Fretless zithers are not just an American phenomenon. Like many other variants, the harpeleik, invented in Sweden by Adolf Larsson, arose in the late 1800s as an easier-to-play alternative to the Alpine zither. It has very rich chords (9 and 10 strings on mine), organized in fifths, with wonderfully sonorous bass notes, and with very high notes with tuning pins anchored part way down the face of the instrument. Manufactured today by C. Robert Hopf in Germany, this instrument is known in Norwegian and Swedish folk music, as a search of YouTube will attest. Australian-born Shirley Abicair, popular on British TV in the 1950s and ’60s, played one. I have several, all obtained through Ebay.
This YouTube video features my rendition of “The Ballad of Judith Folger”, accompanied by harpeleik.
- Shirley Abicair plays her instrument on the TV show “To Tell the Truth” in 1963, starting ~ 6:30 minutes in.
- Zitherman, in Norway, removed the shorter strings and their tuning pins to electrify his harpeleik to play with a slide!
- This issue of the Swedish folk music magazine “Östgötaspel” focuses on the instrument and includes an article (on p. 8) about inventor Adolf Larsson (which I am slowly translating into English via Google Translate…)
- Musicologist, organologist, and retired museum curator Cary Karp has written an in-depth discussion of the history of this instrument. Highly recommended!