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chord-zithers
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3-chord zithers Menzenhauer 3/11 chord-zither (#00)
Menzenhauer 3/15 chord-zither (#0)
Menzenhauer 3/15 chord-zither (#1)

 

4-chord zithers Menzenhauer 4/15 chord-zither (#0 1/2)
Phonoharp 4/15 chord-zither (#1)
Phonoharp 4/15 chord-zither (#2)
Phonoharp 4/15 chord-zither (#2 1/4)
Menzenhauer 4/15 chord-zither (#2)
Phonoharp 4/16 chord-zither ("Yendrick's Club Special")
Schmidt 4/16 chord-zither ("Hawaiian Mandolin Harp")
Later Schmidt "standard" 4/16 chord-zither
Early Phonoharp 4/17 chord-zither
Phonoharp 4/17 chord-zither (#2 1/2)
Phonoharp 4/30 chord-zither
Menzenhauer 4/30 chord-zither
Schmidt 4/30 chord-zither
Marx Co. 4/30 chord-zither

5-chord zithers
Menzenhauer 5/15 chord-zither (#0 3/4)
Phonoharp 5/17 chord-zither (#3)
Menzenhauer 5/21 chord-zither (#2 1/2)
Phonoharp 5/21 and 5/42 chord-zither (#3 1/2)
Phonoharp 5/25 chord-zither (#3 3/4)
Menzenhauer 5/25 chord-zither (#3)
Schmidt 5/25 chord-zither

6-chord zithers Early Phonoharp 6/22 chord-zither
Phonoharp 6/22 chord-zither (#4)
Menzenhauer 6/25 chord-zither (#3 1/2)

7-chord zither Menzenhauer 7/26 chord-zither (#4)

9-chord zither Menzenhauer 9/26 chord-zither (#5)

scroll-and-pillar models Phonoharp
Menzenhauer
Schmidt

conversions Phonoharp 4/30 to 4/15 chord-zither
Phonoharp 5/15 chord-zither
Phonoharp 6/16 chord-zither
Menzenhauer 9/40 chord-zither

 

fretless zithers > plucked instruments > chord-zithers

First patented May 29, 1894 by Fred. Menzenhauer, the chord-zither is one of the most playable of all fretless zithers. The term chord-zither refers to its distinctive feature, namely a section of strings that are grouped into chords for the purpose of self-accompaniment. This feature is shared by many other fretless zithers. The chord-zither was offered in many different models, the difference in them being either the number of chords and melody strings or the comparative dimensions of instruments sharing identical stringing configurations.

Those new to the chord-zither and/or wishing to learn to play the instrument may want to visit the chord-zithers Introductory Page. There can be found information on the stringing and tuning specifications of the various models, as well as very brief profiles of the four manufacturers who produced chord-zithers.

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3-chord zithers

Three models of chord-zithers equipped with only 3 chords were produced, all of them by Menzenhauer.

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chord-zithers >
3-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 00

Menzenhauer No. 00

Measuring only 8" wide by 15" long and sporting only 3 chords and 11 melody strings, the tiny Menzenhauer No. 00 is the smallest of all chord-zithers. It may have been created for the purpose of using up undersized shop scraps.

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chord-zithers >
3-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 0

Menzenhauer No. 0

A 3/15 model, the body style of the Menzenhauer No. 0 chord-zither closely resembles that of small-model Zimmermann autoharps of the time. Other fretless zithers bear the same resemblance.

(Photo courtesy of Kelly Williams)

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chord-zithers >
3-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 1

Menzenhauer No. 1

Also a 3/15, it seems likely that the No. 1 was the first Menzenhauer zither model, as it most closely resembles the illustration in the original May 29, 1894 patent in which he officially laid claim to the invention of the chord-zither. (This information courtesy of Kelly Williams.)

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4-chord zithers

The basic 4-chord zither is diatonic in its two-octave melody range, for a total of 15 melody strings. A total of 5 different models of 4/15 zithers are known. A quick run-down of them is given below:

Menzenhauer's 4/15 chord-zithers were made in at least two sizes:

* about 10 1/2" wide (No. 0 1/2)

* about 13" wide (No. 2)

The Phonoharp Company's 4/15 chord-zithers were made in at least three sizes:

* about 10" wide (No. 1)

* about 11" wide (No. 2)

* about 13" wide (No. 2 1/4)

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 0 1/2

Menzenhauer No. 0 1/2

Menzenhauer produced a 4/15 chord-zither of small body size, the model No. 0 1/2. The "lopped-off" right side of the body outline seems to have been an early Menzenhauer design feature.

Menzenhauer No. 0 1/2 chord-zithers, left to right

1. A typical example from the 1910-20 period, in the deep burgundy finish and with standard sound board and tuning information decals. The absence of a soundhole decal seems to have been the norm for this model.

