The cittern (occasionally spelled "cithern") is a stringed instrument of the lute/guitar family dating from the Renaissance. With its flat back, it was much simpler, and therefore cheaper, to construct than the lute, in addition to which it was easier to play and keep in tune and, being smaller and less delicate, far more portable. Thus, although it was played by all classes, the cittern was a premier instrument of casual music making for the common people, much like the guitar at the present day.
The name "cittern" has also been applied in the late twentieth century to a number of variant members of the mandolin family, for which see below.
The Renaissance cittern was one of the few metal-strung plectrum-plucked instruments from the period. Generally four courses (pairs) of strings, the cittern uses a range of only a major 6th between its lowest and highest strings, and employs a "re-entrant" tuning. The tuning and narrow range allow the player a number of simple chord shapes useful for both simple song accompaniment and dances, and its bright and cheerful timbre make it a valuable counterpoint to gut-strung instruments. Other variations on the cittern are the bandore (or bandora), an English bass instrument. The Spanish bandurria, still used today, is a similar instrument.
The cittern from the 16th through the 18th century was a common English barber shop instrument, kept in waiting areas for customers to entertain themselves and others with while waiting, and popular sheet music for the instrument was published to that end. The top of the pegbox was often decorated with a small carved head, perhaps not always of great artistic merit; references exist in Shakespeare's Love's Labour Lost and in other contemporary sources, insulting people by calling them 'cittern-heads'.
Just as the lute was enlarged and bass-extended to become the theorbo and chitarrone for continuo work, so the cittern was developed into the ceterone, with its extended neck and unstopped bass strings, but this was a much less common instrument.
In Germany the cittern survives under the name Lutherzither. The name comes from the belief that Martin Luther played this instrument, and a tendency in modern German to interchange the words for cittern and zither. The term waldzither came into use around 1900, in order to distinguish citterns from zithers.
The cittern family survives into the present day in the Portuguese guitarra, the descendant of English instruments brought into Portugal in the 18th century. The guitarra Portuguesa is typically used to play the popular traditional music known as Fado.
The name cittern has lately also been used to describe a bewildering variety of 8-, 10- and 12-string instruments of the mandolin family with a short scale length, below 22". This modern use of the name of the instrument is attributed to British luthier Stefan Sobell who devised a pear-shaped, 8-string instrument influenced by designs of English and Portuguese guitarras with their flat backs, ovoid bodies, and double-course strings. After seeing pictures of Renaissance citterns and noting the resemblance to his new design, he chose the name "cittern" to describe his instruments.
However, this is only one of a number of instruments currently known as citterns:
Notable present-day cittern players include Terry Woods, formerly of Steeleye Span and The Pogues, Paul O'Dette, and Mark Cudek of The Baltimore Consort. Lyle Nordstrom is one of the foremost bandora players.