string I am tuning), sometimes with the help of a clothespin. I keep intending to try a suction cup pickup, but haven't gotten around to it.

For the actual tuning, you will need a full sized tuning wrench - the little metal doohickeys that come with some of the instruments are too small for fine control.

Once you have the equipment, the tuning sheet that came with your instrument (or a fudge, as shown), have read the instructions that come with the tuner and played with the setup a bit, it is actually rather easy.

Fine control is absolutely called for: if you can feel the wrench move, it is moving too much. I have to keep reminding myself to nudge it to just shy of movement. Of course if the pin is frozen, nudging won't help - it is often necessary to actually rotate the pin a few degrees each direction past the desired note to make sure that it is moving freely enough to allow tuning.

In the image below, both the "needle" & the red LED indicate that I need to tighten the string a wee smidgeon. My next effort showed that I need to loosen it a bit. With only a few moments more tweaking, I would get the image at top, with the green LED in the middle on and the "needle" centered - showing I am really close. It takes a lot longer with a one-man-band/photographer trying to do everything: the tuner kept timing out before I could get the camera aimed & framed. Not a problem when you are just trying to tune, not photograph.

Of course, after tuning one string you have to tune all the others.

And then do it all again.

Especially if the instrument has been badly out of tune, the process of tightening or loosening various strings will affect the overall tension on the soundbox, which will affect the other strings. So don't try to be too precise at first, and if it has been really out of tension, or just came down from the attic or was just delivered, just get it sort of close and let it sit over night before trying for closer.

The more precisely the instrument is tuned, the more it will "sing" as the soundbox and various strings pick up the harmonics written into the music. It takes it out of the "toy" category and into the "music" category. Fun enough tuned moderately well, near magic tuned precisely.

Well worth doing.

I may try to clean this up a bit more in the next day or three.

Please leave questions in the comments section.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Roll Your Own

One might think that with several hundred different tunes available for under-the-strings playing, that would be good enough.

But I can't resist making my own as well. Partly because there are songs I want to play that aren't commercially available, partly just because I can.

I suspect it is at least partly a control issue: When I make my own, I free myself from the whims of the publishers, and am able to make my own choices.

Usually, I start with a pad of lined paper intended for elementary school penmanship. The lines are at half inch intervals, and run the long length of the paper (landscape format), which makes them just what I need to be able to rim and play as soon as I am finished with the transcription.

By marking the lines at one edge or the sheet with the note letters, keeping track of position is easy. By beginning at the bottom line with the note corresponding to the key pitch (the "tonic"), the key transposition to the instrument occurs automatically, at least for the more common instruments.

From then on, it is mostly a mechanical process, based on a minimal study of music notation and of examples provided by the instrument makers.

Once I have trimmed and tested it on a basic instrument, then I can make additional copies, enlarging or reducing as necessary to fit their string spacing, and trimming in alternate shapes and formats. I tend not to fill the page any more than necessary in order to provide more flexibility for the latter.

It has been well worth the effort: my own projects have provided some of my favorite Pluck Play.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Oscar Schmidt 5/25

When eBay offered up this old chromatic Zither (chromatic = melody strings for all the piano keys, both black and white, in its two-octave range, rather than just the white-key-counterparts of diatonic Zithers), I had my doubts: rusty pins and crazing of the varnish both suggested moisture damage, which suggested the glued joints might pop apart when tension was put on the strings to bring the Zither into tune. Furthermore, it had enough additional cosmetic damage that it wasn't much of a display piece. And to be honest, the Oscar Schmidt Zithers just aren't that appealling, especially compared to their German counterparts.

The biggest disadvantage for me is that the melody strings are a quarter inch apart (in contrast to the one-third inch of the Germans, and about one-half inch of most of the Zithers I have played and have shown here previously) which means they are harder to play, and it is harder to read the music sheets, which in the case of German sheets such as this example, have to be reduced-size copies. Others might find it a problem that there are only 5 chord groups, rather than the six that is standard in German model 3½ Zithers (this is a standard designation used by many German, and even American, manufacturers; I don't know if the American 3½ Zithers are dimensionally compatible with the Germans or are smaller like the OS shown here). But I haven't been using the chord groups at all, so for me, less is better.