2. Though a Menzenhauer No. 0 1/2 by configuration and body style, this is clearly a later Schmidt instrument. Evidence suggests that this zither may date from as late as c. 1950. In particular, the inside label, which openly attributes the instrument to Schmidt, is printed on bright yellow paper. Standard-issue Schmidt instruments with the yellow label are dateable by batch number to exact year of production. This ukelin is such an example and dates from 1949. Bridge pins have been dispensed with and the melody string tuning pins are arranged in pairs. These features were never employed by what might be called "true" Menzenhauer chord-zithers, those from the period 1890s-1920s. The sound hole and edge border decals are a reversion to the 1930s (Schmidt's own, not Menzenhauer's), and the soundboard decal is a chopped-off version of the "American Mandolin Harp" decal from even earlier times.

As though to deliberately add to the confusion, Schmidt assigned this instrument the identities "A.R. Yendrick's Club Special" and "American Mandolin Harp." These names are normally claimed by the 4/16 chord-zither (see below) and an instrument with a button pad attachment of the melody type (see "mandolin harp" on the "Gizmo-Harps with Chords" page.)

Other apparent examples of Schmidt re-issues featured on this page include a Menzenhauer No. 2 and a Phonoharp 4/30. As to why Schmidt would have re-issued these earlier instruments at a later date, it would seem likely that it was simply to add variety to the line. Aside from a scroll-and-pillar model made mostly in the 1930s, this is the only model of chord-zither in the 4/15 configuration which is claimed by Schmidt in the label text.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 1

Phonoharp/Columbia No. 1

At only 10" wide by a little over 17" long, The Phonoharp #1 chord-zither is the baby of the Phonoharp chord-zither family. This example is a fairly early one, as it has the first-type tuning decal, but no sound hole or sound board decals. Pinstripes serve as sound hole and edge border ornamentation. Also, it was made with no wooden tail cover, as was the case in the early years of production.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 2

chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 2

chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 2

chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 2

chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 2

Phonoharp/Columbia No. 2

Far and away the commonest chord-zither made by the Phonoharp Company is the No. 2, their medium-sized (about 11" wide) 4/15 model. That being true, this seems like an appropriate place to present a bit of information about the various identities of the company's zithers.

The Phonoharp Company's earliest chord-zithers were sold under the brand name "Columbia", and this identity is found on the paper label inside the instruments, along with a logo mark in the image of an acorn. Later on, the "Columbia Special" brand name appeared. The Columbia Special's identifying information is contained in the sound board decal at the upper left of the instrument's front side, as can be seen on several examples throughout the directory. There are at least two types of the Columbia Special sound board decal. One type appears to have been specific to the Phonoharp 5/21 model, the No. 3 1/2, pictured elsewhere in the directory.

In addition to the "Columbia" and "Columbia Special" instruments, the Phonoharp Co. produced countless zithers which are generic by their decals and which bear their identities on the paper labels inside the instruments. Such instruments usually give the following types of information (the first two may appear either alone or together; the other two usually appear solo):

* a generic instrument name such as "mandolin harp"

* a distributor's name (sometimes followed by "Maker")

* a model number, accompanied by "Made in USA"

* the words "Class Instrument"

Nearly all chord-zithers by the major manufacturers were offered with a variety of decal combinations and in a number of different finishes. To illustrate this, a few of the many varieties of the Phonoharp No. 2 chord-zither are shown below.

Phonoharp No. 2 chord-zithers, row 1, left to right:

1. Columbia No. 2, early (probably c. 1895-1900), no decals, pinstripes, paper tuning label, angled side of body profile is straight rather than curved, Columbia and A. Eichler distributor label, with model number, Phonoharp Company also identified on label as is usually true

2. Same instrument as above, but with a rare and spectacular tuning label. Click here for a magnified look at it.

3. Columbia Special No. 2, a transitional variety, early (probably 1900-1910), has soundboard and soundhole decals but paper tuning label instead of decal, angled side is straight

4. Another transitional variation, J. Abrams distributor label, early (probably 1900-1910), the reverse of the previous instrument; has decal tuning label but no soundboard or soundhole decals, pinstripes instead of the latter, angled side is curved

5. Columbia Special No. 2, "Standard" soundhole decal and tuning decal, "Columbia Special" soundboard decal, probably from the 1910-1920 period

6. Golden yellow finish, standard decals, Updegraff Music Co., Indianapolis, IN distributor label, c. 1910-1920, unusual metal tail cover

Phonoharp No. 2 chord-zithers, row 2, left to right:

7. "Class Instrument" inside label, "Eagle" soundboard decal, c. 1910-1920; note that the only difference between this instrument and the "Columbia Special No. 2" (top row, #4) is the soundboard decal

8. "No. 2/Made in USA" inside label, silver-green finish, c. 1910-1920

9. B.L. Umberger, Concord, NC distributor label, "Handlebar" soundhole decal, "Lyre" soundboard decal, "Standard" tuning decal, c. 1910-1920,

10. "Class Instrument" inside label on green paper; This and the following instrument have Schmidt/International-type tail joints. This poses the question of whether the Phonoharp Company adopted the use of International-type tail joints late in its existence or if IMC acquired and finished up a number of Phonoharp instruments after the demise of the company in 1926. In either case, this instrument was almost certainly made sometime in the 1920s.

