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Gregg Miner

Musical instrument. Generic term for an American or European zither that has only nonfretted (open) strings, as opposed to a concert or “Alpine” zither, which utilizes a fretted fingerboard. (See also Zither, fretted .) Fretless zithers were commercially developed and widely distributed in many forms beginning in the late 19th century, especially in the United States. The earliest such invention is the Autoharp , patented in the United States in 1882 by the German immigrant Charles F. Zimmermann, but built upon the better mechanical design of a different Volkszither patent by Karl August Gütter of Markneukirchen, Germany in 1883 or 1884. Its strings are strummed by one hand while the other hand operates a series of damper bars, which mute notes not of the desired chords. It was followed by the guitar-zither patented in the United States in 1894 by Friederich Menzenhauer (1858–1937). Its 15 diatonic melody strings are accompanied by four groups of four open strings, each group sounding a chord (tonic, 3rd, 5th, sometimes dominant 7th or octave). Variant types were produced in great numbers by several dozen manufacturers, from the late 1890s onward. Some of these (e.g. the marxophone) include mechanical attachments that strike or pluck the strings. The ukelin and related types have bowed melody strings. Others have only melody strings or strings configured into chord groups, sometimes with a melody playable from the chords. The most prominent American manufacturers were Menzenhauer (later Menzenhauer & Schmidt and Oscar Schmidt, Jersey City, New Jersey), The Phonoharp Co. (Boston), and H.C. Marx/Marxochime Colony (New Troy, Michigan). Inexpensive fretless zithers were mass-produced and intended for amateurs or nonmusicians. Often, a decal with staff notation or names of the strings was affixed to the soundboard, beneath the strings. Paper song sheets, with notation or diagrams of notes to be played, could be placed under the strings as a guide. Thousands of pieces were published for these “numerical instruments” from their first appearance to about ...


David J. Kyger

Musical string instrument. The fretted zither is a resonating body with strings extending across the width of the instrument. A modern zither has five fretboard strings and up to 37 open strings. It is placed on a flat surface with the player seated behind the instrument. Frets are set into the fretboard, indicating where the fingers of the left hand need to stop the strings in order to play melodies. A ring with a projecting thorn is placed on the tip of the right-hand thumb to strike the fretboard strings, while the remaining fingers act upon the open strings for the accompaniment.

The zither was widely introduced to the American public by Joseph Hauser of the Hauser Family, a group of Tyrolean singers, in the late 1840s. Numerous songs performed by the family were published by Oliver Ditson in Boston. Sheet music selections published by the company feature a lithograph of the performers, with Joseph Hauser holding a zither....