The Dolceola: a piano? A zither? Or what?

by Gregg Miner, May, 2003

from The Dolceola Pages
created by Gregg Miner, as part of

In reading the history of the Dolceola, one often sees it referred to as a “miniature piano.” Indeed, it was invented by a pair of ex-piano retailers, and utilizes a remarkable miniaturized piano-type hammer mechanism. In addition, experts have remarked upon the Dolceola as being “erroneously described as a zither.”

Then why does it keep showing up on zither sites and discussions?

dolceola_3.jpg (50651 bytes)

The confusion is simple and fundamental. Even today, scholars face the same problem the Dolceola’s inventors did in 1903.  Quite simply, there has never been a common name given to this family of instruments. 

Everyone knows what an Autoharp is, right? But what then are all those other autoharp-y, zither-like things we see at flea markets, garage sales, in old Sears catalogs, and now literally by the thousands on auctions? “Guitar Zithers?” “Chord Zithers?” “fill-in-the-blank-Harps?” 

The problem is so severe and widespread, that I satirized it (while trying to share what little information I had) in my 1995 CD companion booklets (now online on my site). Unfortunately, that only seemed to further confuse people – and amendments to it have just gone on and on with no resolution.

Until now. Kelly Williams (whom I consider the foremost collector and researcher of these instruments) and myself have pooled a couple decades worth of experience, research and commitment, and developed the world’s first systematic organization of these instruments henceforth known collectively as Fretless Zithers.

Our joint proposal, which explains our reasoning, precedents and family tree resides here:

The Fretless Zither Family

Now that we’ve established terminology, we can better discuss the unique Dolceola. 

1)      Did the inventors, the Boyd brothers, intend their instrument to be a “miniature grand piano” or a customized fretless zither?

2)      How do we today categorize it?

Starting with the last question – the Fretless Zither Family Tree clearly and logically shows the Dolceola as a fretless zither of the chord group family with attachments. There were many similar instruments with strings struck by hammers around the turn of the century – some played directly (Marxophone, Celestaphone), some played via buttons (Mandolin Guitarophone), and others played via piano-like keys – either with simple mechanisms (Stella Piano Mandolinette, Oscar Schmidt Piano Harp, American Piano Zither) or complex mechanisms (Dolceola, Scribner's Baby Grand). 

The Dolceola is certainly one of the largest, sturdiest, and most intricate of these instruments, and as stated in the advertising, “is not a toy!” But neither, despite their inexpensive production, are any of the other fretless zithers. And while it may be one of the nicer examples of the family, the Dolceola is still built like a beefed-up Phonoharp – not a scaled-down Steinway (proof of the Dolceola's similarly inexpensive manufacture can be seen in Garry Harrison's restoration).

What sets the Dolceola apart is its ability to mimic piano action – depending on the player's keystroke, the string can automatically dampen or be allowed to ring. This provides a good degree of sophistication, as does the generous offering of seven chords (rather than the typical "chord group" fretless zither's four) – each with three separate keys to activate as desired the five notes of the chord.

Now back to the Boyds. All the evidence suggests that the brothers were well aware of the many varieties of fretless zithers – they just didn’t have a term for them! The only common term available to them was “autoharp” - which, a) technically, should then have been capitalized, as it was a brand name, like “Kleenex” - and, b) was not functionally similar to the "chord group" fretless zithers, the only instruments suitable for their keyboard attachment. Correct or not, it was a convenient name, which explains its use in their Dolceola patent #719,641. In it, they clearly state how their keyboard is “to be applied to and used in conjunction with instruments of the type known as the ‘autoharp’.” Note 1

Kelly Williams has also tallied their use of “piano,” while looking for other terms used in the Dolceola’s advertising. He reports:

"I reviewed 9 different ads from 1905-1907. The splash line changed from "A new and wonderful musical instrument" to "Only practical musical instrument invented in 20 years" between Jul & Oct 06, and to "A miniature grand piano" between Oct 06 and Feb 07. But in all the text it is resolutely called "Dolceola" or "instrument". I wouldn't guess that their "miniature grand piano" tag actually meant they wanted to call it a piano. I also looked at an advertising booklet, and a letter from the company to a potential salesman - same wording."

Thus, other than the patent where "autoharp" was used (obviously a reference to fretless zithers, specifically of the "chord group" variety), and the brief use of "miniature grand piano" as a sales gimmick, the lack of terminology left the inventors with only the term "musical instrument."

In the end, we should just feel fortunate that a clever pair of Americans gave us another unique fretless zither – which happened to look like a miniature grand piano!

Note 1. In his paper, Hettrick wonders why they used "autoharp" instead of “zither.” It’s simple – the public understood the term and concept of an Autoharp (another family of fretless zither by the way), but no one was sure if all those other instruments were really “zithers” (and technically, they are not - see Fretless Zither Family Tree). Even today, these instruments are called every conceivable arbitrary name on eBay. Hence, the long-needed clarification by Kelly and myself.

 to The Dolceola Pages

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