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Awed by violin and cello players with their advanced techniques and $1000 bows? Maybe you have no problem strumming a guitar or an autoharp, but play a bowed instrument? That takes training! Nonsense - all you need is a bowed zither and a cheap bow and you're in business. 

Bowed zithers, especially the ukelin family, look superficially like the bowed psaltery (an instrument that turns up regularly at Renaissance Festivals, although its medieval origins are somewhat doubtful). There's apparently some technical reason that bowed psalteries are not classified as zithers. But as far as I can see, the all-important thing missing from the bowed psaltery is the second set of strings. Those strings, which are arranged in open chord groups as in other chord zithers, are supposedly there to be strummed or plucked in accompaniment. But the most wonderful thing about them is the way they resonate all by themselves along with the melody, imparting eerie overtones and liquid depths somehow reminiscent of a theramin. This effect is especially pronounced in the Ukelin and its close cousins, where the chord strings actually run directly beneath  the melody strings. They are not particularly easy to strum in that location, but why bother strumming them when they play themselves so nicely?

Ukelin and Friends
I must admit that I bought my first ukelin because it was the funniest-looking instrument I had ever seen, and I thought it would make a nice wall decoration. It looks like Dr. Doolittle's pushmi-pullyu, with a soundhole and a set of tuning pegs at each end. The description of how it is supposed to be played - you bow the melody on one set of 16 strings while simultaneously strumming chords on the other set of strings - tends to provoke hilarity. This instrument gives new meaning to "They laughed when I sat down to play."  Who knew that this silly little instrument would be so easy to play, and sound so great? At least, it sounds great to the person playing it. I kinda suspect that the marvelous string resonances are lost on anyone standing more than 10 feet away, and it's not the sort of instrument you really want going in the background if you're trying to carry on a conversation. But to the person playing it, it's like an angelic choir. 

For more information on this enchanting instrument, including history; tips on stringing, tuning, and playing; and a full reproduction of the original instruction booklet, be sure to visit Bob's Ukelin Home and the bowed instrument section of Fretless Zithers.

The most commonly found variant on the ukelin design is the Violin-Uke. This instrument was designed by the prolific Henry Charles Marx (who vociferously denied stealing the design from Phonoharp or the International Music Company or anybody else). For the definitive story on the Ukelin Patent Wars, including drawings of the original designs and some very cool old pictures of men in top hats and suits industriously sawing away on their ukelins, go to Bob's Ukelin Home: History.

The Violin-Uke is considerably smaller than the Ukelin, and far less ridiculous-looking. Because of its smaller size it is less awkward to play. On the other hand, it doesn't sound quite as good. On yet another hand, it's in the key of G, which is a nice change from most of the other chord zithers, which are in C. Which is a good reason to own one of each. 

Both instruments typically sell for $30-$90 on Ebay, depending on the condition (which is usually very good) and how many extras come with. 

My third and final ukelin-like instrument is the ridiculous Marxolin, aka the Hawaii'lin. There are actually a couple of other instruments that are sometimes labelled as Marxolins (Mr. Marx was so busy inventing instruments that he sometimes forgot what he had named them), but none of them look like this. This instrument is too stupid to describe on this page, which is actually about playable instruments. More detail can be found on the Gizmo Zithers page.
What about the bow? And the rosin?
If you're buying one of these instruments on Ebay, try to find one with a working bow (that is, one that still has a few horsehairs left on it). The original bows are very short, very cheaply made and match the instrument. There is no known way to restring them, and it would certainly cost more than the bow is worth to pay a violin shop to do it for you. 
You can buy psaltery bows online for as little as $20 from the same outfits that sell  psalteries. These bows are just a little longer than the original bows, and easy to handle. I'm not particularly impressed with the way they sound, however. Frankly, I think the beat-up little bow that came with my first ukelin sounds better. 
I recommend buying a cheap violin-bow in 1/2 or 3/4 size. You can find them on Ebay for around $20. Actually, 1/4 size might be closer to the original bow, but I didn't know that and ordered a 3/4. At first I was flabbergasted by the length of the thing, but once I got used to it, I decided I really liked the longer bow. You can get  much more sound out of the string with the longer stroke. It requires a lot of elbow room to use the longer bow, however, and it's a little trickier moving from one note to the next. I often use one of the short bows when I'm figuring out a song, and then switch to the longer bow to make it sound nice. It's possible that a really good bow would sound better than a cheap one, but good bows can cost hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars, and I suspect it would all be wasted on an instrument like this. 
I don't know much about rosin. I've tried two or three different kinds, including one intended for string bass, and I honestly can't tell the difference from one to the other. I kind of like the kind that comes in a little wooden carrier because it's easy to use. If anyone reading this can give me some insight into why there are so many types and grade of rosin, and which one would be best suited for a Ukelin, I'd appreciate it. 
Bowed Zithers that Look Like Real Instruments
Some of these, like this Venus Konzert Violin Duet Zither, are really quite elegant and well-made. Unfortunately, this fine-looking instrument came with no instructions whatsoever, and I haven't quite figured out how to tune it (this instrument is too high-class for the little paper labels annotating each string). I didn't even realize it was a bowed instrument until I sent a photo to Kelly Williams and he pointed out the obvious. I keep intending to go back to this one and try again.  My Venus Duet KonzertHarpe
Others, like this  Pianoette, are clever, cheaply made, and almost impossible to play. This is another of Mr. Henry Charles Marx's inventions. Typically, it's sometimes labeled Pianoette and sometimes Pianolin. It looks so very promising - it's meant to be a fully chromatic bowed zither. The paper label identifying the strings is drawn up to look like a piano keyboard to make it easier for people who actually know how to read music (as well as the familiar numbers for folks who have invested in a lot of play-by-number music).  Unfortunately, it just doesn't work. The pegs holding up the second set of bowed strings (the "black notes") are all set at different heights, and most of them are  impossible to reach with the bow without bumping into another string.  My Pianolin (or Pianoette, or whatever the heck it is)
Later: Kelly read the comment above and sent me a note directing me to his Pianolin page,  which explains the function of the hole in the side. There's supposed to be a little wire stand that fits in this hole and props up the side of the instrument so that both sets of strings can be bowed without running your bow into the table. Hole for wire stand in pianolin
My instrument has an additional problem, however. See how that one peg seems to be sticking way up above the others? It's not just the camera angle - it really IS that much taller than the others, and the string it's holding up gets in the way of the bow when you try to play any of the higher "black notes." One of these days I may just take a tack hammer to the little sucker and see if that helps.  See that tall pege in the middle??

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Site Last Updated  September 6, 2010
By Sharon Kahn