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Anatomy of an Instrument: The Autoharp

Laura  Barnes
Anatomy of an Instrument: The Autoharp

It may not be the first instrument that comes to mind when thinking about taking up a musical pastime, but from the Carter Family and Dolly Parton to PJ Harvey and Imogen Heap, the autoharp has attracted the attention of numerous artists over the years.

In the latest instalment of our Anatomy of an Instrument series, MI Pro outlines everything you need to know about the autoharp.

What is an autoharp?

Believe it or not, the autoharp is not a harp. It’s actually more closely related to the guitar. The autoharp is best described as a chorded zither – an instrument consisting of many strings stretched across a thin, flat body, which can be strummed or plucked.
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While there appears to be some debate of the origin of the autoharp, a German immigrant called Charles F. Zimmermann was awarded the patent in the US for the instrument in 1882. It is not know if Zimmermann ever commercially produced his version of the instrument, but another German, Karl August Gutter, obtained a British patent for his Volkszither instrument in 1883. This version’s design most resembles the autoharps that we see today.

How do you play it and what does it sound like?

The autoharp differs from the zither because it features chord bars attached to dampers. When those dampers are pressed, they mute all the strings on the autoharp other than those that from the desired chord.

A typical autoharp has 36 or 37 strings, although it is possible to get some with up to 47 and even 48 strings. They are strung in either diatonic or chromatic scales and standard models have 15 or 21 chord bars.

Most people find it uncomfortable to play the autoharp with bare fingers and so hold a guitar pick or use a pick on their thumb and sometimes on their index and middle fingers.

The instrument can be played either resting on the musician’s lap or held up to their body. Most new designs are made for holding upright against the body.

Here are a few of our favourite autoharp videos:

Is there an online community?

Not only are there a few online places to learn about autoharps, such as autoharpteacher.com, autoharp.org and ukautoharps.com, but there’s also a magazine dedicated to the instrument called Autoharp Quarterly.

Should I stock them?

If you’re in to stocking folk instruments, the autoharp will make a great edition. As well as traditional players, the autoharp has also been used by a number of more modern artists such as PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Sheryl Crow and Imogen Heap. So there could very well be a new wave of musicians out there looking to try their hand at the autoharp.

Who makes them?

Some prominent autoharp manufacturers include:

Ashbury
Oscar Schmidt
D-Aigle
Fladmark
Ray Choi
Schreiber

Read all of our Anatomy of an Instrument articles here.

Tags: pj harvey , Anatomy of an Instrument , autoharp , dolly parton

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