The Ancient Greek Kithara

The Ancient Greek Kithara

by Joyce Rice

If I said “Greek lyre” to you, you’d probably picture something like this:

I would, too. But recently I happened upon a video of a man playing a re-creation of a much bigger lyre, an ancient Greek kithara (pronounced kee-TA-ra), from which comes “guitar”, and it looked pretty much like this version seen on a Greek pottery piece.

Huh? What are all those projections and curvy things? And it’s so big!  I poked around online for other images of Greek vases, etc., which I hope you’ll do, and realized that lyres came in many forms.

(By the way, he looks like he’s playing a harp but a lyre is more like a zither, with the strings lying parallel to the sound box, whereas a harp’s strings come out of the soundbox and are perpendicular to it.)

Anyway, here is the video link. The kithara is played and explained by Peter Pringle. Luthier Theodore Koumartzis wrote me, “My father, Anastasios, made this beautiful kithara some years ago. You can find more about the instruments that we make here:”

If you want to hear more of this kithara, go to This video presentation features clips from all of the tracks of another player, Michael Levy, and his album "The Ancient Greek Kithara of Classical Antiquity".


Stringed instrument evolution

1.  The hunting bow (plucked) was the first stringed instrument

2.    The hunting bow was then set on top of a drum skin (plucked) for more volume

3.    The hunting bow was then attached permanently to a drum, with more strings added, and eventually tuning ties added

4.    This evolved into the kora, kinubi, and other closely related instruments 

5.    From this point they further evolved into four categories: 

·         perpendicular neck, bowed (Chinese erhu, East Indian esraj, etc.)

·         perpendicular neck, plucked (African Gourd Banjo)

·         no fingerboard neck but strings perpendicular to body, plucked (Egyptian harp - no pillar)

·         no fingerboard neck but strings parallel to body, plucked (Lyre)   

     From there, these evolved: 

·         The Erhu, esraj, etc., though still played today, also evolved into the modern violin/cello family.

·         The gourd banjo was re-created in America by slaves, and became the banjo with a metal tone ring we know today. Meanwhile, however, it had found its way out of Africa and into Europe where it evolved into the vihuela and then guitar.

·         The Egyptian harp found its way to Scotland and Ireland (by tin-trade oversea routes), where the pillar was eventually added (ancient pillar-less harps have been dug up in bogs and the first known one with a pillar was found in a Pictish gravesite). See more about harp history on Harp Spectrum!

·         The lyre evolved into the koto, hammered dulcimer, bandura, etc., and eventually the multi-stringed psaltery and then the harpsichord and piano.

(Thanks to harper Laurie Riley)


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