We imagine that the world is split into two types of people: those who have never heard of the cittern, and those who desperately want to get their hands on this musical instrument and get playing.
Considering that you have found yourself here, we are guessing that you belong in the second category – although you might not put it in those terms. And our project here is to have you fulfil your desire: to get you playing this stringed instrument and taking its music to everyone in that first category.
And we’ll admit it. Out of all the musical instruments that you can possibly learn in the world, the cittern is up there with the mandolin or the harpsichord as one of more obscure stringed instruments. It’s not exactly like the modern guitar, is it, or violins, for which you can find lessons and training on pretty much every corner of every street.
No, it isn’t. If you want to learn to play the cittern, you have to make a bit more of an effort. You need to find out how to tune it, what notes the strings are supposed to be – and then find the correct strumming or plucking technique, and all the pieces in the repertoire that you’ll want to play.
You’ll never take for granted how easy it is to learn the guitar ever again.
So, here, we’re going to give you all the information that you might need before you sit down and start learning the cittern: a bit of the instrument’s history, some famous citternists you need to know, and some basic techniques.
And we’ll finish off by pointing you in the direction of some cittern teachers – to make your life a bit easier.
What is the Cittern?
If you have read our article on learning to play the mandolin, you may well think that this instrument known as the cittern is really just another of the family of mandolins.
In fact, many of its features are very similar: it often has eight strings arranged into four two-string courses – although it can often have six courses too –, it has a box-shaped body and resonator, and it is strung with metal strings. However, where with a mandolin you use a plectrum, on the cittern you primarily just use your fingers.
Meanwhile, whilst mandolins are reasonably widespread as instruments, citterns are not so much. And, importantly, they only come in one shape. There are not all these differences between flat-backed and bowl-shaped citterns that you find in mandolins. Citterns are flat-backed – making them easier and cheaper to make.
However, the primary difference between the cittern and the mandolin is in their history. They are two distinct instruments with two distinct trajectories. But, given their history – and the fact that the cittern is a primarily historical instrument – all of these terms tend to become a little confused.
And so, despite the cittern’s history, it can often be very similar – and often confused – with a mandolin, a mandola, or even a bouzouki.
A Brief History of the Cittern.
The cittern comes from the family of lutes and it was popular across Europe in the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. It is generally thought to have developed from the earlier instrument, the citole, which is considered to be the ancestor of the modern-day fiddle.
Whilst most string instruments during the Renaissance used gut strings, the cittern made use of metal, which were placed over a fretted neck and what is known as a ‘pear-shaped body’ – as opposed to the contemporary guitar’s double-shouldered shape.
Just as the guitar is now, the cittern was a popular instrument, with popular in the sense of it being an instrument of the people rather than, say, of the aristocracy. There are even references to citterns being in barber shop waiting rooms, so that people could play as they waited.
However, by the end of the eighteenth century, the guitar had started to push the cittern aside, in terms of popularity and distribution. Apart from in Germany and Switzerland, where citterns were still being commonly made and played, they generally stopped being used across Europe.
Stefan Sobell, an English luthier, has, since the seventies, been making instruments that he calls ‘citterns’. This is essentially an octave mandolin but with five courses – again suggesting that the distinction between the mandolin and the cittern is not so rigid.
Check out how to learn the ukulele too!
Some Famous Cittern Performers.
Well, okay, maybe ‘famous’ is pushing it a little; as in the world of the lute and other string instruments, no-one is exactly famous in the world of the cittern.
However, it is good to know that there are some citternists out there from whom you can draw some inspiration. Because that, really, is what folk music is all about: listening to other composers and players of traditional music and developing it in a way that suits your taste.
So, let’s look at two citternists who can show you a bit about how this instrument is played. And yes, whilst famous is a push, these guys may well be considered rockstars in the world of the cittern.
Let’s start with Ale Carr, the cittern player with the Denmark-based band Dreamers’ Circus. These guys play awesome classical-inspired folk music, combining Carr’s cittern and a fiddle.
Carr shows you what contemporary cittern-playing can be – and the tunes he plays on his five-course (ten-string) cittern are really incredible.
You can find some solo performances on YouTube. Otherwise, you can find him on the folk circuit across Europe and beyond.
Gregory Doc Rossi.
Meanwhile, Gregory Doc Rossi is something of the boss of traditional cittern music. As something of a specialist in the cittern, he has established the Cittern Society – an organisation that promotes cittern music – he has given lectures and research on the history of the cittern, and he has recorded music from forgotten manuscripts of scores for cittern.
Regarded as something of an expert of the cittern, he performs all over the world on this string instrument.
How to Play the Cittern.
The cittern is traditionally plucked with the fingers – as opposed to the mandolin, for which a plectrum or a quill was traditionally used.
However, these days, it is common to use a plectrum – as both Rossi and Carr do.
Whilst anyone with knowledge of the classical or acoustic guitar would be able to play a cittern, the primary – and not insubstantial – difference is in the cittern’s courses. This means that with every note that you fret, you are required to actually fret two strings simultaneously. Whilst this is a bit tough on the fingers at first, you will soon get used to it.
On the other end of the instrument, however, you have to be able to pluck both strings simultaneously too. This is why the plectrum has become a bit more popular than fingerpicking on the cittern.
Whilst picking, it is crucial that you engage both of the strings, otherwise your tone will be affected. If only one string sounds, you won’t get as much volume or as much depth of tone.
How to Tune a Cittern?
As citterns are traditional instruments, there is no single standard tuning that is used. Rather, there are as many as is convenient for you.
We get that this does not provide a huge amount of guidance! However, many citternists use one of the following tunings:
If you have a four-course cittern, traditional tunings are
Where to Find Cittern Lessons.
A good teacher is always a gift when you are starting out on a new instrument. And even if you are a guitarist with a good technique nailed, teachers can be useful for all sorts of other things too: for providing you with repertoire or inspiration, general advice, or jamming practice.
And whilst there is not a whole load of cittern tutors out there, there are some. Let’s take a look.
Find a Private Cittern Tutor on Superprof.
One way to find someone to help you to learn the cittern would be through Superprof, a platform that connects students to tutors worldwide.
We have hundreds of different tutors of the mandolin, the lute, the cittern, and a whole raft of other string instruments across the world.
All you need to do is get in touch. So, search for a cittern tutor near you and get started!
You can find plenty of resources to help you in your quest to master the cittern online too. From YouTube to music forums, there are so many people out there who can talk you through the basics.
Check out how to learn the banjo too!