The Autoharp is a musical string instrument having a series of chord bars attached to dampers which, when depressed, mute all the strings other than those that form the desired chord. Despite its name, the autoharp is not a harp at all, but a zither. The generic term for the instrument is chorded zither.
There is debate over the origin of the autoharp. A German
immigrant in Philadelphia
by the name of Charles F. Zimmermann was awarded in 1882 for a design for a musical instrument that included mechanisms for muting certain strings during play. He named his invention the "autoharp. Unlike later autoharps, the shape of the instrument was symmetrical, and the felt-bearing bars moved horizontally against the strings instead of vertically. It is not known if Zimmermann ever commercially produced any instruments of this early design. Karl August Gütter of Markneukirchen
, Germany, had built a model that he called a "Volkszither" which most resembles the Autoharp played today. Gütter obtained a British patent
for his instrument circa 1883-1884. Zimmermann, after returning from a visit to Germany, began production of the Gütter design in 1885 but with his own design patent number and catchy name. Gütter's instrument became very popular and Zimmermann has often been mistaken as the inventor.
The term "Autoharp" was registered as a registered trademark
in 1926, and is currently claimed by U.S. Music Corporation
, whose Oscar Schmidt division manufactures autoharps. The USPTO
registration, however, covers only "Mark Drawing Code (5) WORDS, LETTERS, AND/OR NUMBERS IN STYLIZED FORM". In litigation with George Orthey, it was held that Oscar Schmidt could only claim ownership of the stylized lettering of the word Autoharp, the term itself having moved into general usage. As a consequence, for instance, Autoharp Quarterly is able to register its own mark using the word autoharp in its generic sense, and Orthey instruments (and other luthier built instruments) can be marketed as "autoharps" rather than the pre-litigation "Dulciharp".
Modern Autoharps have 36 or 37 strings, although some examples with as many as 48 strings exist. They are strung in either diatonic
(1, 2 or 3 key models) or chromatic
scales. Although the Autoharp is often thought of as a rhythm instrument for playing chordal accompaniment, modern players can play melodies on the instrument. Diatonic players are able to play fiddle tunes by using open-chording techniques, "pumping" the damper buttons while picking individual strings. Skilled chromatic players can perform a range of melodies.
Diatonically strung single key instruments from modern day luthiers such as Orthey, Fladmark, Hollandsworth, D'Aigle, Baker, Daniels and Goose Acres are known for their lush sound. This is accomplished by doubling the strings for individual notes. Since the strings for notes not in the diatonic scale need not appear in the string bed, the resulting extra space is used for the doubled strings, resulting in fewer damped strings. Two- and three-key diatonics compromise the number of doubled strings to gain the ability to play in two or three keys, and to permit tunes containing accidentals which could not otherwise be rendered on a single key harp. A three-key harp in the circle of fifths, such as a GDA, is often called a festival or campfire harp, as the instrument can easily accompany fiddles around a campfire at a festival in their favored keys.
Prior to the 1960s there were no pickups to amplify the autoharp other than a rudimentary contact microphone which had a poor-quality, tinny sound. Eventually a bar Magnetic pickup
was designed by Harry DeArmond
, and manufactured by Rowe Industries. Roger Penney
of Bermuda Triangle Band
was the first person to introduce the electric autoharp to the public, as cited in a 1968 Variety (magazine)
article. In the ’70s Oscar Schmidt came out with their own magnetic pickup.
Autoharp festivals and schools
There are a number of festivals that feature autoharp performances, workshops, and contests. They include:
- Arizona Autoharp Festival, Phoenix, AZ http://www.azautoharpfest.com/
- California Autoharp Gathering, Dunlap, CA http://www.calautoharp.com/
- Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering, Newport, PA http://mlag.org/
- Willamette Valley Autoharp Gathering, Salem, OR http://wvag.com
- Walnut Valley Festival, Winfield, KS. http://wvfest.com/
There are also a number of week-long "schools" where intensive autoharp instruction is available.
- Augusta Spring Dulcimer Week, Elkins WV. http://www.augustaheritage.com/sdw.html
- John C. Campbell Folk School. http://www.folkschool.org/index.php?section=class_detail&class_id=1882
- Seattle Autoharp Week http://www.seattleautoharpweek.com
Autoharps have been used in the United States
instruments, perhaps most famously by Maybelle Carter
and Sara Carter
of The Carter Family
. They are relatively easy to learn to play as a rhythm instrument, but offer great rewards to the more committed player as a melody instrument.
The Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering in Newport, Pennsylvania, the Willamette Valley Autoharp Gathering, and the California Autoharp Gathering celebrate the instrument's renewed popularity resulting from the more playable modern luthier-built instruments.
Some notable professional performers include: