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CHAPTERS - chapterI:Autoharp History chapterII:German Autoharps chapterIII:Oscar Schmidt vs Chromaharps chapterIV:How An Autoharp Works chapterV:Modern Autoharp Playing

chapterI: Autoharp History

The autoharp is a variation of the German Zither, developed during the 1890s. Like the zither, the autoharp is a shallow wooden-bodied box, with a number of strings of varied length and thickness stretched across it. When the strings are plucked or strummed, they produce notes over several octaves in pitch.

The autoharp was one of a great number of 'parlor instruments' which were devised around that time, so that people could make their own music at home. These instruments were relatively inexpensive, and most of them incorporated some special feature to make it easier for untrained musicians to play a simple tune or accompany singing. The autoharp is one of the very few that have survived - because its 'special feature' really works.


Many people are of the opinion that Charles F. Zimmermann of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania invented what we call the autoharp. In 1882 Zimmermann secured a US patent No:US257808 for the design of a musical instrument that included triggered mechanisms for muting certain strings during play. He did not supply drawings with his patent. Zimmermann named his invention the 'Autoharp'. The design of his instrument has little in common with what we class as a modern Autoharp. It is unknown if Zimmermann commercially produced any of these instruments.

In approximately 1883, Karl August GŁtter from Germany, invented a model that he called a "Volkszither" for which he obtained a British patent. The design drawings he submitted are more similar to our modern ideas of an 'Autoharp'. Gutter then sold the rights for this design to Herman Lindemann in 1883. Lindemann's company traded in all types of musical instruments. When others started producing instruments, which Lindemann now owned the patent for, he became more than irritated. Publishing the following statement in a monthly journal in 1890: "Warning: I warn hereby especially not to buy or sell the recently sold instrument under the name of 'Chordzither' or 'Autoharp' that are in the market as imitations of my patent 'Volkszither.' I sued through the district attorney against the manufacturer C. F. Thierfeld against patent rights. Every one of those individuals should be brought to court who sells these imitations in the stores." Signed: H. Lindemann, The Only Manufacturer of the Patented and Privileged "Volkszither."

In 1885 on return from a visit to Germany, Zimmermann had begun to manufacture and sell a very similar instrument to Gutter's design, he applied this as a 'modification' on his patented 'Autoharp'. Zimmerman can be credited with popularising the instrument in the USA, but not inventing it. These instruments were later produced by Oscar Schmidt Inc (now part of Washburn Instruments).


In 1926 the term 'Autoharp' was registered as a trademark. Various other 'brands' of this instrument continued to be sold 'Chordzither', 'Volkszither', 'Rossetti' etc All these instruments were labeled with their manufacturer's name in the sound hole. Instruments will usually have 12, 15 or 21 chord bars.

Newer Oscar Schmidt models have a cover over the bars so you can only see the buttons, known as a 'closed chord bar'. Recommended by UKA for 'Beginner Autoharpists.

For more information go to The True History of the Autoharp by Ivan Stiles (published in Autoharp Quarterly)

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chapterII: German Autoharps

At the same time, some autoharps were still being manufactured in Germany. Many of these instruments found their way to England throughout much of the 20th Century. These German autoharps are lightweight, relatively quiet in volume, and are fitted with between 3 and 12 chord bars. They are usually painted black or dark red, and often have a pretty 'rose' decoration on the sound board. Many have no maker's name, but are generally known as the Rosen type.

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chapterIII: Oscar Schmidt vs Chromaharps


Oscar Schmidt manufacture "A" model and "B" model Autoharps. Schmidt's "B" models came out in 1968 on the very month that the Chromaharp was introduced ( a Japanese-made version of Schmidt's "A" harp). The competition between Oscar Schmidt Autoharps and Chromaharps became fierce. While Chromaharps were priced below Oscar Schmidit Autoharps and claimed to "stay in tune up to 60% longer", the Oscar Schmidt Autoharp company pushed its "B" models into the market. Had Schmidt not introduced the "B" model to compete with the Chromaharps at this strategic time, the Oscar Schmidt company would likely have gone out of business.

