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fretless zithers > plucked/hammer-struck instruments >
gizmo-harps with chords

Some fretless zithers are equipped with gizmos. Some are accompaniment gizmos, while others are melody gizmos. Here are a few that have been attached to chord-zithers of standard stringing configurations.

Note: The terms "with chords" and "without chords" refer to whether or not an instrument has its accompaniment strings grouped into designated chords.

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mandolin harp

gizmo-harps
with chords >
mandolin harp

gizmo-harps
with chords >
mandolin harp

mandolin harp

This instrument very often identifies itself as being an "American Mandolin Harp". It has a melody gizmo that consists of a little panel of buttons over the melody strings. The target market was presumably "the plectrally impaired", the manufacturer's intent being to empower those incapable of executing staccato picking on a mandolin with the ability to do so on a chord-zither. The idea is, the player pushes the button for the desired melody string(s), and this lowers and thus engages the "plectrum". The whole panel is then moved back and forth rapidly, producing the tremolo picking often associated with the playing of the mandolin. As far as functionality, the gizmo can be micro-adjusted to yield an impressively functional instrument.

At least three body styles were used specifically to accommodate the button panel gizmo (note the wider-than-usual space between the chords and the melody strings). And as you might imagine, these instruments bear many different names.

The earlier form has a body outline that includes curves, while the later form is composed of straight lines only. A bombé body style was used for a few of these instruments (and for equally few Menzenhauer chord-zithers.) Its outline is essentially the same as the standard early form but with a wildly curved left side which gives it a bulging appearance. Examples of all three body styles are shown below.

This gizmo is most commonly attached to chord-zithers of the 5/21 variety (partially chromatic melody section). The labels of these instruments quite often give a model name with a "Style_" designation. The vast majority are called "Style B", and any model may be found to bear this identity. However, examples in the 4/15 (diatonic melody section) configuration turn up occasionally. These usually bear the identity "Deweylin Harp" (with the Admiral Dewey soundboard decal), and at least one example has a "Style A" label inside the soundhole. There do exist a very few examples of a full-chromatic (6/25) button-pad instrument of the "mandolin harp" type. All known examples have the bombé body outline, and the tuning label and graphics adorning the button pad's cover plate are unique to the model. The label inside at least one such example proclaims it to be a......"Style B."

Kelly Williams covers extensively the mandolin harp's variety of finishes, decal combinations and soundhole labels in his Quick Identifier pages. Here, examples of the diatonic (4/15) and full-chromatic (6/25) button pad instruments can be seen.

early body style (curved lines profile)

left to right:

1. dark burgundy finish, Menzenhauer "Harps" soundhole decal, "filigree" tuning decal, "daisies" edge border decal, and "Jamestown Special" sound board decal

2. black finish, "Swans" soundhole decal, "Groundstake" tuning decal, model-specific edge border decal, and cut-off "Tornado" sound board decal

3. silver finish, full "Tornado" sound board decal. This one has the "Pearl Chips" soundhole and edge border decals. While commonly encountered on Menzenhauer zithers, this decal set seldom adorns the mandolin harp.

4. an example in the bombé body style also used for all known full-chromatic (6/25) examples; this one is in the 5/21 configuration. "Swans" soundhole decal, "Admiral Dewey" soundboard decal and Deweylin Harp/Style C interior label. Aside from the scarcity of its Style C designation, this label marks a rare example of Menzenhauer's name appearing on the label of a fretless zither other than a chord-zither.

later body style (straight lines profile)

left to right:

1. This is the later type body style. By the time this style was introduced (probably around 1930), Schmidt's name had for the most part disappeared from the labels inside the instruments. In its place was any of the numerous "company" names used by his firm.

2. Another typical example of the later model, this one with the "red International" and "music book" decals, both Schmidt staples from around 1940.

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chord-thumper

gizmo-harps
with chords >
chord-thumper

chord-thumper gizmo

One of the most often-encountered accompaniment gizmos is this "chord-thumping" device. The player lifts the metal tab of choice, then releases it, causing the apparatus (which is equipped with a hard felt pad) to spring downward, striking the 4 strings of the selected chord all at once.

As one might imagine, the functionality of the chords would be quite limited if the chord thumper alone was used for accompaniment. However, in the default at-rest position, the thumpers are up off the strings, leaving the accompaniment section available to be played in the usual manner with the fingers. So, the thumper gizmo, used occasionally for effect, actually expands accompaniment functionality by a bit. Additionally, a thumper with split tabs was produced, one for the bass string and one for the three higher-range grouped strings of each chord. This variety is not common.

