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also: Akkordzither

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audio #2


Contextual Associations

The autoharp is a strummed box-zither chordophone originating in Germany but also popular at one time in the United States. The first instrument pictured in the gallery was built in Dolgeville, New York, between 1892 and 1897, one of the approximately one half million autoharps produced in that span of time by the Zimmerman Autoharp Company. Most widely used for song accompaniment in the home and in regional styles of vernacular American music, the autoharp is sometimes also played in old-time string bands for dance accompaniment. Interest in the instrument today in the United States is facilitated through enthusiast newsletters and a circuit of workshops, competitions, and festivals. The first audio clip illustrates the use of the autoharp in Anglo-American folk music. In the mid-20th century, models of the autoharp like the one pictured in the second gallery photo were used in American public school music programs to teach the rudiments of harmony, and in the last half of the 20th century such instruments have been used sparingly in styles as varied as folk-rock, flamenco, Celtic, and New Age. Like many instruments, the autoharp has traveled far and wide in the hands of sailors, soldiers, missionaries and settlers, and in the process it has been introduced to musicians in other cultures who in turn have adapted the instrument to their own needs. The second audio clip, recorded in 1950s South Africa, illustrates one such adaptation in which the performer plucks rather than strums the strings of the autoharp.


The autoharp consists of a shallow five-sided trapezoidal-shaped box resonator constructed of wood. Solid planks of wood are joined together to form the frame with the pieces that end up serving as the pinblock needing to be particularly robust. Thin boards of softwood are used for the soundboard and back, and the former has a soundhole cut in it beneath the damper bars. Internal struts run between the soundboard and backboard from side-to-side to strengthen the structure. Twenty-three single course wire strings of varying gauges are held in tension in a plain parallel to the soundboard. They are kept just above the soundboard by a long ridge-nut, located along the bottom edge of the soundboard, and a long pressure bridge, situated just inside the row of tuning pins at the top end and along the slanted side of the soundboard; both the bridge and the nut are capped with a wire saddle. Each string has a noose at one end that is looped around a metal hitch pin nailed into the resonator side at the bottom end of the instrument. Each string then makes contact with the lower nut, runs the length of the soundboard until it contacts the upper nut, and then is threaded through and wound around a tuning pin. A T-shaped tool is used to turn these pins to tune the strings. The damper bars are located above the plain of strings and perpendicular to them. They are made of narrow lengths of wood with thick felt glued to their bottom side and are housed in a separate structure built up from the resonator frame. This structure consists of two end-walls attached to the resonator frame each housing a row of five springs, each spring supporting the end of a damper bar. The felt dampers on any given bar are shaped so that when a bar is depressed by pressing down on its white button it silences all the strings except those tuned to the pitches in the desired chord. The second autoharp in the gallery differs structurally from the one just described in a number of ways: it is larger; it has thirty-six single course strings of varying gauges; and it has fifteen damper bars with rubber rather than felt dampers.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Two playing positions are common: the instrument resting horizontally on the player’s lap or on a table, its long side closest to the player and the soundboard facing upwards; or held vertically with the backboard against the player’s chest, its hitch-pin side at the bottom and the soundboard facing outwards. In the first playing position the player strums between the damper bars and the lower nut across all the strings with one or more picks worn on the fingertips of their right hand and pressing the selected damper bars with the fingertips of their left hand. In the vertical position the strumming is done with the right hand above the damper bars, the left hand fingers depressing the damper bars. The first instrument pictured in the gallery is tuned to the C Major scale over a range of three octaves and a fourth, the only additional pitch outside that diatonic scale being B-flat: G2 - C3 - F3 - G3 - A3 - B3 - C4 - D4 - E4 - F4 - G4 - A4 - B-flat4 - B4 - C5 - D5 - E5 - F5 - G5 - A5 - B-flat5 - B5 - C6. Each damper bar, when depressed, allows only the strings producing the pitches in the chord selected by depressing one of the bars will be allowed to vibrate freely. The five bars (bottom to top) allow the performer to select the following chords: C major, G7 major, F major, C7 major, B-flat major, the I - V7 - IV chords in the keys of C major and F major. The second autoharp in the gallery is a chromatic instrument with a range from F2 to C6 with an incomplete diatonic F major scale in its lowest octave and then from F3 to C6 it is fully chromatic; the fifteen damper bars are for B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F and G major, A7, C7, D7, F7 and G7 Major, and A, D and G minor chords for playing in the keys of B-flat, F, C, G, and D major.


C. A. Gütter, a German instrument maker, is credited with inventing the autoharp in the last quarter of the 19th century. We have not found descriptions or images of his instruments. The first American maker of autoharps was the German immigrant Charles Zimmerman, who began producing several models of the instrument in 1885. He eventually sold the company to Alfred Dolge in 1892, in whose factory the instrument pictured here was manufactured. Design innovations to the instrument appear to have been mainly in regard to the number of strings (from 15 to 50) and the number of damper/chord bars (from 3 to 27, 15- and 21-bar models being the most common) and their layout of buttons.

Bibliographic Citations

Kettlewell, David, and Lucy M. Long. n.d. “Autoharp,” in Oxford Music Online, accessed November 3, 2014: