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 desiredchord. Despite its name, the autoharp is not a harp at all, but a chorded zither.
There is debate over the origin of the auto-harp. A German immigrant in Philadelphia by the name of 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 Britishpatent 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 design became very popular, and Zimmermann has often been mistaken as the inventor.
The term "Autoharp" was registered as a trademark in 1926. The word is currently claimed as a trademark by 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.
Modern autoharps have 36 or 37 strings, although some examples with as many as 47 strings, and even a rare 48-string model exists. They are strung in either diatonic (1, 2 or 3 key models) or chromatic scales. Standard models have 15 or 21 chord bars, or buttons, available, a selection of major, minor, and dominant seventh chords. These are arranged for historical or systemic reasons, as for example:
Eb Bb F C G D A F7 C7 G7 D7 A7 E7 B7 Ab Bb7 Cm Gm Dm Am Em
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 article. In the 1970s Oscar Schmidt came out with their own magnetic pickup.
Shown at the right is a 1930 refinished Oscar Schmidt Model "A". This harp has 2 DeArmondmagnetic pickups (one under the chord bars), and a d'Aigle fine tuning mechanism, and was used in a 1968 MGM/Heritage Records recording by Euphoria.
Autoharps have been used in the United States as bluegrass and folk instruments, perhaps most famously by Maybelle Carter, Sara Carter, and June 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. Grand Ole Opry star Cecil Null was the first to develop the upright style for playing the autoharp that was in turn used by the Carter Family.
Outside of bluegrass and country music, both acoustic and electric autoharp were occasionally used in the folk-influenced parts of late 1960s/1970s progressive rock, psychedelia and related genres by e.g. Genesis, Renaissance and Led Zeppelin.
Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds' score features a part for Autoharp.
British musician PJ Harvey played the autoharp on her 2004 album Uh Huh Her, specifically on the song "The Darker Days of Me & Him"). Her 2007 album White Chalk also features the instrument on many tracks. She also wrote and recorded most of her latest album Let England Shake on the autoharp.
British singer songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae regularly plays the autoharp and composed the title track "The Sea" from her 2010 Mercury Award nominated album called "The Sea" using chords that she composed on the autoharp.
American musician John Mellencamp plays the autoharp in the video for his song "Cherry Bomb".
New York based band Billy Nayer Show uses autoharp prominently in their music.