To continue our series on folk instruments, let’s take a look at the Autoharp!
CSM’s autoharp is a ChromaHarp by Sekova, circa 1967!
What is an autoharp?
Autoharps are part of the zither family. The instrument consists of a trapezoid-shaped soundbox with a round sound hole. The soundbox is mounted with loop-ended strings (CSM’s has 36!) that stretch across a low metal bridge and wind around tuning pegs. A set of chord bars is mounted perpendicular to the strings to use during playing. Each chord bar is labeled with a chord symbol that indicates the chord that will sound when the bar is pressed during instrument play.
How do you play the autoharp, and what does it sound like?
An autoharp player can choose from a few options for playing – the first is to sit with the instrument on your lap with the wide end closest to you. Using the left hand, the strings can be strummed or plucked while the right hand presses the chord bars to play different chords. When a chord bar is pressed, the strings tuned to the notes of that chord ring, while the rest of the strings on the instrument are muted by felt pads on the underside of the chord bar. The autoharp’s metal strings sound similar to the zither or a steel string-guitar. The strumming action of playing is reminiscent of guitar-playing, though it is also possible to play one note at a time similar to finger-style guitar playing.
Alternately, some artists play the autoharp by leaning the flat back side against the chest, with the strings facing the audience and strum or pluck the strings with the left hand while activating the chord bars with the right hand.
Who can play the autoharp?
The autoharp is a great instrument for singers to try out as an instrument to provide self-accompaniment. There are some limitations to the range of the instrument, it is a super option for covering folk songs and popular music that uses a strumming-style guitar accompaniment. The chords names are clearly marked on the chord bars, so it’s very accessible for beginner musicians who want to sing melodies with simple chord patterns. Notable artists who use the autoharp include many performers from the Carter family (June Carter-Cash included), musician John Benson Sebastian, and comedian/actor Billy Connolly.
The autoharp is very portable and lightweight, which makes it great for musicians on the go. Even the simplest of strumming patterns will sound full due to the number of octaves available. Because the right hand only pushes one bar at a time, the coordination is very accessible for very inexperienced musicians. Just about anyone interested in trying out some basic chord progressions will find the autoharp a fun instrument to try!
Alyssa Cowell Voice and Piano Instructor RCM Program Coordinator and Admin The Catoctin School of Music