Lehigh Valley Folk Music Society
The autoharp is a beautiful sounding stringed folk instrument
made popular as a parlor solo instrument in the United States
during the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century.
It was one of the fundamental instruments in much of the music played
by Mother Maybelle and Sara Carter of the original Carter family
in the 1920's. Many folks believe that the autoharp was truly an
American invention of Charles F. Zimmerman of Philadelphia taken
from an 1871 patent. However, in reality, though Zimmerman made
some innovative improvements, the autoharp was originally invented
in Germany by Karl August Guther where it was known as the
The autoharp is actually related to the zither which is a multiple
string instrument whose strings of different length correspond to the
notes of the scale (e.g., diatonic or chromatic), as in a piano.
However, the strings on a zither are stretched between two bridges,
mounted to a wooden base, and plucked with the fingers to produce the
desired notes or groups of notes. The zither can be played on a table
(or lap) or held upright against the chest. In an autoharp, the
principal difference is a mechanical device that overlies all of
the strings along one of the bridges. This device contains rows of
buttons labeled specifically to correspond to different chords.
When the artist depresses a particular button, specific strings are
muted and the remaining strings produce the sound of a full chord
when strummed. Unlike the zither, beautiful chord melodies can be
very easily played with the autoharp providing a fuller dynamic melodic
and rhythmic richness for the solo performer.
The LVFMS's autoharpist plays a "chromatic" autoharp to allow maximum
flexibility in key changes. People who like to play traditional tunes
and lyrical chord melodies prefer this kind of autoharp.
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