The Prizim Zither

Hal Weeks Playing the Prizim Zither

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“The Prizim Zither has an astonishing range of musical possibilities that will open all kinds of musical portals to the intrepid voyager. Melodic galactic empires will open before your astonished ears.  The possibilities are infinite!”–Phil Lawrence, professional mandolinist/guitartist

“The Prizim Zither is the most exciting development I’ve seen in my 50 years of autoharping.  It’s expanded flexibility opens new vistas for the instrument.” –Ray Frank, professional guitarist, autoharpist.

Autoharp: the Next Generation

By Hal Weeks

Much as a prism bends white light into colorful rainbows, the Prizim Zither bends simple musical chords into more colorful ones. The sparkling melodies and harmonies of the Prizim are a delight to hear. The Prizim is the next step in the evolution of a truly ancient instrument. It was developed in 2006 by Todd Crowley with help from Will Smith and Hal Weeks.

The Prizim is the latest member of the ancient Zither family; an instrument which dates back further than recorded history. The Prizim’s closest relative is the autoharp; indeed, the Prizim is an evolved autoharp; or, as one of the design collaborators called it, “an autoharp on steroids.”

The autoharp uses a simple mechanism whereby the player depresses a single button attached to a bar to create one of up to 21 simple chords (major, minor and dominant 7ths).  The Prizim player must depress two buttons to create those same chords. Single bars on the Prizim create scales. When 2 of these bars are combined, chords then become possible for the player…including Majors, Minors, Major 7ths, Minor 7ths, add9, sus4, minor 6’s, major 6’s, and 9th chords.  Autoharp does not have most of these. Because the Prizim is chromatically tuned it can play in 6 keys.

The technique of playing two bars at once is not a new innovation; it was used by several autoharp players in the past 20 or 30 years. The Prizim is different than these “tandem bar” predecessors in several ways. First, it retains the same arrangements of the fingering positions throughout it’s 6 keys; the player merely moves everything over by one button and the music moves up or down the circle of 5ths, making left hand technique almost as easy as playing on a standard autoharp. The button layout is also congruent with a very commonly used autoharp button layout, so an autoharp player can adapt to playing Prizim in very little time. Two bars may be depressed with one finger in many cases. The second way the Prizim is different than other tandem bar harps is that it has diatonic major scales on 6 of it’s bars; so it can perform diatonic “open chording”,an advanced technique heard previously only on diatonic autoharps. Diatonics only play in one or two keys, however; Prizim will do it in all 6 keys!

Why the Name?  Why the spelling?
For 5 years, the instrument was called the “Diachromic Autoharp” (Diatonic/Chromatic). It has now been dubbed the “Prizim Zither”(or Prizim for short). There are several reasons for no longer choosing to refer to it as an autoharp.  First, as the “auto” part is somewhat diminished (it is, at best, semi-automatic). Second, the autoharp never was a harp, it’s always been a zither. The “Z” in Prizim is for Zither. Third, the creators felt it needed a more evocative name, representing what it does: it’s player “bends” the straight chords into “color” chords much as a prism would bend light into colorful rainbows.  Fourth, an answer to “what’s in an name”?  For years, serious players of the autoharp have wrestled with the reputation associated with the instrument.  With a new name, the Prizim evokes curiosity and praise from musicians who have never heard of an autoharp.  Then there are those who have heard of autoharp, but who have marginalized them in their minds as an instrument not worthy of serious attention, because of it’s limitations.  The Prizim is causing them to think again.


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