Asian long zither


Opera Omnia
(see the other instruments I've made)

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Back around 1969 I bought a long zither from Pier 1 imports that was really intended as a wall decoration. It had about 16 plastic bridges and a molded brass tuning key. I never had much use for it and eventually I gave it to my good friend Howard Levy. As a master musician on any instrument upon which he lays his hands, Howard was able to do some great things on this cheapo little box. I believe he played it at his own wedding, and also used it at least once on a commercial jingle recording session ("United Flies to the Orient").

Then around 1987 or so I saw new age harpist Andreas Vollenweider in concert in which he played a cheng. This was a large instrument with what appeared to be fairly heavy strings. I was pretty wowed by the sound he got and remembered the old instrument I gave to Howard. Seemed like it would not be too difficult to make a similar instrument out of nicer materials than the Pier 1 beast.

About Asian Long Zithers

There is a long tradition of long zither-type instruments throughout Asia. Included among these are:

  • Japanese koto
  • Burmese migyaun
  • Thai chakay
  • Chinese ch'in
  • Korean kayakeum
  • Korean djunadjan
  • Korean cheng

I chose to call my instrument a Korean-style cheng, but it is by no means authentic in any way.


This was a project for which I used only materials at hand in my workshop. But note that the materials at hand were pretty unusual. I had some 48" by 1/8" thick Sitka spruce originally sold as lap dulcimer soundboards that I'd had for several years. I also had a supply of zither pins and music wire, and some nice red oak rails and beautiful spalted maple blocks from previous projects.

The first step was to build the frame. The end blocks are made of spalted maple with interesting discoloration. I calculated an arc to be used and just cut the blocks on my bandsaw. I then used an angle gauge to transfer the angle between the vertical side to the curved top to the table saw. I then cut the side rails with this angle on the top edge so the curve would transition smoothly to the sides. I assembled the frame with the tail block inset from the end so that the end pins for the strings would not be exposed. The frame is also held together with brass dowels set in the sides. This was mostly a decorative touch, but it also ensures the blocks wouldn't pull up under tension.

Next came the soundboard. It needed to be a bit wider than the stock I had, so I butt glued two pieces together after running the edges on the joiner to assure a perfect fit. The trick with fitting the soundboard was putting the curve in it. I did this is a fairly crude fashion by simply wetting the wood and hanging weights on it for a few days until it warped enough to be glued down to the frame. This process resulted in some stains on the pristine white spruce, so I decided I would try to cover them up by staining the soundboard a solid black.

I had never used aniline dye stains before, so this was a new experience. The stuff went on very easily and gave a surprisingly even color. After gluing the soundboard to the frame, I  trimmed the edges flush and was astounded that the stain had not penetrated more deeply. It gave me a clean white edge to the spruce which did not require binding

I used a piece of re-sawn curly maple to cover the space at the tail end of the top. This did not bend as easily as the spruce. I soaked it and ran it over a hot iron until it was close to the curve I needed, then just glued it in place. The whole thing is finished in clear poly.

I chose to use sixteen string so it would play two octaves diatonic or three octaves pentatonic. I used drawn brass nails (1" escutcheon pins) as hitch pins set into the end block. There are only eight pins, so each string actually comes from the tuning pin to the end pin and back to the next tuning pin. I wrapped the string a couple of times around the end pin so the tendency to alter the pitch on the adjacent string is not great (though it does happen a little bit).

To get the splay arrangement of the tuning pins, I just used a Portalign attachment on a hand drill. This allowed me to drill holes that were perpendicular to the curve. I was pretty happy with the results.

The bridges were a challenge. I needed the feet to match to soundboard curve and I wanted them all to look alike. The feet were adjusted by simply rubbing them against sandpaper  that I place directly on a wood block of the same arc as the soundboard. To make them all the same, I used a number of tools including the table saw and router to cut a long strip of wood with the bridge profile. I then just sliced them off like slabs of butter. I made a jig for the disk sander to shape the apex of each bridge and used a fine triangular file to cut a small string notch.

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