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Friederich Menzenhauer's 1894 patent for what he called a "guitar zither" begins thusly:
"This invention has reference to an improved musical instrument, which combines to some extent the advantages of a guitar and a zither, and which can be played with great facility without special knowledge of the ordinary notation of music, the accompaniment being played in the nature of a guitar while the tune is played on an open scale of strings."
The ink was barely dry on Menzenhauer's patent when people started trying to improve on it. Apparently his simplification of the zither wasn't simple enough. The next two or three decades saw an astonishing parade of musical invention marching across the American landscape. Garry Harrison has a fine collection of zither-based  Gizmo-Harps and Their Gizmos on his website. There's no point in me trying to duplicate his work, so please go take a look at his listing, then come back and look at my puny collection of gizmo harps.
Two Approaches to Making Simplified Music Even Simpler
Automate the chords, but not the melody strings
This was the most common approach to zither gizmos: little gadgets that strike or pluck a set of chord strings. This Chartola Grand is an example of what Garry calls the "Chord Thumper." It has 4 spring-loaded metal pedals that are raised and released with the fingers of the left hand to strike chords. It looks nice on my wall, but frankly, it doesn't work all that well. 
my Chartola Grand
Automate the melody strings, but not the chords
   This approach is far more succesful, although trickier (and more expensive) to implement. There were a surprising number of these around the turn of the century, such as the Deweylin Harp, described in the1902 Sears catalog as: 
"...the wonder of the age...the greatest musical instrument that has ever been placed before the public."
   The Marxophone may have been the only one of Henry Charles Marx's musical inventions that was truly playable. It's certainly the most accessible - absolutely anybody can plunk out a tune on the spring-loaded keys. Unlike the Deweylin and the fabulous Dolceola, there's nothing chromatic about this instrument - it's strictly key of C. All the melody strings are double strings, like a mandolin. Depending on how one strikes the keys, the wooden hammers may produce a tinny harpsichord sound or a mandolin-like trill. It's really fun to play. 
my Wooden-Key Marxophone (Marxochime)

Most of the ones I've seen online have metal keys. This one has wooden keys and wooden hammers. The hammers are mounted on metal strips, which give the hammers their spring. For more about Marxophones, check out  Bob Lang's Marxophone Home Page.

Fun fact: The Doors didn't have a bass player, but they did have a Marxophone, at least for one song (that song about finding the "next whiskey bar" - can't remember the name).

Overdoing It - the Marxolin (aka the Hawaii'lin)
     And, finally, a cautionary example of what can happen when a creative mind just doesn't know when to quit. This instrument is all gimmicks, very few of which work at all, much less provide any improvement. In essence, this is a horribly mutated Violin-Uke. It's still a compact little instrument with a double row of  melody strings V-ing towards each other. But what have they done to the body? It's two, count'em, two, bodies in one, elegantly stacked on top of each other. This must be intended to add resonance to a small instrument, but if that was the idea, it didn't work. Neither did the double rows of vents that replace that old-fashioned sound-hole, although they do succeed in making the thing look more like a '30's roadster than zithers usually do. (Of course, the classic roadster look might have been more successful if they hadn't gotten so carried away with the airbrushed blue-green-chartreuse finish.)
   And look at that bow! No, you're not seeing double. This bow has two, count'em, two bow hairs so that you can play thirds all the time, whether you want to or not. And don't overlook the double rosin carrier screwed to the side of the lower body, allowing you to rosin both sides of your bow at once! 
    And then there's the strings. Normal zither strings are just lengths of steel wire with a loop at one end and the other end wrapped around a tuning peg. A little bit tedious to replace, but simple. Not on the Marxolin. These strings have small screws soldered to the ends so that the the strings can be adjusted with a screwdriver instead of a tuning wrench. Which means that the strings cannot be replaced by anything except a specially-made marxolin string (which, of course, haven't been made for 50 years).
  But wait, we haven't even gotten to the gizmos yet! There's metal thumpers on the top, each one cunningly shaped to hit a different set of strings, thus eliminating the need for the chord strings. When you whang the metal levers, they b-b-b-b-b-oinggg-g-g up and down on the  strings for that "authentic" Hawaiian steel guitar sound. And if that's not enough, there are two strange little metal levers that you operate with your 3rd hand, which are apparently supposed to raise the pitch of the strings a half-step.
All in all, this one takes the prize for the most unplayable instrument I own, and quite possibly the most unplayable ever designed. However, I'm not a bit sorry I bought it. It looks terrific hanging on the wall, and people are fascinated by it. Heck, the bow itself was worth the price, assuming that I ever decide that my Ukelin would sound twice as good if I always played two notes instead of one with every stroke. 
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Site Last Updated  April 21, 2002
By Sharon Kahn