Historical musical instrument struck a sour note

Consumers rejected the ukelin

The ukelin (or violin-ukulele) on display at Virden’s Pioneer Home Museum has an interesting back story. The instrument is a type of zither and was meant to be played with a bow like a violin and also plucked with the fingers like a ukulele.

It dates from the 1920s when several different companies attempted to patent the basic design. The most notable of these early efforts was that of Henry Marx and his company, the Marxochime Company.

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Marx was a violinist and music teacher of the early 20th century who felt the complexity of musical instruments discouraged his students from learning to play music. So he invented a wide array of musical instruments, often combining two familiar instruments into a single, supposedly easier-to-learn instrument.

The ukelin was one such experiment.

Ukelins were sold primarily by door-to-door salesmen and through mail-order catalogues. They were purchased at a wholesale cost of $3 each and sold for five times as much.

A common sales pitch was to claim that $15 was a great savings from the fictitious “music store price” of $35. In order to further promote sales, a monthly payment plan was offered to help defray the upfront costs.

Sales were primarily targeted towards farm families as the low cost and lack of other available instruments made the ukelin an attractive choice.

Hard to play

Despite Marx’s efforts, the ukelin is not an easy instrument to learn. Trying to simultaneously play the 16 bass and 16 melody strings by plucking and bowing is not a simple task.

In order to simplify learning, the cords were numbered and students used these numbers rather than musical notes to learn how to play. Unfortunately, this meant that ukelin players did not learn how to read music, and the skills needed for playing the ukelin did not translate well to other instruments.

Two factors lead to the demise of the ukelin: the difficulty in learning how to play and a poor reputation from the sometimes unscrupulous sales model.

Many thousands of ukelins were returned to the manufacturer by dissatisfied customers and by the 1970s, the instrument was no longer in production.

You can see a fine example of a ukelin at the Pioneer Home Museum on King St. West in Virden.

© Virden Empire-Advance