11. "Class Instrument" inside label on black paper; same as previous instrument but "International" soundhole decal; This looks to have been finished by IMC, which would place its likeliest date of manufacture at around 1930.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 2 1/4

Phonoharp/Columbia No. 2 1/4

The Phonoharp Company gave their larger (about 13" wide) model 4/15 chord-zither the model number 2 1/4. The No. 2 1/4 appears in two forms, those with 15 (single-strung) melody strings and those with 15 pairs (see Phonoharp 4/30 chord-zither, elsewhere in the directory)

Phonoharp No. 2 1/4 chord-zithers, left to right:

1. bears the "Columbia Special" identity by the characteristic soundboard decal, and the Phonoharp Company is credited as its creator on the paper label inside the instrument

sound clips of this instrument

2. bears no brand or manufacturer name; its only clue as to its identity is the paper label inside, which reads simply "No. 2 1/4, Made in U.S.A.". This instrument has only 15 melody string tuning pins but 30 melody string hitch pins, and other examples like this are known. This illustrates the arbitrary nature with which single vs paired melody string configurations were assigned to this model; the decision that this instrument was to be single-strung was apparently made in mid-production. (see 4/30 version of identical instrument, below)

3. another combination of finish and decals often used for Phonoharp Company chord-zithers. The label is the generic one, same as the previous example.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 2

Menzenhauer No. 2

The Menzenhauer (about) 13" wide model 4/15 chord zither is the Model No. 2.

Menzenhauer No. 2 chord-zithers:

1. burgundy finish; an early example, c. 1900-1910; this zither bears the "F. Menzenhauer" inside label, but with the label of a distributor from Rockford, Illinois pasted over it

2. black finish; this and the following instrument are later models, probably from the 1910-20 decade

3. silver finish; this finish was used by the Phonoharp and Marx companies as well

4. Like one example of the Menzenhauer No. 0 1/2 chord-zither above (see notes there), this appears to be a Schmidt "re-issue" and represents a later form of the Menzenhauer chord-zither. The instrument shown is possibly from as late as c. 1950. Bridge pins have been dispensed with and the melody string tuning pins are arranged in pairs. Also, the inside label, though it doesn't openly identify Schmidt as maker, is printed on bright yellow paper. A singularly well-preserved example, this image represents its untouched, as-found condition.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp 4/16
(Yendrick's)

chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp 4/16
(Yendrick's)

Phonoharp 4/16 (Yendrick's)

The instruments below represent the type that appears to be the earliest form of the 4/16 chord-zither; those which are Phonoharp-type instruments. The Phonoharp 4/16 models make reference to one A.R. Yendrick on their labels. (A.R. Yendrick's Mandolin Harp", "A.R. Yendrick's Club Special Mandolin Harp", and others.) Perhaps this model was developed under Yendrick's design guidance. The examples below likely hail from the early 1920's, a time that probably saw the birth of the 4/16 chord-zither. One interesting detail of these instruments is that the chords are arranged with the bass strings on the right, the reverse of the usual Phonoharp Company configuration.

The one "extra" melody string of the 4/16 is an F#, in the lower octave only. The idea was to provide the third note of the D chord in the melody strings, since the fourth chord of these instruments (in addition to the usual C, F, and G) is a D chord, rather than the A minor (Phonoharp) or G7 (Menzenhauer) most normally prescribed as the fourth chord of earlier 4/15 chord-zithers. As to why it was deemed sufficient to provide the accidental in only one octave of the melody strings rather than both...it's anyone's guess.

Phonoharp 4/16 chord-zithers. left to right:

1. This appears to be the earliest form. The frame has Phonoharp-type joints at the tail end, and the body is that of a Phonoharp No. 2 chord-zither. It measures only 11 1/4" wide. This suggests it to have been made by the Phonoharp Company. The following examples have Schmidt-type tail joints and are a model-specific 12" wide size. They were probably made by Schmidt/ IMC.

2. This zither seems to having a bit of an identity crisis. The actual body design is that of a Phonoharp zither, but the decals are purely Menzenhauer. Put it all together and you get an "A.R. Yendrick's Club Special Mandolin Harp" according to the label inside, an identity prevalent among 4/16 chord-zithers of the 1920s and '30s.

3. Another early 4/16, and again the gold filigree soundhole decal is an unusual one to be adorning a Phonoharp zither; this decal more commonly appears on Marx instruments.