More recently George Orthey, a luthier in Newport Pennsylvania, began production of his own 'Autoharps'. Oscar Schmidt who now claimed rights of the trademark took action on the term 'Autoharp' being used. The trademark for "Autoharp' only covered the text "Mark Drawing Code (5) WORDS, LETTERS, AND/OR NUMBERS IN STYLIZED FORM" and has now expired. Following litigation the eventual decision was that the term 'Autoharp' had fallen into common usage during a time Oscar Schmidt was not protecting it.

'Autoharp' has come to be the generic name applied to all brands of instruments in the chorded-zither family. For more information on modern brands available visit both UKA pages on Factory Made and Handmade Luthier Autoharps.

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chapterIV: How An Autoharp Works


An autoharp has a number of wooden or metal chord bars stretching across the strings. Each chord bar rides on a spring at either end, and has a button so that you can press the whole bar down onto the strings. The underside of the bar is covered in hard felts, and when the bar is pressed down, the felt damps-out all the unwanted strings and prevents them from sounding. But notches are cut in the felt above certain selected strings, so that they are not damped and can ring-out when strummed, picked or plucked. Each chord bar is cut in a different pattern, so that it will select all the notes of just one musical chord when the bar is pressed down. For example, a 21-bar autoharp will let you choose any one of 21 chords with a single finger... to the envy of all guitarists!

This gives the autoharp a unique advantage for new players. To strum a chord, you only have to push down one button on a chord bar (damping out all the unwanted strings) and sweep a plectrum or a finger-pick across two-and-a-half octaves of strings. Only the notes of the selected chord will ring out.

As a result, the autoharp has the most, gentle beginning learning curve of any stringed instrument. It only takes a little practice to produce some real music!

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chapterV: Modern Autoharp Playing

During the 20th Century, the phonograph, radio and TV supplanted almost all of the parlour instruments for bringing music into the home - but fortunately the autoharp continued to be manufactured. The instrument's portability and suitability for accompanying singing enabled it to fill a musical niche... including use in school classrooms across the USA and, to a lesser extent, in the UK also.

However, in the USA, music featuring the autoharp continued to appear on record and on small regional radio stations. In particular the 'Carter Family sound', which was one of the foundations of Country and Bluegrass music, included the distinctive sound of old black 'A-model' Oscar Schmidt autoharp.

Maybelle Carter is also credited with liberating the autoharp from being played flat on a table like a zither. Tired of trying to find suitable tables when on tour, she cradled the instrument upright in her arms and started playing it above the chord-bars. This gives much more room to play, and you can do much more with your fingers and thumb (most autoharpers now play with finger- and thumb-picks). Since the strings are plucked nearer to the middle, the sound is much better and the volume from the Autoharp is louder too. Maybelle Carter's 'upright' position is now the standard way to play an autoharp.

Most autoharps - and all factory-made ones - are Chromatic: they have all the 'black' and 'white' notes of the piano, and can play in several musical keys. One of the major recent developments is the Diatonic autoharp, which sacrifices the versatility of the chromatic instrument to gain a richer sound in just one key (or sometimes two, or occasionally three). Each instrument has its own advantages for particular styles of music: a diatonic autoharp sounds wonderful for simple folk tunes, but only a chromatic can handle the complexities of classical and 20th-century popular music. youtubeBilly Connolly, youtubeDolly Parton, youtubeGenesis, youtubeJanis Joplin, youtubeJune Carter Cash, youtubePJ Harvey, youtubeLed Zeppelin and youtubeSheryl Crow are just some of the artists that occasionally used autoharps in their music.

In the last two decades, the autoharp has undergone a resurgence as a melodic instrument. This has been supported by developments in its design and construction. There have been many improvements in Factory Made Autoharps over the years - particularly to allow upright playing -and a number of craftsman now make custom handmade Luthier Autoharps that represent the leading edge of development.

The modern development of the autoharp has also led to much more complex musical styles. After the simple strum, melody-picking is the next stage, picking out the melody note at the top of each chord. Advanced players try to pick out single notes as well.

There is now a growing community of UK autoharpers who are experimenting with the whole range of music that the instrument can produce. Visit our UK Autoharp Performers page for more information.

UK Autoharps exists to promote and encourage all these developments the UK.

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