by Gregg Miner and Kelly Williams
Original Publication: May, 2003
(as part of www.minermusic.com)
Major Update, July, 2011
New Introduction to this article,
If you are a researcher, collector, player, hobbyist, or potential buyer or seller of these instruments, this is the optimum place to start on the subject. Since first writing the article below, much has happened in the world of fretless zithers. The timeline goes something like this:
Kelly Williams began his web
site on the Guitar-Zither and relatives (originally one of the more common
May, 2003, Kelly and I created the term “Fretless Zither” as
the modern English organological term for this entire family of
instruments, and published the article presented below.
after, Kelly more or less retired from the hobby.
2009, Garry also retired from the hobby, donating his collection and web
site to the Phoenix Musical Instrument Museum. (Another museum that
recently received a large zither collection is the National Music Museum
in South Dakota)
· As of this date, all 3 web sites remain incomplete. Kelly’s was far from completed. Garry’s was much more exhaustive, though differently organized, and with differing terminology, compared to our system below. Note 2 And my own site information was limited to the initial outline that I created with Kelly’s input. Therefore, anyone looking for information today is on their own. Neither Kelly, nor Garry, nor I are available to answer questions. I would suggest starting below, then investigate particular instruments further on Garry’s site, and finally, don’t miss Kelly’s pages. We all present different, valuable information. Owners of instruments looking for “value,” simply search eBay for a period of time, and you’ll get an idea.
· In an effort to make our original article more useful, I have added image links to representative examples of all Fretless Zither forms as proposed by Kelly Willams and myself in our Fretless Zither Categories and Sub-Categories below (Note: these may be completely different, of conflicting with Garry's terminology and organization). Images are from the collections of Garry (former), Kelly and myself. I was only able to begin this arduous task thanks to the rough draft of the proposed book on the subject by Kelly. It contains much more that is not presented on any of our web sites, and sadly, remains unfinished.
- as of this writing, I am thrilled to report that “Fretless Zither”
has successfully established itself in the vernacular. It began
appearing – where else?...on eBay; was adopted by the curators of the
museums mentioned above (and perhaps others by now); and today, the term
(along with our 3 web sites) is referenced from many sources on
Wikipedia. Not being a fan of Wikipedia, I am happy to report that I am
helping create the first Fretless Zither entry in the New Grove
Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments.
purpose of this page is to introduce, validate and establish the
new standard term of fretless zither for the many hundreds
of different American and European "zithers" which do not
conform to the traditional accepted form of modern zither. We also present
below the first logical Family Tree
for these instruments, which illustrates a possible evolutionary – or at
least form characteristic -
relationship with other zithers.
form of zither that was first defined and well-represented in books and
collections is known as the "concert zither," "Alpine
zither," "Austrian zither," or simply "zither"
(Fig. 1). One of its defining characteristics is a fingerboard, which
contains the melody strings, plucked by the right-hand thumb and fretted
with the left-hand fingers. The remaining right hand fingers play all the
remaining open strings (bass and accompaniment chords).
Figure 1. Examples of concert zithers. All have a group of 4-5 melody strings which are fretted, as in a guitar. The open strings provide bass and chord accompaniment.
Left to right:
|Figure 2. Examples of
more unusual fretless
zithers. The variety of the designs and marketing names is almost
endless (a partial list, containing over 75 manufacturers and over
of their prolific names is posted on Williams' site here).
A fully illustrated site of many of these examples (and more) is Fretlesszithers.com
- created by Garry Harrison (whose instruments and web site now belong
to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix). Many of these fretless
zithers include strings in "chord groups,"
and many have "attachments."
The common feature is that none have fretted strings.,"
and many have "attachments."
The common feature is that none have fretted strings.
