Musical Instruments

Matters of course

This blog’s icon is a trademark of the Swedish musical instrument maker John Bertels (1861–1928), who placed it on the autoharps he began producing no later than 1891. His catalog included five models of the “Swedish Original Grand Zither” (Svenska Original Flygelcittra).

The Swedish Original Grand Zither should not be confused with German and American bar- or chord zithers, autoharps, “Preciosa”, “Erato”, “Lipsia”, and others, which are twice as expensive and by far not as easy to learn, practical, and well made.

The first three models closely resembled the named competition but the top two were Bertels’s own design. The exceptionally large Model 5 is the central element of the graphic device.

Photo: Bukowskis

The preceding quote is from a brochure dated 1894 where the instrument is also described.

No. 5. Double-strung so-called Parlor Grand Zither, 95 cm long, 57 cm wide, beautiful, curved shape, fine black finish, extremely elegantly decorated, 76 strings. 24 chords (10 major, 6 minor, and 8 seventh chords), all semitones (chromatic scale), including a patent keyboard and hand rest, wonderfully beautiful tone. kr. 100.—

The bar housing is raised in the preceding photo and shown in playing position in the next one, where the double strings are clearly visible. Each such “course” is separated from its neighbors by wider spaces. Two bars act in tandem for each chord. One has a button at its lower end and is hinged at the upper end. The midpoint of this bar engages with an underlying conventional chord bar that rests on springs at both ends and is lowered via the button bar. The cover of the housing can be raised to alter the instrument’s sound, shown open in the stylized graphic.

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Musical Instruments

Zithers gain leverage

Toward the end of the 19th century mechanical devices began to proliferate on zithers. Most of them were short lived, if marketed at all, but a few came into persistent use. One of their purposes was to enable a sequence of strings tuned diatonically to a given key to be shifted into others. Although this can obviously be effected simply by retuning the strings, for example, altering a G major scale to D major by raising all C strings to C♯, rapid changes require a more nimble auxiliary device.

Corresponding mechanisms were applied to chordal string arrangements, altering a block of strings from one type of chord to another. This was illustrated in the preceding post with a Swedish harp zither patented in 1886 by Adolf Larsson, equipped with a mechanism for shifting each supported major chord to the parallel minor or a seventh. This post’s banner image comes from a German patent (no. 266371) for an improvement on that device, issued to Larsson in 1913. A more recent two-position design is demonstrated here.

Semitone levers on an instrument with strings in a continuous diatonic sequence were illustrated in another earlier post, as also demonstrated on a contemporary Lithuanian kanklės, here. Similar devices came into microtonal use on its southerly cousin the qanun. One of what thereby became its two major designs employs the quarter-tone levers explained here and the other has twelve levers per string course, seen here.

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Musical Instruments

Chord Zither Competition

The English term “chord zither” is a general designation for a zither with a string arrangement that permits the easy production of chords. Instruments doing this with a mechanical device are often categorized by the type of device and named individually, typically as labeled in a patent. The “autoharp” is a well-known example. It is also referred to as such in German-language discourse. However, in Germany itself the instrument was initially called an Akkordzither — chord zither.

That name came to be applied more specifically to the “Guitar Zither” for which Frederick Menzenhauer was issued US Patent no. 520651 on 29 May 1894, from an application filed on 20 April 1893. This was nearly a decade after the emergence of the autoharp. In addition to his headquarters in the US, he maintained a business presence in Germany, marketing the new instrument there from the outset as an “amerikanische Guitarenzither.”

Menzenhauer registered the design for his Guitarre-Zither in Germany on 5 January 1897 (DRGM68664). It was also referred to colloquially as an Akkordzither, sharing that label with the autoharp. The alternate designation “Menzenhauer Guitar Zither” was ultimately taken into use for marketing both in the US and internationally. Here is a photo of an exemplar that found its way to Sweden.

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Musical Instruments

Passing the bar exam

This post takes another look at the often blurry lines separating what are regarded as categorically distinct types of chord zithers. The focus this time is on variant forms of the autoharp that branched off before it had fully acquired its current identity. The baseline is an unmechanized zither with free strings only, tuned to a continuous scale that can be anything from single-key diatonic to fully chromatic.

