The autoharp is a musical instrument in the chorded zither family. It features a series of chord bars attached to dampers, which, when pressed, mute all of the strings other than those that form the desired chord. Although the word autoharp was originally a trademark of the Oscar Schmidt company, the term has colloquially come to be used for any hand-held, chorded zither, regardless of manufacturer.
Debate exists over the origin of the autoharp. A German immigrant in Philadelphia, US, Charles F. Zimmermann, was awarded US 257808 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, 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 name. Gütter’s instrument design became very popular, and Zimmermann has often been misnamed as the inventor.
A stylized form of the term autoharp was registered as a trademark in 1926. The word is currently claimed as a trademark by the U.S. Music Corporation, whose Oscar Schmidt division manufactures autoharps. The USPTO registration, however, covers only a “Mark Drawing Code (5) Words, Letters, and/or Numbers in Stylized Form” and has expired. 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.
Autoharp (center) by C.F. Zimmermann Co. in 1896–1899;
(left is a Marxophone, right is a Dolceola)
The autoharp body is made of wood, and has a generally rectangular shape, with one corner cut off. The soundboard generally features a guitar-like sound-hole, and the top may be either solid wood or of laminated construction. A pin-block of multiple laminated layers of wood occupies the top and slanted edges, and serves as a bed for the tuning pins, which resemble those used in pianos and concert zithers.
On the edge opposite the top pin-block is either a series of metal pins, or a grooved metal plate, which accepts the lower ends of the strings. Directly above the strings, on the lower half of the top, are the chord bars, which are made of plastic, wood, or metal, and support felt or foam pads on the side facing the strings. These bars are mounted on springs, and pressed down with one hand, via buttons mounted to their topside. The buttons are labeled with the name of the chord produced when that bar is pressed against the strings, and the strings strummed. The back of the instrument usually has three wooden, plastic, or rubber “feet”, which support the instrument when it is placed backside down on a table top, for playing in the traditional position.
Strings run parallel to the top, between the mounting plate and the tuning pins, and pass under the chord bar assembly. Modern autoharps most often have 36 strings, with some examples having as many as 47 strings, and rare 48-string models (such as Orthey Autoharps No. 136, tuned to G and D major). They are strung in a semi-chromatic manner which, however, is sometimes modified into either diatonic or fully chromatic scales. Standard models have 12, 15 or 21 chord bars available, providing a selection of major, minor, and dominant seventh chords. These are arranged for historical or systemic reasons. Various special models have also been produced, such as diatonic one-, two-, or three-key models, models with fewer or additional chords, and a reverse-strung model (the 43-string, 28-chord Chromaharp Caroler).
Range and tuning
The range is determined by the number of strings and their tuning. A typical 36-string chromatic autoharp in standard tuning has a 3½ octave range, from F2 to C6. The instrument is not fully chromatic throughout this range, however, as this would require 44 strings. The exact 36-string tuning is:
There are a number of gaps in the lowest octave, which functions primarily to provide bass notes in diatonic contexts; there is also a missing G♯3 in the tenor octave. The fully chromatic part of the instrument’s range begins with A3 (the A below middle C).
Diatonically-strung single-key instruments from modern luthiers are known for their lush sound. This is achieved 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 or at a festival.
The standard, factory chord bar layout for a 12-chord autoharp, in two rows, is:
The standard, factory chord bar layout for a 15-chord instrument, in two rows, is:
The standard, factory chord bar layout for a 21-chord instrument is in three rows:
A variety of chord bar layouts may be had, both in as-delivered instruments, and after customization.
Shown is a 1930 refinished Oscar Schmidt Inc. Model “A”. This harp has two DeArmond magnetic pickups (one under the chord bars), with a d’Aigle fine-tuning mechanism, and d’Aigle chord bar assembly, and was used in a 1968 MGM Records/Heritage Records recording by Euphoria.
A synthesized version of the autoharp, the Omnichord, was introduced in 1981 and is now known as the Q-Chord, described as a “digital songcard guitar”.
As initially conceived, the autoharp was played in the position of a concert zither, that is, with the instrument set flat on a table (there are three “feet” on the back for this purpose), and the flat-edge of the instrument (below the chord bars) placed to the player’s right. The left hand worked the chord buttons, and the right hand would strum the strings in the narrow area below the chord bars. Right hand strums were typically done with a plectrum similar to a guitar pick, made of shell, plastic, or compressed felt. A strum would usually activate multiple strings, playing the chord held down by the left hand.
