|Victorian advertisement for autoharp tutor.
The autoharp is a variation of a German zither, which was developed during the late 19th century. It has 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. A framework above the strings comprises a number of sprung wooden bars. - Each of these bars has a different set of felt pads. When a bar is pressed, the pads dampen certain strings, leaving others which form the structure of a chord. Thus by pressing a bar and strunning across the strings, different chords can by very easily played.
The name 'Autoharp' was chosen by a German immigrant to the USA, C.F. Zimmerman, who patented his version of the instrument in the USA in 1882. At the same time, some autoharps were still being manufactured in Germany and many of these instruments found their way to England throughout much of the 20th Century.
The autoharp was one of a number of 'parlour instruments' which were devised 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.
In the 1920s and 1930s the autoharp became popular in the music of the rural Southern USA. The autoharp went on to achieve a new role, across the USA and Britain, during the 1960s and 70s, when it was widely marketed to schools as an instrument for use in classrooms. 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. There is now a growing community of UK autoharpers who are experimenting with the whole range of music that the instrument can produce. To find out more visit their website at UK Autoharps
Text reproduced by kind permission of Nadine Stah White of UK Autoharps
In this audio example we hear Pat Elliott singing the song 'Two Brothers', with autoharp accompaniment, recorded at Whitley Bay Folk Club in 1966.