Selecting the Term
authors have long been involved with the collection, study, discussion and
presentation of these instruments, and had previously worked independently
on terminology. Only by joint discussion and collation of all the existing
classification by others (right or wrong) were we able to finally
determine the best and most optimal term.
had originally used the term American "zither" -
inspired by a Frets Magazine writer. "American" because the
instruments proliferated in the U.S. and to differentiate them from the
concert zither form (historically originating from and traditional to
Austria/Germany); "zither" in quotes to imply that it was an
improper term (i.e: not a “true” zither). The appellation is confusing
in many ways. Similar instruments were simultaneously made in European
countries; the use of quotes around "zither" is not understood;
and "American" was mistakenly taken to mean any zither
manufactured in America (such as a Schwarzer concert zither). We now deem
it inappropriate in any context.
has previously used the term Guitar Zither - as this is the
name chosen by the first inventor of the most common form (Menzenhauer's
Guitar-Zither). Also, it remained the most commonly used term in Germany
from 1894 to 1940 (both as a model name and form term). Unfortunately,
Menzenhauer couldn't have chosen a more misleading name for his
instrument. What he found "guitar-like" about his instrument is
anyone's guess. Indeed, today this term is just as frequently mis-applied
to the concert zither, which actually has a guitar-like
feature - the fretboard! Additionally, "guitar zither" never
covered the many other common forms of fretless zither. Therefore,
"Guitar Zither" should only be used to refer to that specific
scholars, such as England's redoubtable Anthony Baines, later used the
term chord zither, introduced in his 1992 The Oxford
Companion to Musical Instruments. It seems intended only to cover the
basic "chord group" zithers. Perhaps he borrowed the term from
Sibyl Marcuse, who used it to refer to the Autoharp in her 1975 A
Survey of Musical Instruments. Ironically, Baines had earlier used the
term fretless zither in his landmark 1966 book European &
American Musical Instruments - under the Psalteries and Dulcimers
section (which makes sense) - using it to cover both Autoharps and various
types of what we are now classifying as fretless zithers. However, he
never used it again (The Oxford Companion listing "chord zither"
and "Auto-harp" as separate entries). Thus, by their own
confusion and term-swapping, the scholars themselves show the term
"chord zither" to be completely inappropriate. It has never been
defined as to which exact forms, styles or models of fretless zithers it
is meant to cover. Sometimes it is intended to cover the "chord
group" category of fretless zithers, other times the Autoharp
and its relatives. The latter actually makes more sense as they are
more prominently "chord-producing" instruments; while the
"chord group" instruments almost always have a prominent melody
bank in addition to chords. In the end, of what clear and meaningful
descriptive value has the word "chord"? None.
We advocate discontinuing any future use of this term.
It took German zither researcher Andreas Michel to remind us of the
obvious. In his work Zithern: Musikinstrumente zwischen und
Burgerlichkeit, published in 1995 and later repeated on the Internet here,
he discusses the mainly German versions of what he classifies as
griffbrettlose zithern. When
we accurately translated the term, it turned out to be, literally, "fingerboardless
zithers." We then chose the equally accurate and descriptive English
word "fretless" - which we wholeheartedly embraced as the more
obvious, elocution-friendly appellation. Ergo, "fretless
We may present occasional points of disagreement with
Michel's conclusions or
terminology (most minor, and some possibly due just to translation
lists three categories of fretless zither:
equate to the "Melody," "Chord-Only," (see Note
and "Chord Group," forms on our Family Tree. In addition, we add
the remaining categories to the tree, then break these down further (below)
to cover the incredible amount of variations found in America. A partial
list, containing over 75 manufacturers and over 100
of their prolific names is posted on Williams' site here.
All of these can (and should) be classified as fretless zithers.
sooner the thousands of collectors, players, researchers, music stores and
eBay sellers start using this term, the better off we'll all be. Of
course, when decals or labels are still present on instruments, their
specific "brand name" should be used with the other descriptors
(e.g. "The Marxophone, a common fretless zither of the chord
group variety with attachments").
Fretless Zither Family Tree
The above tree broadly addresses European and American "evolution" and invention. Not represented are similar, but specific, ethnic instruments - such as the Indian swarmandel and the Middle Eastern kanun.
Notice: The authors encourage web links to this page for purposes of dissemination. Any other unauthorized use such as copying, re-printing, publishing, etc. - all or in part - is strictly prohibited.
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