4. Here's one with the "International" sound hole decal (which actually first appeared on earlier Phonoharp instruments), in the dark burgundy finish.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Schmidt 4/16
(Yendrick's)

Schmidt 4/16, early (Yendrick's)

This Schmidt-style 4/16 chord-zither is from around 1930 and marks an early appearance of the Schmidt body style, which seems to have made its debut around this time. The instrument's label identifies it as being a "Hawaiian Mandolin Harp", and at the time of its manufacture Yendrick's name was still appearing on the label as well.

The 4/16 chord-zither became the standard single-strung 4-chord zither model for the Oscar Schmidt Company in later years of zither production, from about the 1930s onward. In fact, it appears that the only 4/15 zither Schmidt ever produced was the scroll-and-pillar model. The company also continued the double-strung 4/30 model.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Schmidt
4/16

Schmidt 4/16, later type

This Schmidt 4/16 zither is from 1957, by which time opaque off-white had long since replaced metallic gold as the ground color of the decals and the familiar fleur-de-lis pattern sound hole decal had become the standard for Schmidt zithers and ukelins alike. By this time, Yendrick's name had disappeared from the label credits.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp 4/17
earliest form

chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp 4/17
earliest form

Phonoharp/Columbia 4/17, earliest type

The Phonoharp Company's 4/17 chord-zither is an old model. It appears to have been a part of their first line of chord-zithers in the 1890's, and this example represents the earliest form of the Phonoharp/Columbia chord-zither. It appears it was made sometime before May 29, 1894, as the characteristic patent date is absent. The yellow finish is most unusual. Some of the features of the earliest Phonoharp chord-zithers, all of which the instrument pictured bears, are:

* the absence of a wooden tail cover, presence of a metal hand rest

* celluloid tuning label (with no string numbers, only letters)

* straight (rather than curved) top and angled sides

* the absence of decals / presence of pinstriping

* the presence of bridge pins

Three additional features of earliest Phonoharp chord-zithers which are not visible in the photo are:

* machined conical rests in place of the later upholstery-type tacks

* the back and sides finished in imitation of rosewood

* front-to-back internal braces with round holes

This instrument also began its life with the chord damper gizmo, which was continued on later instruments.

The idea, functionally, of the 4/17 was to facilitate playing in both the keys of C and F. The two "extra" melody strings are prescribed as Bb, in both the upper and lower octaves, and the chords are C, G, F, and Bb. It has one 5-string chord, the C, and the 5th string is to be tuned to Bb, yielding a C7 chord if it is included in the playing of the chord, a plain C major if not.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 2 1/2

Phonoharp 4/17 (No. 2 1/2), later type

The Phonoharp 4/17 chord-zithers shown probably date from about 1910 and show all the features of later Phonoharp chord-zithers, including a model number. By the time these examples were made, the company had decided that their 4/17 would bear the model number 2 1/2 in their line.

Phonoharp No. 2 1/2 chord-zithers. left to right:

1. An example in the black finish with "Spike" soundhole decal, one of the Phonoharp eagle soundboard decals, "Links" edge border decal, and the earliest-type Phonoharp tuning label decal

2. Another example from around the same time, again in the black finish, with the "Handlebar" soundhole decal, "Columbia Special" soundboard decal, pinstripe edge border, and again the earliest-type Phonoharp tuning label decal

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
4/30

chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Phonoharp
4/30

Phonoharp 4/30 (No. 2 1/4)

4/30 chord-zithers are configured exactly like those of the 4/15 variety, except that the melody strings are paired like those of a mandolin. All of the major 20th century manufacturers of fretless zithers produced 4/30 chord zithers, including Phonoharp, Menzenhauer, Schmidt, and Marx. For the most part, the 4/30 doesn't appear to have been assigned a model number by any of the companies. Instead. they relied on instrument-specific or model-specific names, often ones with mandolin references, owing to the paired strings. The one exception to this pattern is an occasional Phonoharp 4/30 bearing the model number 2 1/4 on its inside label.

Phonoharp 4/30 chord-zithers:

1. A typical generic model in the deep burgundy finish, bears only the identification "Mandolin Harp" on its inside label

2. A Phonoharp 4/30 in gold finish, again only the "Mandolin Harp" identity on the label. The sound hole decal is the same one used on the black Phonoharp 4/17 (# 2 1/2) chord-zither shown above, but it takes on quite a different appearance when applied to a gold background, as the gold parts of the decal largely disappear.

