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Fretless Zithers
by Gregg Miner and Kelly Williams

from The Dolceola Pages
(maintained by Gregg Miner, as part of


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 their evolution and relationship with other zithers.

The traditional modern form of zither is that known as the "concert zither," "Alpine zither," "Austrian zither," or simply "zither" (Fig. 1). The non-traditional form, which is now infinitely more common and familiar to the public, is 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."

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

Left to right: 
Marxophone - ca. 1920; Tremoloa - ca. 1945; Ukelin - ca. 1930;
Mandolin-Harp - ca. 1920
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. Figure 2. Examples of fretless zithers. The variety of the designs and marketing names is almost endless (a partial list, containing over 65 manufacturers and over 80 of their prolific names is posted on Williams' site here). Many have "chord groups," many have "attachments." The common feature is that none have fretted strings.

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. 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. 

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, now use 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. He never uses it again (The Oxford Companion using "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 would actually make more sense as these are more prominently "chord-producing" instruments; while the "chord group" instruments most often have a prominent melody bank (indeed, there are "melody-only" versions, as well as a few "chord-only" versions). In the end, of what descriptive value has the word "chord"? 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. It took us awhile to accurately translate the term - but guess what it turned out to be? Yes - literally, "fingerboardless zithers." Our translator (Chris Wilhelm) chose the equally accurate and descriptive English word "fretless" - which we wholeheartedly embraced as the more obvious, elocution-friendly appellation.  Ergo, "fretless zithers." 

Note: An English translation of Michelís excellent article on his classification of the German fretless zithers can be downloaded in PDF format here. We may present occasional points of disagreement with his 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 - GM/KW). This allowed the melody to be played with some limited accompaniment."

These equate to the "Melody," "Chord-Only," (see Note 1 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 65 manufacturers and over 80 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 auction 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").

Jan 1, 2005 UPDATE: It is encouraging that we have seen anonymous eBay sellers already beginning to list their instruments as "fretless zithers"! And we got a huge boost when collector Garry Harrison committed to the term and recently created, a spectacular new site for all these misunderstood, ubiquitous instruments.

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

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
Gregg Miner & Kelly Williams