It becomes an autoharp by the attachment of a battery of movable bars with damping pads — but there’s more to it. Adding that the pads on a given bar have to be arranged to mute the strings that don’t belong to a specified chord still doesn’t cover everything. The lock bars now commonplace on two- and three-key diatonic autoharps mute strings that don’t belong to a specified scale, rather than chord. Systems that produce chords by pressing two bars simultaneously entail further variation, so it is also necessary to distinguish between one type of bar and another.

There are also instruments where the damping action is reversed, muting all strings until a bar is activated. Such arrangements are also scale-oriented, with a bar opening every instance of a given note, and typically present the player with a piano-type keyboard rather than one or more rows of buttons. However, both operate damper bars and the requisite additional qualifier is whether they cause strings to be muted — ‘additive action’ — or unmuted — ‘subtractive action.’

Instruments with additional devices that strike or pluck the strings, sometimes in elaborate hybrid configurations, are aggregated under the apt heading ‘gizmo’ harps. In terms of family relationships, they are cousins of the autoharp and don’t need to be weighed into any precise definition of it. However, plucking mechanisms appear side-by-side with damping mechanisms in early patents for instruments that are presented as autoharps and would otherwise be seen as such. The following closer look at them is intended to inform the discussion of how current notions of design specificity developed.

I’ll wade into it midstream with an illustration taken from a patent for a “Harp” applied for by John St. John on 11 December 1890 and issued as US Patent No. 463368 on 17 November 1891.

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Musical Instruments

Zither accordions

For decades, my day job gave regular need for bridging the gaps between the academically derived terminologies used for the labeling and classification of musical instruments in museum collections, the craft-oriented vocabularies of musical instrument makers, and the freer glossary used by musicians. I was deeply embroiled in what remains lively controversy about classification systems and am finding it increasingly difficult to steer clear of that topic on this blog.

At the moment, though, it seems to be something of a “Patent of the Month Club.” The nomenclature applied to the description of musical instruments in the reported documents varies widely and wildly, and is often severely at odds with that accepted in explicitly music-oriented contexts. Dealing with this is keeping the terminologist in me happily occupied. The present installment also provides a springboard into the discussion of tuning and tuning systems, which is another topic that I’ve been saying less about than I ultimately intend to.

Before getting to it, some of this blog’s followers may wish to note that I’ve recently edited last month’s post about overlapping patent claims fairly extensively in light of one that I had previously overlooked (for reasons not entirely unrelated to the introductory theme of the following discussion). The shield bars that define the Phonoharp were not an American invention datable to 1891. They appeared in an earlier German patent issued in 1887.

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Musical Instruments

Patent misrepresentation of patents

The history of the autoharp and other chord zithers is replete with innovations that were patented in one country and appeared shortly afterward in a patent issued in another country. When the dates are close enough, it can be difficult to determine who should be credited with the actual invention. Similarities do sometimes appear to be coincidental but plagiarism was common enough. One way of disguising it was to “extend” an earlier patent for a similar device to include the co-opted later innovation. Since the date of such revision was also recorded, this only partially obscured the actual priority.

Another technique was to label an instrument with the number or date of a patent that didn’t actually cover the design detail it was alleged to protect. One example of this that readers of the autoharp facet of this blog will already be familiar with, is Charles Zimmermann unilaterally repurposing the date of a US patent issued to him on 9 May 1882 for what in retrospect might be termed a proto-autoharp.

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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

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.

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Musical Instruments

Guitar-zithers and barless autoharps

On 20 April 1893, Fredrick Menzenhauer, filed a US patent application for a “Guitar-Zither,” issued as USP No. 520651 on 29 May 1894. Its illustrations come very close to the current form of what is commonly termed a “chord zither.” The only differences are the fretted tuning device in the middle of the soundboard underneath the first melody string, and the separation between the bass string and the other strings in each of the chords (which are also recessed into the lower bridge).

Guitar-Zither patent drawing.

Chord zithers in the form shown two images below (minus the tuning scale) are still being manufactured and Menzenhauer is generally credited with their invention. However, his patent sought protection for “certain new and useful Improvements in Guitar-Zithers” and he refers to the instrument as “my improved guitar-zither.” This implies the prior existence of some other instrument that he referred to by the same name.

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