3. A Phonoharp 4/30 chord-zither...or so it would seem. This instrument is unusual in that it is clearly a Schmidt product, made long after the Phonoharp Company went out of business in 1926. Evidence suggests that it was made sometime in the 1940's or maybe even '50's. First, the joinery is that of a Schmidt instrument (side rails of the frame run the full length of the instrument; those of Phonoharp zithers stop short of the ends and the head and tail blocks run the full width of the instrument.) The absence of a sound board decal and felt rests on the back instead of tacks are both later Schmidt innovations. The tuning decal is that of an old Phonoharp chord-zither, but the background is opaque off-white, also a later Schmidt detail. This decal always had the reflective gold background on the old Phonoharps. The Schmidt-type body style was well-rooted by the time this instrument was made. As to why Schmidt chose to re-issue a Phonoharp chord-zither in later years of production, it would seem it was merely to add variety to the line.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Menzenhauer
4/30

Menzenhauer 4/30

This Menzenhauer 4/30 chord-zither goes beyond the mere mandolin reference on its inside label. Its decals proudly proclaim it to be a "Special Hudson-Fulton Model", adding the suggestion that it was specially built to commemmorate a historic event. Perhaps it was, in which case 1907 would seem to be a likely candidate for this instrument's year of birth.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Schmidt
4/30

Schmidt 4/30

This Schmidt 4/30 chord-zither represents a late period of zither manufacture; dating from 1949. By then, gold had given way to off-white as the background color of decals, and the sound board decal had been done away with. The fleur-de-lis sound hole decal first appeared in the late 1930s and was used on Schmidt zithers and ukelins into the 1960s.

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chord-zithers >
4-chord >
Marx 4/30

Marx 4/30

The Marx Company of New Troy, Michigan produced a huge variety of instruments, most of which were either of the bowed variety or monotypes. However, they did occasionally knock out a chord-zither. The 4/30 "Marx Liberty Harp" appears to have been their only model. Evidence suggests it was still part of the line when production ceased in 1972.

Marx 4/30 chord-zithers, left to right

1. Early Marx instruments, such as the Marxophone and Celestaphone, were made by the Phonoharp Company. The closing of the company in 1926 appears to have been the push Henry Marx needed to build his own factory. This he did, and in 1927 the Marxochime Colony began production of instruments in New Troy, Michigan. This "Marx Liberty Harp" appears to have been made at the New Troy factory, in its early years.

2. The Colony survived as a producer of fretless zithers until 1972. The building sat idle for years, and in 1991 its contents were for the most part liquidated. Among the items sold at that time were a large number of finished instruments that had never been sold. These surface quite often today and are usually in as-new condition. This Marx 4/30 chord-zither is one of this category, dating from the final days of the New Troy facility. Its label states it to be a "reproduction of the original 1900 instrument." If true, this would probably name Marx as the inventor of the paired melody string chord-zither, but it is doubtful that the origin of the idea will ever be firmly determined.

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5-chord zithers

5-chord zithers were produced by Phonoharp, Menzenhauer, and Schmidt. Only Menzenhauer produced a 5-chord model with diatonic melody stringing; the rest have some number of accidentals or are fully chromatic.

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chord-zithers >
5-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 0 3/4

Menzenhauer No. 0 3/4

It appears that the manufacturers of fretless zithers were of the opinion that instruments with more than 4 chords, be they plucked or bowed, should be supported by some number of accidentals in the melody section. The lone exception is the Menzenhauer No. 0 3/4, which has 5 chords and offers two diatonic octaves of C with its 15 melody strings.

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chord-zithers >
5-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 3

Phonoharp No. 3

The Phonoharp Company produced a chord-zither with 5 chords and 17 melody strings. This is the model No. 3. The one accidental of the melody strings, a Bb in each of the two octaves, facilitates playing in the keys of C and F. It is thus supported by the chords.

Phonoharp No. 3 chord-zithers

1. early, c. 1905, "Columbia Special" sound board decal and tacked-on paper tuning label

2. a slightly later example, c. 1910; again, the "Columbia Special" sound board decal, but with decal tuning label

3. same instrument as previous, but with the Phonoharp eagle sound board decal

sound clip of this instrument

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chord-zithers >
5-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 2 1/2

Menzenhauer No. 2 1/2

The Menzenhauer 5/21 chord-zither claims the model number 2 1/2. It offers three accidentals in each of the two octaves of its melody range. Along with its five chords, it offers some interesting and somewhat challenging versatility. The Menzenhauer No. 2 1/2 was apparently a huge success in terms of sales, as it is one of the most abundant of all chord-zither models.

Menzenhauer No. 2 1/2 chord-zithers

1. early, c. 1900-1905; tuning label is paper bonded to lath and is tacked on; earliest Menzenhauer soundhole and soundboard decals; early U.S. Guitar-Zither Co., NY interior label with no mention of Schmidt; The vertical white piece is the "tuning strip," the intent of which is to serve as a "fretboard" (no frets) for tuning melody strings by bringing them to unison with various notes made by "fretting" the low C melody string. This feature appears somewhat randomly on both early and later models.

2. "Torches" soundhole decal and edge border decal both appear to be for the most part model-specific; "Lyre/Brevete" soundboard decal; This and the following instruments are probably from the 1910-20 period.

