Fretless Zithers
by Gregg Miner and Kelly Williams
Original Pulblication: May, 2003
(as part of
Update, March, 2015


Update March, 2015: "Fretless zither" is now an official entry in The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (Second Edition) !

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:

·         1995: I produced my A Christmas Collection CDs that used some of these instruments, with a short, humorous essay on the topic.  In 2000, I re-published this on my web site (here).

·         Mid-1998: Kelly Williams began his web site on the Guitar-Zither and relatives (originally one of the more common fretless zithers)

·         In 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.

·         In late 2004, another dedicated collector of these instruments, Garry Harrison (who had been in communication with Kelly and I) created his own web site, Note 1

·         Shortly after, Kelly more or less retired from the hobby.

·         Around 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). Sadly, Garry passed away suddenly on Sept. 4, 2012.

·         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 (who passed away in 2012) nor I are available to answer questions. I would suggest starting below, then investigate particular instruments further on Garry’s site (Garry's family re-posted the entire site in March, 2015!), 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.

·         However - 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 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 authored the brand new "Zither, fretless" entry in The Grove Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments, published in December, 2014!


The 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.

The 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).

Two later inventions (the Autoharp in 1882, and the Guitar-Zither in 1894) established the very different concept of the fretless zither. These are now infinitely more common and familiar to the general public than the concert zither.  They are based on a psaltery concept - i.e. non-fretted, open strings stretched over a box (Fig. 2).  Previous, misleading terms include "American zither," "guitar-zither," "chord zither," and again, simply "zither." In the case of the original Menzenhauer Guitar-Zither, what looks superficially similar to the concert zither is actually a reverse stringing arrangement. Here, all the open strings to the right are the melody strings, while those on the left are bass/accompaniment strings, strung in “chord groups” (4 chords of 4 strings each).

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: 
Elegy Zither - Franz Halbmeier, ca. 1900;
Concert Zither - Washburn, ca. 1898;
Harp-Zither - Franz Schwarzer, 1898

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 100 of their prolific names is posted on Williams' site here). A fully illustrated site of many of these examples (and more) is - created by the late Garry Harrison (who donated his instruments 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.

Left to right: 
Marxophone - ca. 1920; Tremoloa - ca. 1945; Ukelin - ca. 1930;
Mandolin-Harp - ca. 1920

Selecting the Term

The 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.

Miner 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. 

Williams 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 Menzenhauer model.

European 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.

Griffbrettlose Zithern. 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 zithers." 

We may present occasional points of disagreement with Michel's conclusions or terminology (most minor, and some possibly due just to translation errors).

Michel lists three categories of fretless zither:
"a) Fretless zithers with chromatic or diatonic strings from low to high (one or two courses);
 b) Fretless zithers with strings set in chords without melody strings (which allow only chords to be played);
c) A combination of these (a and b), so having single melody strings, accompanied by five to seven chords of strings together
(usually four chords on American models, though 3 and 5 are common - GM/KW). This allowed the melody to be played with some limited accompaniment."

These equate to the "Melody," "Chord-Only," (see Note 3 below) 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.

The 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

Fretless Zither Categories and Sub-Categories
(Kelly Williams system)

  • Autoharps (ex: Autoharp, Meloharp)

  • Melody instruments (ex: Psaltery)

  • Guard Plate instruments (ex: Apollo Harp)

  • Chord group instruments 1

  •                         single level, side-by-side, no attachments (ex: MenzenhauerNo. 2)

  •                         single level, inline, no attachments (ex: American Art Guitar)

  •                         multi-level, inline, no attachments (ex: Porter Lyreharp)

  •                         multi-level, skewed, no attachments (ex: Zithoharp, Harp-Zither)

  •                         multi-sided (ex: Ideal Harp)

  •             Chord group instruments 2

  •                         single-level, chord attachments (ex: Chartola)

  •                         single-level, melody attachments (ex: Marxophone, Mandolin-Harp, Dolceola)

  •                         single-level, melody & chord attachments (ex: Supertone Phonoharp)

  •                         single-level, multiple attachments (ex: Orchestrola)

  •                         multi-level, attachments (ex: Mandolin Guitarophone)

  •             Chord group instruments 3

  •                         bowed, one-sided (ex: Pianolin)

  •                         bowed, two-sided (ex: Ukelin)

  •                         bowed, two-level (ex: Marxolin)

  •                         bowed, other (ex: Hawaiian Art Violin, stair-step form)

  •             Chord group instruments 4

  •                         other melody means (ex: Tremoloa, Harp-o-chord)

  • Chord fabrication instruments (ex: Pianophone)

  • Chord-only instruments (ex: Regent Zither)

  • Mechanical instruments (ex: Triola)

    Note 1. For better or worse, though Kelly and I tried to bring Garry "into the fold," we were unable to persuade him to fully work together, or at least, follow the terminology and outline presented here. We bore him no ill will for appropriating the Fretless Zither name for his site - after all, establishing the name was the goal we were after.

    Note 2. For example, as state in our article, the last term we want to continue to perpetuate is "Chord Zither." Garry uses this where we use "Chord Group Zither."

    Note 3. Chord-Only fretless zithers: This is a tricky category as the name is easily misinterpreted. Andreas Michel uses it as one of his three main categories – but it only consists of one specific instrument (The "Aeol" Amerikanische Harfen-Zither ). American versions (in 3-chord and 5-chord forms) by the Flagg Company were named "Regent zithers." A common misconception about this unique fretless zither form is reinforced when Michel mistakenly states that the Aeol Harfen-Zither was "not meant for playing melodies," and "was made purely as an accompanying instrument." This is far from the truth. In fact, though the strings are indeed arranged only in chord groups (with no separate melody bank), they are meant to play both chords and melody. This is accomplished through a unique "drag-and-stop" technique (my term), with directions provided by the underlying notation sheet. Quite tricky to learn (as it’s very counter-intuitive), it requires the player to pick the sequential melody notes out of the different chords, usually by strumming through the chord to end on the required melody note. Thus, one hears a progression of chord arpeggios with the melody on top! Certain autoharp players use this tricky technique also (the aural difference being that the autoharp would "click" when strummed through the damper-stopped strings, and each chord would automatically damp when the next chord bar was pressed).

    Thus, we need to carefully define the Chord-only fretless zithers as: strings arranged in groups of chords (rather than "to play only chords").

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.

Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006,2007,2008,2009,2010,2011,2012,2013,2014,2015
Gregg Miner & Kelly Williams


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