Several varieties of fretless zithers occur with the chord thumper gizmo attached, but by far its favorite host instrument is a 4/30 chord-zither. These instruments very often bear the trade name "Chartola" or "Chartola Grand."

chord thumper gizmo, left to right:

1. The classic "Chartola", a Schmidt 4/30 chord-zither with the thumper gizmo. The metal clip at the bottom right is to secure the music "chart"; thus the name.

2. Another favorite for the thumper gizmo is the scroll-and-pillar-style Schmidt 4/30 chord-zither. The scroll-and-pillar on this instrument is a common variety of ornamentation. It is purely decorative and has no bearing on functionality (for more, see the "scroll-and-pillar models" section on the chord-zithers page).

3. The "Bosstone Grand" has a unique body style and slightly different thumper tabs but is functionally the same as the first two examples shown.

3. The instrument is again a Schmidt 4/30 chord-zither, and this one has the split thumper gizmo mentioned above.

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pianoette

pianoette (with chords)

This variety of pianoette has chords. (See the "Gizmo-Harps Without Chords" page for an example of the chordless type.) These instruments' label information usually heralds affiliation with one Samuel Osborn. The instrument itself is again a 4/30 chord-zither. The early version of the gizmo has elongated hammer stems; the later type is essentially a wooden version of the chord-thumper gizmo shown above. An example of each is shown.

The names "pianoette" and "pianolin" were used somewhat indiscriminately by the manufacturers. For more thorough and detailed information on this, consult Kelly Williams's pianolin and pianoette pages, at his site, The Guitar-Zither Clearinghouse.

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celestaphone

celestaphone

The celestaphone seems to have been another Henry Marx creation. Normally, if not always, the actual instrument is a roughly 2 1/2-size Phonoharp chord zither. Its gizmo (melody type) is a fixed row of spring hammers for playing its paired melody strings, and again was presumably meant to appeal to would-be mandolinists. The celestaphone appears to have been the first of several instruments to feature the integral row of hammers. It bears a patent date of 1912, and this particular instrument retains its original sales slip, which is dated 1913. The string configuration is that of a 4/30 chord-zither.

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Marxophone

Marxophone

Of the lot of instruments that followed the celestaphone in function, the most commonly encountered one is the Marxophone. Whereas the celestaphone had the hammer gizmo attached to a Phonoharp chord-zither body, the Marxophone got its own distinctive flat-topped body design, a body style later used for the pianoette with chords (see above.)

Like the celestaphone, it appears that the earlier instruments were made by the Phonoharp Company, as that identity occasionally appears on the label inside the instrument. However, the Marxophone survived until well into the Schmidt era of production, and examples from as late as the early 1940s are known. These latest instruments had wooden hammers; that is, a wooden push-piece and a wooden hammer head, the two being connected by a strip of spring.

Though other instruments bearing the name "Marxophone" were sold early on, the instruments shown here seem to be the type most often associated with the name, probably owing to the prominence with which it displays it. The string configuration is again that of a 4/30 chord-zither, but it differs from the celestaphone in the accompaniment section. The celestaphone has the chords C, F, G, and A minor, same as a Phonoharp 4/30 chord-zither. The Marxophone has C, F, G, and D, same as a Schmidt 4/30 chord-zither.

Marxophones, left to right

1. earlier Marxophone with spring steel hammers, lead heads

2. later Marxophone with wooden hammers

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celestaphone

Supertone Phonoharp

The Supertone Phonoharp is a celestaphone (see above) with the addition of the chord thumper gizmo, also shown above. It was made exclusively for Sears & Roebuck, according to its label. This example looks to be a Schmidt product, probably from the early 1930s. And like the celestaphone, the string configuration is that of a Phonoharp 4/30 chord-zither.

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mandolin-
guitarophone

Mandolin Guitarophone

This instrument was sold under different names (of course), one being "bell harp", and the name "bell harp" was in turn applied to several different instruments as well (among them, the "mandolin-harp" above). Functionally, this instrument is very like the celestaphone and Marxophone, in that it is another 4/30 chord-zither with integral hammers. The specific body profile and the addition of push-buttons on the hammer gizmo are the differences in form.

At least two different styles were produced, one with the accompaniment strings situated diagonally, the other with them running parallel to the melody strings. An example of each is shown.

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orchestrola

orchestrola

The orchestrola incorporates the use of two gizmos, both of the accompaniment type. It has the "thumper" mechanism seen a few photos up, plus a feature unique to this instrument, two dual-function autoharp-type bars for selective damping of not only the accompaniment section but also the entire lower octave of the melody section. Each bar makes two chords by inclining it toward one edge or another, which is done by pushing the white buttons. As one might imagine, this feature makes for some very interesting functionality. Beneath its gizmos lies a chord-zither of 4/30 configuration.