3. "12-Point" soundhole decal, "Daisies" edge border decal, one of the numerous banner-style soundboard decals

4. "Harps" soundhole decal used on many Schmidt instruments, "Daisies" edge border decal, one of a few different forms of the "Spears" soundboard decal

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chord-zithers >
5-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 3 1/2

Phonoharp No. 3 1/2

The Phonoharp chord-zither with 5 chords and either 21 (partially chromatic) melody strings or 21 pairs is the Model No. 3 1/2.

Phonoharp No. 3 1/2 chord-zithers

1. Early example, angled side is straight rather than curved, standard Columbia Special soundboard decal, non-specific soundhole decal, however it does have the model-specific tuning decal

2. This became the standard form, in either the black or silver, or burgundy finish. The soundboard, soundhole, and tuning decals are all specific to the Model No. 3 1/2. Of course there can't be total consistency; the soundhole decal occurs on other instruments, though sparingly.

3. This one has 21 paired melody strings and bears a common San Francisco distributor label. Another example of the paired-string model is known whose interior label identifies it as a Model No. 3 1/2. The instrument pictured retains its original sales slip, dated 1908. Dated sales slips offer glimpses of insight into the manufacturing history of fretless zithers, as they give snapshots of what was happening when. The significance of the information borne by this one is that it tells us that by 1908 Phonoharp zithers were being offered with paired melody strings and in full decals and that the San Francisco distributorship had been established. Paired melody strings seem to have been a West Coast favorite; the San Francisco label appears most commonly in Phonoharp 4/30 zithers.

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chord-zithers >
5-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 3 3/4

Phonoharp No. 3 3/4

The Phonoharp Model #3 3/4 chord-zither has 5 chords, and its 25 melody strings represent two fully chromatic octaves. It is the company's only full-chromatic model.

Phonoharp No. 3 3/4 chord-zithers

1. early, transitional form, c. 1905, black finish, "Columbia Special" soundboard decal and a standard Phonoharp soundhole decal, but with paper tuning label

2. Black finish, "Columbia Special" same soundhole and soundboard decals as previous, but with decal tuning label instead of paper, c. 1910-20

3. An example in the silver-green finish. The unusual red edge border decal suggests this instrument may have been made for the Canadian market, though all its other decals are purely American. Its accompanying instruction book is in four languages, English, German, French, and Spanish. Like the other example of this model, its approximate date of manufacture is c. 1910-20.

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chord-zithers >
5-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 3

Menzenhauer No. 3

Another 5-chord zither with full-chromatic melody strings is the Menzenhauer 5/25, the company's Model No. 3. Menzenhauer Nos. 3, 4, and 5 chord-zithers are the elite of the line and are adorned with white edge binding.

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chord-zithers >
5-chord >
Schmidt
5/25

Schmidt 5/25

The Schmidt 5/25 chord-zither was a staple of the company's line throughout the 1950s. The very narrowly spaced full-chromatic melody strings make this model an extremely difficult instrument to play. As is true of all Schmidt chord-zithers, it does not appear that it was given a model number.

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6-chord zithers

6-chord zithers were produced by Phonoharp and Menzenhauer. Each produced one model. Phonoharp's is their largest model in terms of number of chords and has partially chromatic melody strings. Menzenhauer's 6-chord zither is fully chromatic in the melodies.

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chord-zithers >
6-chord >
Phonoharp 6/22
early form

early Phonoharp/Columbia 6/22 chord-zither

This early Phonoharp instrument has 6 chords and 22 melody strings. As it predates the use of decals on these instruments, it is bare of ornamentation except for red and black painted pin-striping around the edge of the top and the sound hole. The tuning label is of celluloid and is tacked on, as is characteristic of the earliest forms. This one probably hails from the year 1894; the tuning label did not originally include the May 29, 1894 patent date. Rather, it appears as a rubber-stamped add-on in a type font different from that of the label itself.

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chord-zithers >
6-chord >
Phonoharp
No. 4

Phonoharp No. 4

By the time the examples shown below were built (probably around 1905-10), the Phonoharp Company had determined their 6/22 zither to be their model #4.

Phonoharp No. 4 chord-zithers, left to right

1. A transitional example, c. 1905, bearing soundboard and soundhole decals but with paper tuning label, converted to 6/16 (see "Conversions" below)

2. Phonoharp in full bloom. This 6/22 chord-zither illustrates the early 20th century ornamentation trend toward the visually striking combination of gold-decals on a black base color. "Columbia Special" soundboard decal, "Handlebar" soundhole decal, "Links" edge border decal, and "Patriotic" lower corner decals. This and the following two examples are probably from the period 1910-20.

sound clip of this instrument

3. Similar to the previous example but with a Phonoharp "Eagle" soundboard decal and "Spike" soundhole decal. This one retains the original damper bar, a flimsy attachment that usually has been lost or perhaps removed.

