Musical Instruments

Fretless zithers with frets

The following image is the banner of a full-page advertisement placed in the 1 May 1891 issue of the German trade periodical Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau (Journal for Instrument Making) by the firm of zither makers Müller & Thierfeld.

Müller tuning device

Chord-Zither
with practical tuning device
Legally protected.

The tuning device is a small fretboard placed under one string enabling the others to be tuned to it.

Tuning bar

Müller & Thierfeld acquired legal protection for it via the Design Registry in Greiz, for a “Scale for tuning the chord zither” (Accordzither). It was registered on 14 May 1891 as a “Design for plastic products.” This protection was weaker than that of a patent and extended for three years. Other makers were producing comparable devices before it expired and it was irrelevant outside Germany in any case.

One such implementation is seen on the American Guitar-Zither produced by Fredrick Menzenhauer (discussed in the preceding post). A widespread variant used by autoharp makers places the tuning string over a fretboard along the bass side of the instrument. One well-known instance is found in a US patent headed “Harp,” filed by Aldis Gery and Rudolf Dolge on 28 December 1893, and issued to them as USP521109 on 5 June 1894.

Gery and Dolge patent drawing

Dolge was the son of Alfred Dolge, the predominant manufacturer of autoharps in the US at that time. An essentially identical application for a British patent was filed on behalf of his organization on 5 June 1894 and issued as BP10938 on 28 July 1894. In perhaps significant contrast to the US patent, it was headed “Improvements in or relating to Harps, Zithers, and Similar Stringed Instruments.”

The fretted tuning device can be regarded as an ancillary mechanism without bearing on the way the instrument is played or how it is classified. If the chord zither and autoharp are categorized as fretless zithers, the adjunct tuner does not change that status despite being fretted. However, the Gery-Dolge patent allows the device to be modified in a way that has very different consequences.

Additional supplemental strings like the string h but differently tuned might obviously be added so as to correspond with the melody strings or finger board of a zither or other instrument.

Any type of zither that has a multi-string fretboard is, by definition, not a fretless zither. Gery was a renowned autoharp virtuoso and publicity photographs — here one from an inaugural presentation in October 1894 — show him holding an instrument that differs from the one in the patent drawing by having four strings positioned over the fretboard. They are ordered as on a concert zither with the heaviest one farthest from the player.

Aldis Gery

Becky Blackley includes another such portrait in The Autoharp Book, also noting that the patent allows for the extra strings but that only one is needed for tuning the instrument. The patent explicitly refers to the additional ones as melody strings and, if used as such, would have placed the melodic facility of a concert zither literally in Gery’s hands. There is no record of how he tuned the fretboard strings on his instrument but, with the exception of forgoing the doubled highest string on the concert zither, he could readily have used its tuning.

A photograph of Gery from 1896, fronting the (Dolge-sponsored) Fidicinia Orchestra of New York City with which he frequently performed, shows him at his instrument surrounded by five players of the concert zither. It is difficult to imagine that he refrained from utilizing the musical potential of his fretboard in the same manner that the adjacent players of the concert zithers did on theirs.

Fidicinia Orchestra

Regardless of how zither-oriented Gery’s approach to the autoharp might otherwise have been, the melodic advantage afforded by the fretboard was likely to have contributed to his celebrity as being in a virtuousic class of his own. This would have been heightened by the way he used the chord bars in melodic regard, as well as the chordal resources of the autoharp differing markedly from those of the concert zither, arguably to the advantage of the former.

A “Concert Grand Autoharp” with the patented design appears in Dolge’s 1896 catalog but does not have a fretboard, nor is any seen on extant such instruments. The decision not to put a multi-string fretboard into commercial production may reflect concern with it undermining the core marketing claim of it taking a mere half hour for anyone to be able to play the autoharp. However, that wouldn’t explain why the monochord tuner was dropped. Gery was unlikely to have called attention to the fretboard in his own performances beyond the resulting pyrotechnical effect, which was hardly to the detriment of company’s sales statistics.

Whatever the corporate reasoning may actually have been, the fretboard poses an interesting problem in the formal categorization of such instruments. This is of no particular concern to the performer. But it is not a trivial matter for a museum curator cataloging a collection of mixed cultural material in which autoharps and chord zithers are found, but without the expertise needed to recognize pivotal differences in their designs and document them accordingly.

The classification system most frequently used in musical instrument museums was first published in 1914 and is referred to by the names of its authors as “Hornbostel-Sachs.” It applies the term “zither” in an extremely broad generic sense. Far and away the largest number of the types that it subsumes are fretless. The varieties that we’re talking about here all belong to the subgroup of “box zithers.”

There is no group of “fretless zithers” or “zithers without fretboards” on any level, but both qualifiers have nonetheless come into common use relatively recently to label a subgroup of box zithers. The commercial Concert Grand Autoharp fits comfortably into it. However, the instrument Gery used for his own performances would belong to a subordinate group with the oxymoronic heading of “fretless zithers with fretboards.”

It wouldn’t be alone there, either. A type of chord zither widely associated with Scandinavia forgoes melody strings to make space for a larger number of chords. The initial Swedish patent for it places a fretboard under one of the chord blocks, used to raise its pitch in semitone increments. This would also be a “fretless zither with a fretboard.”

Sorting out issues like this can trigger heated debate among specialists in musical instrument systematics. The need to avoid such things as the concatenation of frettedness and fretlessness in a single category heading typifies the concerns that such folks address. Without suggesting that it might gain general acceptance, one way to deal with this situation would be by placing “chord zithers” directly under “box zithers.”

Designs where the chords are determined by the unmechanized aggregation of strings would be in one further subgroup. Those that determine chords with an added mechanical device would be in another. One subgroup of the latter could include instruments that have damping bars, in turn subdivided into those with frets and those without frets. This would allow, say, for the fretless commercial Concert Grand Autoharp and Gery’s fretted variant to appear on the same level in the system.

This geeky excursion has probably left many readers slapping their foreheads but the important thing to note is that an autoharp can be an autoharp both with and without frets, just as there are chord zithers with and without frets. Reference to fretless zithers can be reasonable and useful but neither the term nor the concept it betokens stands well enough on its own to deal with either Gery’s instrument or the Swedish one. (I’ll take a closer look at the latter in a coming post.)

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