Black Pearl Sings!

Behind the Music: The Autoharp


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

Take A Listen

-Janis Joplin: “So Sad To Be Alone”

-Dolly Parton: “Coat of Many Colors”

Check It Out!

-John Sebastian: “Do You Believe In Magic”

2 thoughts on “Behind the Music: The Autoharp

  1. I was introduced to the autoharp in about 2nd grade when I had to play it on stage in a class play. Then my mom bought me one, which I still have. I used to love when John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful played it.

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