Some of my instruments, including the Marxophone, violin-guitar, Phonoharp No. 1, and harpeleik featured on my CD Joyful Confluence, as well as the ukelin featured on my first, self-titled CD, belong to the fretless zither family. Many such were developed starting in the late 1800s as more accessible (and marketable!) alternatives to the technically demanding Alpine zither. The many resultant inventions, some ridiculous, some sublime, and all advertised as the ultimate in DIY music making, were sold, often door-to-door and in popular catalogs, not just in North America but also in Europe and Australia. Many were play-by-number, with numbered music sold alongside. The autoharp is perhaps the best known of this family. Most other variants went out of production, though a few types, without playing mechanisms, are still made, particularly in Europe.
Here are photos of just a few of the many in my collection. I will be adding to this gallery in coming days. For more about those shown here, please follow these links, presented in order of appearance, left to right: Marxophone, violin-guitar, ukelin, harpeleik, Phonoharp No. 1, and dolceola.
Some resources for learning more (With apologies, I am not including links specific to the autoharp, since info about this higher-profile fretless zither is abundant and relatively easy to find):
- My favorite site, known as (and formerly found at) FretlessZithers.com, started by the late Illinois/Indiana fiddler and folklorist Garry Harrison, and now maintained by his family
- Another font of knowledge, gathered and organized by Kelly Williams, focused on – but not limited to! – Menzenhauer Guitar-Zithers
- A great overview by Gregg Miner and Kelly Williams
- An excellent history, from a European perspective, Industrially Produced Zithers without Fingerboards, by Andreas Michel
- All things ukelin!
- The Ukelin and Fretless Zither Appreciation Society, on Facebook
- Angie Smales of Running with Zithers, in Australia, is reviving the art of playing chord zithers with tune sheets underlying the strings.
- Amis de la Cithare is a membership organization of chord zither enthusiasts based in France. Their website, all in French, includes a store and many interesting links. Large chord zithers are prominently featured.
- Search YouTube by instrument name
- Search for Ekim Beau and check him out! I like this clip from 1985 a lot.
- Look for Etienne de Lavaulx, from Australia, on YouTube, doing stuff like this.
Some contemporary fretless zither sources:
- C. Robert Hopf, a maker in Germany
- Michael Marko, a maker in Germany
- Thomann, a German company, handles some Hopf instruments (in English and in dollars)
- The monks of L’Abbaye d’En Calcat, who make instruments at their monastery in France
- Luca Panetti, a maker in Italy
- Lark in the Morning, in the US, offers several fretless zithers, including a Hopf violinzither and a reproduction of the Harp-O-Chord Company’s Harp-Zither, which came to be known as the MacArthur Harp after the late Margaret MacArthur.
Feel free to be in touch! I love to turn people on to these instruments by playing them and discussing them. (No requests for appraisals, please and thank you!) I can bring my Marxophone & Beyond presentation to you.