Autoharp

Updated: February 28, 2011

Many American singers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found the autoharp, a modiļ¬cation of the zither, to be an easy-to-use accompaniment instrument.

Many American singers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found the autoharp, a modification of the zither, to be an easy-to-use accompaniment instrument. Although utilized in various musical contexts, the instrument has most often been associated with folk music.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, resident Charles F. Zimmerman patented a modification of the zither, which he called the “autoharp,” in 1882. Three years later, when he began manufacturing instruments bearing that appellation, he employed a design patented in 1883 in England by Germany’s Karl August Gutter, possibly because it was easier to make and play than Zimmerman’s own design. The autoharp’s appearance has changed relatively little since 1885. The instrument consists of a wooden sound box, typically with thirty-six or thirty-seven strings and with three to twenty-one movable bars (called chord bars) suspended across the strings. When these bars are pressed down, the felts on the bars mute some strings while allowing others to ring. For each bar the ringing strings form a specific chord, which is sounded by strumming the strings with a flat-pick or with thumb- and fingerpicks; melodies may be played over a chord by picking individual strings.

Before the 1950s, most players held the autoharp on their laps or on a table and strummed or plucked the strings below the chord bars. During the second half of the twentieth century, Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family (based in Maces Spring, Virginia) popularized another autoharp style that was to become dominant. This method consisted of playing the strings above the chord bars while holding the instrument upright against the chest.

Although not an Appalachian instrument by origin, the autoharp owes much of its current popularity in revivalist folk music circles to Appalachian musicians who featured the instrument on early country music recordings. For example, multi-instrumentalist Ernest V. Stoneman (from Monarat, Virginia) made the first commercial recording to feature the autoharp. Kilby Snow (based near Galax, Virginia)—an influential autoharp player “discovered” in the 1960s by Mike Seeger—was one of the first three inductees into the Autoharp Hall of Fame, along with Maybelle and Sara Carter. These stylists inspired the autoharp playing of such Appalachia-based folk revivalists as multi-instrumentalists Seeger and John McCutcheon. Many major autoharp championships, work- shops, and festivals are held in Appalachia, with one regional event—the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering in New- port, Pennsylvania—devoted solely to the instrument.

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MLA Style

"Autoharp," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 22 Oct 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=28>

APA Style

"Autoharp." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved October 22, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=28

Sara Carter