Though the origin of the autoharp is unclear, we know where to start our discovery how this unique instrument joined the musical world.
The Battle for Credit
We begin America’s history of the autoharp in 1882 when Charles Zimmerman , German immigrant to the United States, received the US patent for an instrument he called the Autoharp. Across the pond, however, Karl August Gütter, also of German origin, received the British patent in 1883 for an instrument he built that closely resembles the autoharp played today, called the Volkszither. After returning from a trip to Germany, Zimmerman began production of the instrument using Gütter’s design while adding his own ideas, creating today’s run-of-the-mill autoharp.
So who really wins the credit for inventing this instrument? Bragging rights go to Karl August Gütter.
Check out this video of Musical Director Scot Woolley giving an autoharp tutorial during a rehearsal of Black Pearl Sings!.
Spoiler Alert! The autoharp is not actually a harp!
Despite its name, the autoharp does not fall under the harp category, but is actually a type of zither. Great. But what the heck is a zither? A zither is a stringed instrument in which the strings do not extend beyond the sounding box. In a way, it looks like the body of a guitar, without the neck, of course.
Modern autoharps have 36 or 37 strings and played by strumming or plucking. They are most often used as chordal accompaniment instead of a primary instrument, such as a violin or guitar. In today’s world, you will most likely find an autoharp in the bluegrass and folk music genre.
Who’s Who Among Autoharp Musicians
Would you believe that some of the most famous musicians took up playing the autoharp?
-The Carter Family: Mother Maybelle, Sara, Helen, and June Carter
-Janis Joplin: “So Sad To Be Alone”
-Dolly Parton: “Coat of Many Colors”
-John Sebastian: “Do You Believe In Magic”