American "Zithers"
by Gregg Miner, as part of


The Holly And The Ivy
(English Carol, ca. 1700)

(Left to right)

Zitho-Harp - ca. 1902

ca. 1920

ca. 1920

Tremoloa -
ca. 1945

Ukelin -
ca. 1930

Autoharp -
Oscar Schmidt "Silvertone", 1970

Lap Dulcimer -
Rugg & Jackal, ca. 1980

Archtop Guitar -
Gibson L-3, 1919


Listen on Bandcamp


Disclaimer to Internet readers: The following text is a humorous essay written for the layperson. It originally appeared in a companion booklet to my 1995 Christmas Collection CDs. The information, while factual, is presented in a personal, unorthodox manner. No offense is intended toward my fellow musicians or fellow musicologists.

Jan 1, 2005: Things have come a very long way since I first penned this off-the-cuff blurb for my CDs in 1995. I'll leave my poorly-researched piece up for historical interest, but seriously interested parties, please see the end notes - we finally straightened it out!

It's high time people learned the truth about American "zithers." An important and overlooked part of our history, these are those instruments with all the strings that you see at the flea market that everyone calls a zither, but is not. If you want a real zither, see Volume 1. The main difference: True zithers are sophisticated, professional instruments for dedicated musicians and are extremely difficult to play. American zithers are simple, cheaply-made instruments for non-musicians and are extremely difficult to play. 

These mass-produced parlour instruments were sold in department stores and peddled door-to-door during the first half of this century. The basic design, originally called the Columbia zither, is a simple shallow box with open metal strings stretched over the top. The melody strings on the right, in single or double courses, are tuned either diatonically in C or chromatically. To the left are four or five chords made up of four strings each. Invariably, the strings are labeled underneath with a letter and/or staff note for ease in following the instruction book. These "zithers" were, of course, marketed as "easy-to-learn" marvels that "anyone can play." One simply plucked the melody strings with one hand while strumming the chords with the other, using fingers or picks. As if this weren't difficult enough, various contraptions were then invented to pick or strike the note for you.

Moving from left to right (top, then bottom row) in the photo and in general order of appearance in the song, the first variation on the basic Columbia zither is the Zitho-harp, exactly as pictured in the 1902 Sears catalog. It takes the melody and accompaniment strings and overlaps them at right angles to each other, to make them easier to play. It doesn't help.

The Marxophone is a basic Columbia zither taken one step further with a row of metal spring-loaded hammers to strike the strings and actually ends up as a rather ingenious hammered dulcimer for typists.

The mandolin-harp has an array of buttons, which when depressed, lower the automatic pluckers for each string as you shake the whole assembly back and forth to emulate a mandolin tremolo. It nearly works!

The mechanical devices reach their most ridiculous in the tremoloa, a sort of Hawaiian guitar for draftsmen. It has the same four chords, but only one melody string, played automatically with a slide bar attached pantograph-style to a thumbpick. Quite difficult and hilarious.

The ukelin rearranges the standard melody strings in a tier borrowed from the medieval psaltery. While plucking the four chords with one hand, the other bows the melody strings as best one can. The secret is not to use long strokes with the provided violin bow, but short, light strokes with a small-psaltery bow. Playing alternately with two bows gives the traditional "psaltery" effect.

Only one mechanical "zither" proved popular enough to survive to the present day. The Autoharp, invented by C. F. Zimmerman in 1881 and made famous by the Oscar Schmidt Company, is indeed something that "anyone can play." Though there are a few who can skillfully pluck it melodically, its main use is as a simple, strummed (but lovely) accompaniment instrument. The secret: as each "chord bar" is depressed, felt pads dampen all the strings not in the chord, allowing only that chord's notes to vibrate freely.

The lap (mountain or Appalachian) dulcimer is not a mechanical oddity but a traditional "folk" instrument and is actually more closely related to the true zither than any of the above. It's merely missing the zither's accompaniment strings and has lengthened the fingerboard. Its three or four courses can be fretted melodically or strummed open.

Lastly, I wanted a guitar for this tune and happened to have one straggler form the Gibson collection. This "special order" (natural-finish body and ivory-colored hardware) L-3 archtop has, to my mind, the most aesthetically pleasing "hourglass figure" of any guitar made.

Jan 1, 2005: First, the obvious corrections: 

  • I no longer call them "American zithers" - this was an early attempt at a family name I picked up from Frets magazine in the '70s or '80s.
  • The "Columbia Zither" was an early, but not the first model (the "Guitar-Zither" was).
  • I am apparently completely mistaken about there being a medieval psaltery that was bowed liked a ukelin. Exact history is unknown but likely Germany in the 1920s(?) for the invention of the "bowed psaltery."
  • Nor am I that knowledgeable about the playing techniques. For all the scoop on the ukelin, visit Bob's Ukelin Home.

And the main problem - a family name for all these instruments - was finally solved in May, 2003, when, after years of separate and combined research and discussion, my friend Kelly Williams and I finally came up with the answer, presented on our new joint Fretless Zithers page.

And finally, in late 2004, Garry Harrison created, a spectacular new site for all these misunderstood, ubiquitous instruments. I'm pleased that he has chosen to promote and solidify the new term presented by myself and Kelly. 

For questions on any of these instruments, I recommend Garry above or Kelly Williams at The Guitar Zither Clearinghouse.


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