Besides, the music sheets may call for 6 chord groups, but most of the sheets allow positioning for either of two major keys, only one of which will use the sixth chord. (Chord groups tend to be in consistant order in various Zithers, and consitantly numbered from right to left, so chords one through three of a siz chord Zither correspond in value and numbering to the three chords of a three chord Zither.) That also brings up one of the niftiest advantages of the full-chromatic instruments: simply by aligning the "Unterlegnoten" differently, one can use the same sheet to play the tune in any of several different keys. Can't do that on a diatonic Zither!

This Zither arrived late Friday afternoon, and over the next few days I gave it a chance for acclimatization and recovery from whatever temperature/humidity/air-pressure abuses it had gotten in transit, and I began bringing it into tune. Yesterday it finally was sounding something like what was intended, and this morning it indeed hadn't lost significant pitch overnight. The sound box was finally more or less stabilized in playable condition.

And boy is it loud! Just amazing. Now, that may be somewhat exagerated as I have to hover over the strings trying to read the miniscule notes and pluck the right strings, but there is no doubt that it is louder than anything else I have played, as well having a resonance that is richer and more sustained. I think it will take some time and practice to become more at ease with its difficulties, but I think it will be worth it.

Nice Pluck Play.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Musima Kinder Zither

This children's zither (the literal translation of Kinder Zither) differs a little from the instruments previously shown, in that it is an Akkordzither, having two groups of Chord strings at the left edge (unlike the others, which are normally played with the strings horizontal, this is played with the strings vertical), and only twelve rather than fifteen melody strings.

One's left thumb strums a selected chord group to accompany the melody being plucked with one's right hand. Mostly too much for me so far, but I have given it some tries, and am getting better at it -- though so far at the cost of any relaxation or enjoyment of playing. I'm not sure that there isn't still therapeutic benefit though, so I will keep trying.

Larger versions of Akkordzither can have many chord groups and many more melody strings, and are chromatic rather than diatonic. This zither, and those previously illustrated, are diatonic, meaning the strings correspond to a single key, seven of the twelve notes possible in a a full octave. A chromatic instrument can play in any of the keys, and handle notes with "accidentals" -- the sharps or flats that alter a note from the standard pitch for that key.

You may recognize the shape of this instrument (and to a lesser extent then Harbert Italiana Jr Zither) as being very similar to that of the Autoharp, with most of the strings feeding into an angle, then squared off at the base end. Here, that serves the needs of the chord group, but I'm not sure why it happens on the Autoharp.Though since pianos and true harps have a curved version of the same sort of thing, it probably has an accoustical significance I just don't understand yet.

Musima seems to have been the leading producer of Akkordzithers in its 1953-1990 era. It was a government owned operation in Markneukirchen, in the DDR, also known as East Germany, and like many such concerns, did not do well after German reunification in 1989 threw it into free competition with the world. My zither dates from 1982.

Like my previous zithers, the Kinderzither is also distinguished by under-the-strings note sheets, something Autoharps lack, and soon I will try copying some music sheets from the others, reducing them to fit the narrower string spacing (ignoring the chord strings for now). I will need to choose for the narrow range and different key, so that is not a rush job.

Even with the temporarily limited selection of tunes, this is still good Pluck Play.


Made in Belorus, the former Soviet Republic west of Russia, these fun little instruments are found in many better toy stores, along with extra music sets such as those in the background of the photo. That's a newer version to the left and an older to the right. There has been at least one additional version of the bird logo and "Перепелочка" label ("Perepelochka" -- but "transliterated in eBay listings as Nepenenoyka, Nepenenoc4ka, Nepeneaouka, and who knows what, by those unfamiliar with Cyrillic script).

"Perepelochka" is either "a little bird," or some specific little bird; it is also the name of a traditional Russian song, so it is frustrating me that I haven't been able to pin that down.The American importer, European Expressions, avoids that question, as well as the question of whether they instrument is a Lap Harp or a Zither, by marketing it as "Music Maker."

In spite of the differences in appearance and construction, these are functionally and aurally almost identical to the Harbert Italiana "Jr Zither" illustrated in my previous post. The music sheets aren't quite interchangable, due to the different shapes and different standard tunings (G major for the Perepelochka, C major for the Harbert Italiana), but either can be tuned for the other's key, and the music sheets used by photocopying (a slight reduction/enlargement helps, but isn't totally necesary) and trimming to the other's shape.

These are very satisfactory toys, and are well worth getting, especially for those whose age or disabilities may preclude other instruments.

Good pluck play.