4. Again similar, but with the Phonoharp "Standard" soundhole decal. And again, the damper bar is intact.

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chord-zithers >
6-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 3 1/2

Menzenhauer No. 3 1/2

The Menzenhauer 6/25 chord-zither below has 6 chords, and again two fully chromatic octaves of melody strings. Its model designation is No. 3 1/2. All the decals except the soundboard (upper left) look German, as seems to usually be the case with this model. The 6/25 appears to have been a popular model in Europe, and Menzenhauer's German factory produced a lot of them. They were probably made in the American factory too, though in smaller numbers, and perhaps Menzenhauer didn't consider New World demand to be sufficient to warrant having an American-style tuning info decal made up.

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7-chord zither

Menzenhauer produced a 7-chord zither model with fully chromatic melody strings, the second largest of the line.

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chord-zithers >
7-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 4

Menzenhauer No. 4

The Menzenhauer #4 has 7 chords and 26 melody strings (two fully chromatic octaves of C, plus a high D.) It is a necessarily large zither, measuring around 19" in width.

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9-chord zither

A 9-chord zither model, the largest of chord-zithers, was also made by Menzenhauer. This model and the 7-chord No. 4 are equipped with two sound holes.

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chord-zithers >
9-chord >
Menzenhauer
No. 5

Menzenhauer No. 5

Measuring 21" in width, the Menzenhauer #5 has 9 chords and 26 melody strings (two fully chromatic octaves of C, plus a high D.)

sound clip of this instrument

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scroll-and-pillar models

The scroll-and-pillar body style is a frequently encountered design frill. The scroll and pillar are purely ornamental and serve no functional or structural purpose. All three manufacturers made use of this decorative feature, and examples of all are shown below. Schmidt seems to have made the greatest number of them, followed by Phonoharp. Menzenhauer seems to have been the least enthusiastic of the three toward the design. Most often, they are 4/30 chord-zithers. Less commonly they are of the single-strung 4/15 variety, and occasionally they employ the 5/21 configuration. Again, an example of each is shown.

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chord-zithers >
scroll-and-
pillar models >
Phonoharp

Phonoharp

This Phonoharp 4/30 chord-zither proudly hails itself to be a "mandolin-guitar-harp", as do many chord-zithers of many different designs and stringing configurations. The label also bears the identity of B.L. Umberger's firm, the Home Education Company, of Concord, North Carolina.

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chord-zithers >
scroll-and-
pillar models >
Menzenhauer

Menzenhauer

Here we have the Menzenhauer version of the scroll-and-pillar model chord-zither, in the 5/21 configuration, a Menzenhauer favorite.

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chord-zithers >
scroll-and-
pillar models >
Schmidt

Schmidt

Of the three major manufacturers of chord-zithers, Schmidt appears to have been most fond of the scroll-and-pillar design. The company offered them in at least three different stringing configurations.

Schmidt scroll-and-pillar zithers, left to right

1. This Schmidt 4/15 scroll-and-pillar model chord-zither is from the 1930s. Its name, like its body design, is intended to fluff up the imagination. Its label proclaims it to be a "Radio Harp". Aside from the "re-issue" of the Menzenhauer No. 0 1/2 (see above), the scroll-and-pillar style appears to be the only 4/15 chord-zither Schmidt ever offered.

2. Another favorite configuration for the company, the 4/30 model. This instrument was often equipped with the chord thumper gizmo and sold as a "Chartola" or "Chartola Grand." This particular instrument bears a "mandolin-guitarophone" inside label, despite the fact that it does not have the gizmo normally associated with that name...nor any other gizmo, for that matter.

3. This is a large Schmidt scroll-and-pillar-style chord-zither in the 6/25 configuration, a rare instrument. Again, it bears the "Radio Harp" inside label. The "Music Book" soundboard decal suggests this to be a late example, probably from the early 1940s.

3. Another Schmidt 6/25 scroll-and-pillar-style chord-zither, this one with an edge border decal. The soundhole and soundboard decals are purely Menzenhauer, suggesting this example to be earlier than the previous one.

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conversions

As you've seen in the directory above, chord-zithers with more than 4 chords always have some number of accidentals in their melody string sections. The addition of accidentals means greater versatility; that's the upside. The downside is increased difficulty of playing, due to there being more strings to maneuver around in playing a melody and necessarily closer spacing of the melody strings.

As many pieces employ only notes of the diatonic scale in their melodies but require more than 4 chords to accompany, reducing the number of melody strings of chord-zithers with more than 4 chords for greater ease of playing the melodies is in my opinion an altogether acceptable undertaking.

The chords, as well as the melody strings, can also be converted, so to speak. You may have noticed that several of the Phonoharp Company chord-zithers pictured in the gallery, as well as all the examples of conversions shown below, have the chords arranged with their bass strings on the right, as you face the instrument. This is the reverse of the "stock" Phonoharp arrangement, which has the bass strings on the left hand side of each chord. Some prefer them on the left; some on the right. Just as with the "overhand" and "underhand" bow grip used by orchestra players of the string bass, both work well, and neither is correct nor incorrect. If one seems instinctively more to your nature, it probably is. If not, try both ways and see which suits you better.

I point out that this conversion process is totally reversible, as no integral parts of the instrument are physically altered. The process involves filing notches in the wire bridge saddles. If you wish to answer to reversibility issues, simply replace the saddles with new ones of the proper diameter and tuck the originals away in fully intact condition. The saddles are in no way fixed to the instrument; they just lay loose in a half-round groove cut into the bridge and are held in place by string tension.

I should note that whether you're converting or not, the bridge saddles should be replaced if they are pitted from corrosion. Common sense suggests that the abrasive action of pitting will break strings, besides being a less-than-optimal surface for conducting sound. Also, some newer zithers have saddles made from what appears to be an aluminum alloy. It's very lightweight, overly flexible, and of questionable sonic conductivity. It seems advisable to replace these too.

Tempered steel "music wire" is the material of choice for replacements, and either 3/32" or .078" will accommodate any instrument you are likely to encounter. These two diameters are normally both available at hardware stores.

Now that you agree that conversions are a good thing, let's look at a few.

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chord-zithers >
conversions >
4/30 to 4/15

Phonoharp 4/30 to 4/15 conversion

The Phonoharp # 2 1/4 is an excellent instrument for advanced melody playing. If you aren't having any luck finding one, a conversion is a good solution. The Phonoharp 4/30 is the same instrument but with paired melody strings and is quite common. And as mentioned above, there occasionally appears a Phonoharp 4/30 that actually bears the model number 2 1/4 on its inside label, as though in prophetic approval of this particular conversion. This is the easiest of conversions, as it requires simply not stringing up (or removing) half the melody strings. And as with all conversions, it does nothing irreversible to the instrument; if you decide later to go back to the 4/30 configuration, simply re-string the other set of the pairs.

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chord-zithers >
conversions >
5/21 to 5/15

Phonoharp No. 3 1/2, 5/21 to 5/15 conversion

This Phonoharp Company Columbia Special # 3 1/2 has been converted from 5/21 to 5/15, with two diatonic octaves of C.

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chord-zithers >
conversions >
6/22 to 6/16

Phonoharp No. 4, 6/22 to 6/16 conversion

This Columbia Special #4 has been converted from 6/22 to 6/16, with two diatonic octaves of C, plus the high D that is prescribed for the 6/22 configuration.

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chord-zithers >
conversions >
9/26 to 9/40

Menzenhauer No. 5, 9/26 to 9/40 conversion

Contrary to all I've said about reversibility, this conversion went well into irreversible territory. Actually, it could be reversed to original functionality easily enough but not restored to full originality because it would require filling the holes left by the non-original tuning pins I added. (The added bridge just sits on the front and is not affixed to it.)

From the purely philosophical standpoint, even if someone could make this reversion invisible, it would not change the fact that it had been altered at one time. This would mean, for example, that it would have to be mentioned in the event of the instrument's sale. Fortunately though, it turned out gloriously, and no one with so much as a scrap of musical intellect would ever want to revert it.

The Menzenhauer No. 5 is fully chromatic in the melody section. I find it nearly impossible to play anything much beyond slow single-note melodies on full-chromatic zithers.

Pristine examples of the Menzenhauer No. 5 exist. This example was in rough cosmetic condition, battle-worn finish and full of cracks, and I wouldn't have considered altering it if it had been a good representative of its kind. However, its structural condition was amazingly good.

So, one choice was to restore it with its full-chromatic melody section kept intact and have a rough example of an instrument I would never play. I didn't find that option to be at all appealing. Another was to give it a more interesting melody section for its 9 chords to support and have a rough example of an instrument that would be a delight to play. But most importantly, I addressed the one question that must always be answered honestly before the alteration of a chord-zither can ever be considered: "What would Wash Phillips do?"

Needless to say, I chose the latter plan. Inspired by Phillips's instrument, and after a few experiments, I arrived at a diatonic melody section of 20 octave-tuned pairs. The total melody range is 3 notes short of 4 octaves, nearly twice that of a standard diatonic chord-zither. The accompaniment section offers full support in all of the common guitar/fiddle keys, C, G, D, and A, with a lot of chords to spare. For example, "Devil's Dream" in A with the "book chords," specifically the F#m, is not a problem. (But of course the country chords are better as always.) I gauged the melody strings so that key changes are accommodated by re-tuning to the appropriate accidentals.

As it turned out, this was an excellent conversion decision. This instrument is near, if not at, the height of chord-zither functionality. It's about as playable and versatile as a chord-zither can be. It will give its next owner a lot more enjoyment than if it had been restored to its original full-chromatic melody configuration. And of course the sound of the instrument is...well, you can hear it for yourself...

sound clip of this instrument

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