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piano-
mandolette

piano-mandolette

Another commonly encountered gizmo-harp is the piano mandolette. Its gizmo is of the melody type, and it takes the miniature diatonic "keyboard" approach to manipulating the spring hammers. It has three chords with which to accompany its melody strings.

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Menze's
piano
zither

Menze's piano zither

Bearing patent dates of 1898 and 1900, C.T. Menze's piano zither represents one of the earliest gizmo-harps. It is based on a zither of 3/30 configuration, and its gizmo encompasses both the melody and accompaniment sections.

To play it, the keys are not merely pushed down but are "flipped." That is, in one quick motion, a key is pushed down and the finger is slid off the end, releasing it. It is powered back upward by a spring. On the other side of a pivot point from the key end, the hammer moves downward and strikes its respective string(s). The result is a very pleasant and indeed piano-like tone. The keys function much like the bars of the Marx piano harp and pianophone , and may have inspired the functionality of those instruments' gizmos.

C.T. Menze was based in St. Louis and appears to have been independent of affiliations with the major manufacturers of fretless zithers. He gained some degree of prominence as an accordion manufacturer.

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dolceola

gizmo-harps
with chords >
dolceola

gizmo-harps
with chords >
dolceola

dolceola

What might be called the "King of the Gizmo-Harps", the dolceola features an actual keyboard, on which is played both accompaniment and melody. This keyboard is configured differently than a regular piano keyboard; rather, it is arranged in accordance with a 7/25 chord-zither. The keys at the left end of the keyboard are arranged in seven chords, each represented by three keys and by five strings. Within each of these chords:

* The black key on the left plays the root note of the chord, in the low bass range.

* The next key to the right, the narrow white key, plays either the third or 5th note of the chord, providing an alternating bass note.

* The broader white key on the right plays three strings simultaneously, yielding a three-note chord in a higher register of pitch.

The 25 melody keys on the right of the keyboard represent two chromatic octaves and play one string/note each (normal piano keyboard configuration).

The dolceola seems to be shrouded in misconception. It was once thought to be a rare instrument. It was believed that only about 50 examples existed. However, the online auction forum has produced example after another, revealing its supposed rarity to have been a fallacy.

The other great misconception concerning the dolceola is the notion that it was the instrument with which gospel singer Washington Phillips accompanied himself when he recorded in the 1920's. This misunderstanding apparently lingered for decades, despite the fact that (in my opinion) the dolceola sounds nothing like Phillips's instrument.

Finally, a photo of Phillips with his instrument surfaced several years ago. It was taken during the time he recorded, and it finally revealed the identity of the instrument responsible for the angelic sounds heard behind his singing on the recordings. It is not a dolecola but two Phonoharp Company zithers. I am of the belief that his "instrument" was both of the zithers, i.e., that the two were joined together to make one big zither.

I have done some experimenting and have met with success in approximating the sound of Phillips's instrument using a Phonoharp Company zither (again, approximating the sound of his instrument, not duplicating his performance.) I have devoted a special Washington Phillips Page to my findings. Included are the photo of Phillips, illustrated text of evidence supporting the argument that the Phonoharp instruments in the photo are indeed what Phillips used on his recordings, and (the real proof of this, in my opinion) sound clips of both the dolceola and the Phonoharp instrument, so you can hear for yourself what each instrument sounds like.

In addition, Gregg Miner has devoted much time toward trying to identify the instrument played by Phillips on the recordings, and he has posted his findings and theories at his Dolceola Pages.

Happily, Phillips's recordings have now been released on CD, under the title "I Am Born to Preach the Gospel" (Yazoo #2003). These recordings, made in 1927-9, represent the total known documented performance tradition of the instruments represented at this website from the time they were being sold. Phillips was a great performer, and his music naturally had a sound like nothing else ever recorded. I highly recommend this CD.

dolceolas, left to right

1. earlier form with uniform dark finish and first soundhole decal

sound clip of this instrument

2. later form with two-tone finish and second-type soundhole decal; also, sides of body have moulded (center bead) edge, earlier form has plain flat edge

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Triola

Triola

The gizmo of the Triola mandoline-zither is a German invention. However, it is represented here because the instrument to which its gizmo is affixed is an American invention, namely a Menzenhauer No. 3 1/2 chord-zither.

The melody section of the Triola is fully automated. Power is supplied by a crank, and paper rolls determine the selection to be played. But its inventor apparently realized that turning a crank is boring, so he gave the operator an additional responsibility, namely playing the accompaniment manually using the instrument's six chords. Because of this, it can be called an instrument, rather than a music box or such. Needless to say, the Triola is a lot more fun than if it had been fully automated in both the melody and accompaniment sections.

sound clip of this instrument

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