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The Marxophone is a fretless zither played via a system of metal hammers. It features two octaves of double melody strings in the key of C major (middle C to C''), and four sets of chord strings (C major, G major, F major, and D7). Sounding somewhat like a mandolin, the Marxophone's timbre is also reminiscent of various types of hammered dulcimers.
The player typically strums the chords with the left hand. The right hand plays the melody strings by depressing spring steel strips that hold small lead hammers over the strings. A brief stab on a metal strip bounces the hammer off a string pair to produce a single note. Holding the strip down makes the hammer bounce on the double strings, which produces a mandolin-like tremolo. The bounce rate is somewhat fixed, as it is based on the spring steel strip length, hammer weight, and string tension—but a player can increase the rate slightly by pressing higher on the strip, effectively moving its pivot point closer to the lead hammer.
Numerically coded sheet music prepared specifically for the Marxophone indicates when and in what order to play melody and chord strings. This type of music, similar to tablature, was produced for those who could not read standard notation. A rectangular piece of metal provides a backstop for the spring steel hammers, displays the name Marxophone and the patent number, and has clips that hold sheet music. It also marks the 15 keys by letter (C, D, etc.), by number (1-15) and in standard musical notation. When the instrument is moved or stored, the metal rectangle bends down, holding the keys against the strings, so the Marxophone can fit into its case—which is the size of a large briefcase.
While many sources can be found claiming that the Marxophone was manufactured by the Marxochime Colony of New Troy, Michigan this assertion is completely false. While the design of its hammer mechanism was patented by Henry Charles Marx (1875–1947), (pat. #1044553 issued on November 19, 1912) the Marxophone was never manufactured by the Marxochime Colony. Instead, during their tenure from 1927 to 1972, the "colony" designed and manufactured a wide assortment of "bowed" zithers, the melody strings actuated with a bow not hammers. The 1912 patent was assigned to the Phonoharp Company, which he was affiliated with at the time. The Phonoharp Company then manufactured Marxophones as well as Celestaphones (having a different body contour) until its merger with Oscar Schmidt Inc.in 1926. The newly formed company known as the International Musical Corporation produced Marxophones between 1926 and 1931. Then, following the International Musical Corporation's dissolution on December 30, 1931, two successor companies, the Oscar Schmidt-International Corporation (1931-1936) and Oscar Schmidt-International, Inc., (late 1936 till the present ), manufactured Marxophones through the 1950s.
Marx was one of a number of late 19th century and early 20th century musical gadget manufacturers that combined two or more instruments into one. Other inventions included the Banjolin, the Hawaiiphone, the Mandolin-Uke, the Marxolin, the Pianoette, the Pianolin, and the Tremoloa. Marxophones were billed as easy to play, and sold on time-purchase plans by door-to-door salesmen, and through mail-order companies like Sears-Roebuck.
Because the hammers are made of white lead, the instrument sheds small amounts of lead powder. Musicians who actively use this instrument have adopted the practice of coating the hammers in Epoxy glue, which does not affect the sound but stops the wearing away of the hammers (and prevents the poisoning of children, cats and other small creatures).
In addition to being limited to the keys of C major and A minor (and modal variants), the Marxophone is partially limited to certain tempos because of the rate at which the hammers bounce on the strings. The fixed pulse rate of the hammer strike fits the music best when it is a power-of-two denominated fraction of the pulse of the music, in other words an 8th, 16th, 32nd, or 64th note of the performance tempo.
A variant on the Marxophone idea is the "marxoguitar" created by Ranjit Bhatnagar. Made in 2010 it incorporates a six-hammer device that can be attached to an electric guitar at the bridge for striking the strings, for producing a Marxophone-like tremolo effect.
Modern day use
Although Oscar Schmidt's Marxophone did not become widely known by the general public, a wide assortment of recording artists including The Doors, The Beach Boys, and John Prine utilized its unique sound, and it is still being used by modern-day musicians, including such notables as Norway's Avant-Garde artist Sturle Dagsland.
- "Another Heart Calls" by The All-American Rejects, played by singer and bassist Tyson Ritter
- "Bullet for Ramona" by Warren Zevon
- "Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)" by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, played by The Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek
- "Ouija Board" by Chevelle
- "Whiskey, Mystics and Men" by The Doors, played by Ray Manzarek
- "The Night the Carousel Burned Down" by Todd Rundgren in his 1972 landmark album Something/Anything?
- "Someone's in the Wolf" by Queens of the Stone Age, played by Alain Johannes (misspelled as "Markxophone" in the liner notes)
- Numerous recordings by projects associated with Stephin Merritt
- "Run, Pig, Run" by Queens of the Stone Age, played by Alain Johannes (misspelled as "Marxaphone" in the Era Vulgaris liner notes)
- "Up in Hell" by Desert sessions in The Desert Sessions VII & VIII, played by Fred Drake
- "Anna Molly" and "Leech" by Incubus
- "Am I Awake?" by They Might Be Giants (John Linnell believes it may be the only recorded song with a backwards Marxophone)
- "I Feel Beautiful" by Robyn Hitchcock
- "Annan Water" by The Decemberists
- "Sour Times" by Portishead (band)
- "Combinations" by Eisley
- "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)" by Fiona Apple
- "I'm On Fire" (originally by Bruce Springsteen), covered by Bat for Lashes
- "Glass" by Bat For Lashes from the album Two Suns, played on the recorded version by Ben Christophers
- "Daniel" by Bat for Lashes, used during live performances
- "Jingle Bells" by Roy Zimmerman
- "He Forgot that It Was Sunday" by John Prine
- "When Girls Get Together" by The Beach Boys
- "The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be" by The Magnetic Fields, played by Stephin Merritt
- "Guys Like Me" and "The Moth" from Aimee Mann's Lost in Space (album)
- "The Box" by Orbital
- "Autoharp" by Hooverphonic
- John Sebastian of '60s rock group The Lovin' Spoonful played the Marxophone for the song "She is Still a Mystery" on their 1968 album Everything Playing after receiving it from someone who had mistaken it for an autoharp
- "You've Ruined Me" by Norah Jones in The Fall (album) played by Zac Rae
- "Signed Fictitious" by Vernon Reid in his 1996 album Mistaken Identity played by Brian Cullman
- "Strange Perfumes" by Laurie Anderson in her 2010 album "Homeland" played by Rob Burger
- "Helplessness Blues" by Fleet Foxes
- "Master Pretender" by First Aid Kit
- "Amarillo Sleeps On My Pillow" by Fair To Midland in their album "Arrows & Anchors"
- The soundtrack for the video game Red Dead Redemption
- "One-Armed Bandit" by Jaga Jazzist
- "Multiplied" by NEEDTOBREATHE
- "Forces of Attraction" by Jóhann Jóhannsson (soundtrack of The Theory of Everything)
- "Leaving The City" by Joanna Newsom in her 2015 album "Divers"
- "Sit Down I Think I Love You" by The Mojo Men (Listen)
- "Ten Bells Waltz" by The Vagaband https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovNNHsHnjXA
- Video: Behind the Scenes of the Red Dead Redemption Soundtrack. Marxophone shown at 2:47 Rockstar Games - Red Dead Redemption videos (or on YouTube)
- NEEDTOBREATHE - "Multiplied" (Live Acoustic Video). Marxophone seen throughout video.
- Joanna Newsom "Leaving The City" (Official Audio)