Partly because of this playing mode, the autoharp came to be thought of as a rhythm instrument for playing chordal accompaniment, and even today many still think of the instrument in that way. New techniques have been developed, however, and modern players can play melodies on the instrument: diatonic players, for example, are able to play fiddle tunes using open-chording techniques, “pumping” the damper buttons while picking individual strings. Skilled chromatic players can perform a range of melodies, and even solos including melody, chords, and complex rhythmic accompaniments.
In the mid-20th century performers began experimenting with taking the instrument off the table and playing it in an upright position, held in the lap, with the back of the instrument (having the “feet”) held against the chest. Cecil Null, of the Grand Ole Opry is usually credited as the first to adopt this playing style in public performance, in the 1950s. In this position the left hand still works the chord buttons, but from the opposite edge of the instrument, and the right hand still executes the strums, but now plays in the area above the chord bars. This playing mode makes a wider area of the strings available to the picking hand, increasing the range of tonal possibilities, and it proved very popular. It was soon adopted by other performers, notably by members of the Carter Family.
By the early 1970s some players were experimenting with finger-style techniques, where individual fingers of the right hand would pluck specific strings, rather than simply hold a pick and strum chords. Bryan Bowers became a master of this mode of playing, and developed a complex technique utilizing all five fingers of his right hand. This allows him to play independent bass notes, chords, melody, and counter melodies as a soloist. Bowers was also one of the early pioneers in adding a strap to the instrument and playing it while standing up.
My Own connection to the Autoharp
The Autoharp is one of my favorite instruments because I have a special connection to the device. Back in the summer of 2005 I was spending the weekend at my father’s place in Melita, a small farming town in South-Western Manitoba. We decided to take in one of the weekend auction sales that were often held at the local skating rink. As we toured the many tables loaded with items, old a new, my eyes fell upon something that captured my attention. There amongst the heaps of wrenches, old car radios and fruit jars was an old autoharp! I had never seen one, up close, before and I was shocked to see it there in my own home town. “Dad!”, I belted out. “Do you know what THAT is?” Of course he did. He had an old Carter Family album with Mother Maybelle leaning up against a tree playing one. That’s the only reason that I knew what it was. “How many folks here, do you think, would recognize it for what it is?”, I asked.
At the time I was already into collecting guitars and I had one Mandolin. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to hang an old autoharp on my wall?” Of course it seemed to be in poor condition, but it certainly could make a good display item. Right on the spot, I hatched a plan. I knew I couldn’t stay to the end of the sale as I was due to head out for home but I asked my father, if he was still there when it came up for bid, to make an offer of up to $60.00. Truthfully, I felt it would go for much more than that, but I told my father not to exceed that price because I couldn’t afford any more. If he won the bid, I promised to pay him back next the time I was home.
To make a long story short he did win the bid and I got a real autoharp of my very own for, would you believe, $20.00. It would eventually cost $60.00 to repair and $120.00 to buy new strings for it and well over $300 to have a padded case made to protect it, but that was all money I was glad to spend and my autoharp sits proudly on display upon my instrument rack to this very day. I believe I have dated it back to around 1918 or possibly earlier. I have since added two more autoharps to my collection so, you might say I have a soft spot for this instrument, some of my family say that spot is in my head.
None the less, I’d feel that it would be remiss if I didn’t include this page about autoharps in my writings of acoustic instruments. Below are a few different examples of music played on the autoharp, that I found on YouTube. Why not check them out and see what kinds of music can be played on an autoharp and what this instrument sounds like. Simply click on any video that you’d like to watch. I hope that you enjoy these.
Crazy on Autoharp
Me playing the timeless classic that crosses genres-CRAZY written by Wille Nelson, sung by Patsy Cline and many others. I’m playing it instrumental on this old Chromaharp that was given to me and I’ve been fixing it up for a while now. New strings, new pads, and even a C sharp diminished seven (if I use a sharp sign it thinks its a hashtag!) chord as well as some other new 7 and minor chords that it didn’t originally come with.
I kinda slopped through this and the video and audio aren’t perfectly synced, but you get the idea. Crazy on autoharp!
Mad World on Autoharp
Just me playing the classic pop hit “Mad World” written by Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears. I call this my flower power autoharp, if you have any questions about the instrument, fire away. Yes I am kinda just banging away at the chords. I can imagine how this could be more interesting, but for now it’s pretty repetitive. But hey, that’s what’s in.
Cambria: Jo Ann Smith on the Autoharp
Jo Ann Smith
Cambria Pickin’ in the Pines is an autoharp event that has taken place every October since 2013. In 2018, members from Fresno’s Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC) took a road trip to Cambria, California to record the evening concerts. This video features Jo Ann Smith, three time Autoharp Champion (International Autoharp Championship – 1999, 2013 and Mountain Laurel Championship – 2003).
