To most Americans, the word zither sounds exotic and strange. But there is an entire class of instruments, dating back thousands of years that fall into this classification. From the Chinese guqin to the Japanese koto, to the German concert zither, to the American fretless zither, this type instrument is universal and found nearly everywhere.
A zither is traditionally defined as any somewhat flat, stringed instrument where the strings travel from end to end, with minimal or zero fretting, and lays horizontally while being played by plucking (and sometimes by bowing).
In the early 20th century, the fretless zither, (often referred to as the chord zither or guitar zither) enjoyed a huge boom as the manufactures employed a successful door-to-door sales model putting zithers manufactured by companies such as Menzenhauer into living rooms across the country. These zithers where somewhat cheaply made, and as such very few mint condition examples exist, although they can be found by the thousands at flea markets, and with a little tlc can be made playable.
One of the more interesting fretless zither designs belongs to the Marxophone. This zither employs spring action hammers that are activated by pressing with the fingers. The hammer tips strike the dual string bundle, creating a pleasant, rich, ringing string tone. Its timbre falls somewhere between a 12-string Rickenbacker and a hammered dulcimer but has a dreamy, far-away quality that cuts through a mix and adds just the right amount of “what the hell is that sound?” to a track. The hammers can bounce on the string creating a haunting, chiming sustain that is nearly impossible to replicate. The Marxophone is a great, nerdy, un-sung hero of early American instrument manufacturing and invention. A Stradivarius it is not, but as the source of unique, tonal percussive textures and interesting studio conversations, it is in a class of its own.
I recorded the following track to explore some trombone phrasing (Lydian mode, I believe) and used the Marxophone to add a little character throughout. You can hear it chiming away clearly at :30 and again :37.