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As per the header, this site is devoted to fretless zithers, a distinct body of pin-tuned stringed instruments of 19th and 20th century American invention and manufacture.

Concerning the term "fretless zithers", it was coined by Kelly Williams and Gregg Miner. Prior to their doing so, this family of instruments had no title, at least none that wasn't vague, misleading, and/or confusing. We are indebted to them for at last providing a generic name for the family that fits.

Though fretless zithers compose a largely unknown family of instruments, there are nearly endless varieties of them, and in fact new varieties are still surfacing. By no means do I suggest that this site represents anything like all of them. There are many more, and I continue to add information as it becomes available. Nonetheless, a wide variety of instruments are presented here for your browsing, along with narrative text concerning each. So make yourself at home and explore this fascinating stringed instrument family.



What are fretless zithers?

Though this site deals only with fretless zithers of American manufacture, these instruments were also manufactured in Europe, and for the sake of comparison European fretless zithers are touched upon very briefly at the bottom of this page. Germany in particular produced her own nearly endless variety of them, and in fact they are still in production there. The ornamentation and body designs are often different from their American-made counterparts, but for the most part, their functionality is the same. This presents some confusion, as Germany is also the birthplace of some similar-looking instruments that are altogether different from the fretless zither in terms of functionality. So perhaps the best place to begin answering the question above is to take a quick look at a few of these instruments that are not fretless zithers. (Click on images to open larger ones.)

concert zither

The "concert zither" (a.k.a: "Alpine zither"), a native of Germany, is not a member of the instrument family represented here. Widely regarded as a very technically demanding instrument to master, the concert zither is the instrument on which a virtuoso named Anton Karas played the fine music that served as the now-famous sound track of the movie "The Third Man". This is the instrument similar in size and shape to the chord-zither, but with a stretch of fretted fingerboard affixed to the instrument's top, which of course makes it a fretted zither. This fingerboard usually accommodates five strings and is normally on the left side of the top, as you face the instrument. These 5 or so strings that span the fingerboard are the melody strings. To the right of the fingerboard are the accompaniment strings, usually 20 to 30 of them.

The functionality of the concert zither is altogether different from that of the American-born chord-zither, in regard to both playing technique and physical configuration. The chord-zither, which is so-named because its accompaniment strings are grouped into 4- or 5-string chords, normally has the accompaniment strings (chord strings) situated on the left, and the melody strings on the right; the opposite of the concert zither. Another difference is that the concert zither has noted melody strings (those on which different notes are produced by manipulations of the hand other than the one used to pluck the strings). Again, the opposite is true of the chord-zither, which has no noted strings. All strings of the chord-zither are played open; each string produces only one note. In fact, this is true of most instruments of this family, with the few exceptions being the tremoloa and several of the more obscure Marx plucked instruments, among them the "Hawaiian tiple", which have strings meant to be noted by means of a slide bar. Also, the Marxolin and harp-guitar-zither both have strings that can be mechanically manipulated to a variance of a half or full pitch, by the use of features incorporated into the instrument's design. All the instruments named above are represented in the directory.

bowed zither

Another instrument that's unrelated to those shown here is the "bowed zither", also German by birth. Like the concert zither, this instrument also has a fretted fingerboard, which usually accommodates four strings. The body of this example is made in the image of a crude violin, viol, or folk fiddle, but it seems these are most commonly teardrop-shaped. They normally have no accompaniment strings.

bowed psaltery

One last instrument that's similar but not a member of the instrument family dealt with here is the "bowed psaltery". There seems to be some debate concerning its time of origin. Some hold to the notion that it is a product of medieval times, while others offer evidence to the effect that it goes back no further than the 1940's. I don't claim to know, but I do know that in its usual triangular form and with no accompaniment strings, it is not an instrument that was manufactured by the American companies whose instruments are the focus of this site.

European fretless zithers

As mentioned, only fretless zithers of American manufacture are represented at this site, in terms of providing any information concerning their production, models, manufacturers, and so forth. But a few fretless zithers of European manufacture are represented below, along with a few notes concerning some differences and similarities between Old and New World fretless zithers.