02:00 Patty Ann
05:35 Rhythm of the Rain
08:25 Jenny Dear
12:35 Stars for Liesbeth
16:40 Sweet Prospect
19:00 What Wondrous Love is This
20:05: Red-Haired Boy
21:20 Old Joe Clark
23:30 Amazing Grace
26:05 Workshop Samplerblah
Karen Mueller Irish Autoharp Solo
Si Bheag Si Mhor (O’Carolan) Sheebeg Sheemore
-Will Smith Reportedly the first song written by Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) at the suggestion of Squire Reynolds. The subject was a battle between two hills controlled by rival Fairy Kings. This version on diatonic autoharp.
Danny Boy –
(w/ written lyrics) played on autoharp by Will Smith
One thing I like about the autoharp is that you can take the corniest song in the world and hope to make it convincing, or at least different.
Here is the sheet music, with standard autoharp chords (YouTube version slightly different)
(There are a number of variations on these lyrics. The following one is the original version.)
Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side,
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
And I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh, Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so!
But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Ave there for me;
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
Although initially written to a tune other than “Londonderry Air”, the words to “Danny Boy” were penned by English and Irish immigrant to Philadephia named James Duffy and sent to lawyer and lyricist Frederic Weatherly in Bath, Somerset in 1910. After his Irish-born sister-in-law Margaret (known as Jess) in the United States sent him a copy of “Londonderry Air” in 1913 (an alternative version has her singing the air to him in 1912 with different lyrics), Weatherly slightly modified the lyrics of “Danny Boy” to fit the rhyme and meter of “Londonderry Air”.
Weatherly gave the song to the vocalist Elsie Griffin, who made it one of the most popular songs in the new century; and, in 1915, Ernestine Schumann-Heink produced the first recording of “Danny Boy”.
Jane Ross of Limavady is credited with collecting the melody of “Londonderry Air” in the mid-19th century from a musician she encountered.
Festival Jammin at the ’07 Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-time Music Association’s Spring (June) “Kickoff.” The players are Geoff Shannon on guitar, Karen Mueller on autoharp and mandolin, Debbie Sorensen-Boeh on Fiddle, Craig Evans on frailin banjo and Terry Sullivan on bass. Woo-hoo!
Tennessee Waltz on Zimmerman No. 73 Autoharp
I”m so excited to have got me one of the 1890’s Dolgeville autoharps, and it’s in great shape for being round 120 years old. Here’s Tennessee Waltz on it. Enjoy!
His Eye is On the Sparrow
Jo Ann Smith
Played on a diatonic autoharp in the key of F.
performed by Bryan Bowers
In concert at the Institute of Musical Traditions Monday Night Concert, Rockville, MD, USA on November 10th, 2008.
From his rather unglamorous beginning as a street singer, Bryan has become a major artist on the traditional music circuit: he has redefined the autoharp and is also well known as a singer-songwriter. For nearly three decades, Bryan Bowers has been to the autoharp what Earl Scruggs was to the five-string banjo. He presents instrumental virtuosity with warmth, eloquence, expression and professionalism.
As always, we gratefully thank the Maryland State Arts Council, the Montgomery County Arts & Humanities Council , and all our other donors, supporters, and volunteers.
Camera: Pat McGee
Editing: Ralph Lillie
2 Carter Family gospel songs – autoharp instrumental
As a “surprise guest”, I played in October 2013 a few Carter Family tunes at a concert commemorating Johnny Cash and June Carter (who both died in 2003). Tunes I had also prepared but hadn’t time to play are
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
ANCHORED IN LOVE DIVINE
and in order to profit from my practising I made now this video.
I heard both songs first from a vinyl LP, THAT OLD SONG N’ DANCE, by Bo Lipari & Jim Wimmer (who played also autoharp on the album), published in 1978 by Bear Family Records, Germany.
PS: These being Carter Family songs, the “First Family of Country Music”, my “Country Music hat” is surely most appropriate. Or isn’t it?
Modern Old-Time Techniques For The Autoharp
A demonstration by Tom Schroeder of Modern Old-Time melody techniques for the Autoharp. Demonstrates the Thumb-Lead and Pinch-Pluck techniques with Open Chording.
Mother Maybelle Carter autoharp solo (live 1970)
From the Feb. 25, 1970 episode of “The Johnny Cash Show,” Mother Maybelle Carter plays a lovely autoharp solo on “Black Mountain Rag.” Cash’s love and deep regard for his mother-in-law (the true test of a man!) is evident in his gracious introduction. If you look closely at the beginning, you’ll see Norman Blake sitting in with the band.