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This instrument is pronounced "saltery" and is the oldest instrument in my collection. Dating back about 3000 years, it was first played in Greece and the Middle East at the time the Old Testament was written and its basic design - a hollow sound box with resonating strings stretched across it - was the basis for a very wide family of zithers, autoharps and hammered dulcimers. Indeed, the same basic pattern is used today in all modern acoustic stringed instruments.

Photograph of the Plucked Psaltery

Plucked Psaltery Sound Clips


play clip: 127 kb


play clip: 112 kb

Large printable image of the plucked psaltery

King playing the so-called pigs head PSALTERY  The plucked psaltery, usually made in the characteristic trapezoid shape shown above or in a slightly more elaborate version with curved sides (the "pigsnout" psaltery shown in the picture on the left) was hugely popular throughout Europe during the Middle Ages: Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340 - 1400) refers to it in his Millere's Tale. Each string on this type of psaltery is plucked either with the player's fingernails or with a plectrum. The strings on the earliest psalteries were made from gut, but later steel-stringed psalteries make a louder, brighter sound. The example in the photograph, which you can also hear on the sound clip, is a Russian psaltery called a cimbala (from the word cimbalum, which was sometimes used to describe the early family of hammered dulcimers).

Text copyright © James McCafferty 2000 Photographic images copyright © John Credland and James McCafferty 2000