Fred. Menzenhauer, German-born American inventor of the chord-zither, also manufactured his creation in Germany. His German instruments are usually very similar to his American-made ones; a curved left side of the body outline is normally the only departure from his standard body style. However, Menzenhauer's zithers are conservative in design by comparison to some other German makers, a few showier examples of whose work are included in the images below.

In terms of workmanship, materials, and overall quality, the fretless zithers of the two continents are equals; both were manufactured by the same production methods. As might be expected from lands on opposite sides of an ocean, the species of woods used generally differ from one another. While the frames of American instruments are normally made of hard maple, those of European ones are usually of beech. Both are very good for the purpose. Old-growth poplar is the most frequently encountered choice for soundboards and backs in America; a wide-grained pine is the European counterpart. And again, both are fine.

Paired melody strings are far more prevalent for chord-zithers of European origin than for American ones; those with partially and even fully chromatic melody sections seem to be paired as often as single-strung, and even tripled melody strings are sometimes encountered. The 5/42 and 6/50 configurations seem to be favorites. With the exception of the rare Phonoharp No. 3 1/2 in the paired (5/42) configuration, the diatonic 4/30 is the only model of American chord-zither to feature paired melody strings. By contrast, European 4/30 chord-zithers seem to be uncommon.

Another feature both common and unique to European fretless zithers, and potentially those of nearly any type, is the inclusion of two or more short strings in the accompaniment section. These facilitate the upward expansion of the chords' overall range. Each of these short strings is pinned through the soundboard and into an underlying block at the tuning end. Normally there is no bridge at this end; the string runs straight off the tuning pin and is supported by the tail bridge as usual at the hitch end.

There is evidence to suggest that in recent years there has been something of a trend in Europe favoring chord-zithers with large numbers of chords. As a result, some instruments of monstrous size and string count have emerged. However, it appears that at least one old, established manufacturing firm is satisfied that the 6-chord model offers sufficient versatility, as it seems to be the largest model of their regular line. But lesser-configured chord-zithers of recent European manufacture are not uncommon, and in fact examples with as few as two chords are known.

In some cases, fretless zithers of American invention experienced some evolution of functional form following their introduction into Europe, and one example of this is illustrated below. And still more evolution could lie ahead, as fretless zither production continues in Europe to the present day.

European fretless zithers, left to right

1. This German 6/25 chord-zither sports a projection at the upper left corner that somewhat echoes the scroll-and-pillar on the right. Smothered with mostly floral ornamentation, the body is also profiled at top center to accommodate the decal simulation of a carved shell, which when actually carved is a popular ornament used for Alpine zithers.

2. This is another German 6/25, this one in a fully symmetrical double scroll-and-pillar configuration. And again, the decalcomania abounds.

3. Here we have a German chord-zither in the 5/42 configuration. Ornamentation is again liberal, and this one has the scroll-and-pillar only on the left. Though the 5/42 seems to be a fairly common model in Europe, its American counterpart was made only by the Phonoharp Company and in very limited numbers.

4. The European version of even the bowed fretless zither sometimes features the scroll-and-pillar body frill, as does this example. It looks to have five 7-string chords; for each chord, the head block is pinned for five strings, and there are two more out on the soundboard. It hosts 18 melody strings, and given the spacing of their jack pins, it appears that the melody section is diatonic. If so, this would seem to be an instrument of highly promising functionality overall.

row 2, left to right

5. This appears to be a bi-level chord-zither of 8/58 configuration, fully chromatic in the melody section and with eight tripled strings at the upper end of its range. Its label gives it to be of Finnish manufacture.

6. This German-made chord-zither of recent manufacture looks to have nine 8-string chords and 30 pairs of melody strings, for a total of 132 strings.

7. The total lack of decalcomania suggests the possibility that this gigantic 19/25 chord-zither may be homemade. It appears to have a single-strung fully chromatic two-octave melody section, supported by 19 chords of four strings each.

8. This instrument evolved from the American regent zither, which was also produced in unaltered original form in Europe. These are most often given the name "harpeleik." They usually have 7 to 9 chords, some with as many as 11 strings each. The harpeleik is still in production by a German manufacturer.

So, on to the rest of the site. Use the Type 1 Hawaiian art violin-shaped navigation buttons at the tops of the pages to explore.