The Return of the Autoharp

Once a standard component in folk music, this stringed instrument has been "rediscovered" and is growing in popularity.

| July/August 1983

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     The autoharp is a five-sided flat box with 36 strings wound on a double row of metal pins like those of a piano, a sound hole, and a series of chord bars.
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    Marc Bristol's columns for MOTHER have touched on everything from access information for recorded music to detailed instructions on how to make your own instruments.

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Finally, after many years of neglect, the autoharp is coming into its own in the world of folk music. For a long time, the instrument suffered from an apparent mismatching of design elements with playing technique: The push-button chord bars and easy single-stroke playing style made it appealing to beginning musicians, but at the same time, its formidable array of strings frustrated their efforts to keep the instrument in tune! Unaware of the potential of the "tunebox" or its problems, much of the public began referring to it as "the idiot zither" (something that "anyone could play"), and lost interest in it as a serious instrument. 

The autoharp dwindled in popularity and became relatively obscure to all but a few elementary school teachers and—fortunately for us—some musicians from our southern mountains. With a background rich in banjo and guitar-picking, these men and women explored and developed new techniques of playing. Recent musicians with a gift for experimentation (and the ear and patience for keeping those 36 strings on pitch!) have advanced these techniques even further, lifting the autoharp into the spotlight where it belongs. 

Autoharp Problems and Solutions 

Through the efforts of Bryan Bowers, Bonnie Phipps, Lindsay Haisley, and others, many people are dragging their old "push-button zithers" out of the closet, reexamining them, and taking another crack at playing the instruments. I've had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of some very fine autoharpists who've been both helpful and informative. In fact, one night recently, I happened to be performing in a bar up the street from a Bryan Bowers concert. During an intermission in Bryan's show, several of his audience dropped by (to make a phone call), stopped to listen, and chatted awhile. One of the new-found friends, Jewel Boesel (Bā-sil) offered to help me rejuvenate an old autoharp that was resting—where else?—in my closet. I jumped at the chance and, while this instrument resurrection was going on, gathered some bits of lore I'd like to pass on to you. 

Just so we know what's what and where, let's first discuss the basic autoharp anatomy shown in the accompanying illustration. As you can see, the instrument is a five-sided flat box that has 36 strings wound on a double row of metal pins like those of a piano (and tuned with a special key or wrench), a sound hole, and a series of chord bars—usually 12, 15, or 21—that stretch across the strings. Each chord bar has a series of felt pads on its underside. When the bar is depressed, its felts push against and deaden all the strings except those in the chord you've selected. The sounding notes are then played with a flat pick or—most often—with finger-picks worn on the thumb and first (or every) finger. 

One of the problems my own instrument had was that several cracks had started developing in the top, right at the tuning pins. This happened because the strings had been wound down so low on the pins that they were actually digging into the top. The misplacement probably was caused by the way the autoharp was restrung, but it may have simply been the result of years of tightening the strings to tune up to pitch. To remedy the situation, we just loosened those wires and pulled the windings up higher on the pins. In any case, it's a good idea to check this potential trouble spot if you're examining or restringing an old harp. 

Actually, the most common maintenance requirement is sanding or replacing the felts on a chord bar. Jewel showed me a way to make the pads on a "string selector" last longer and act more effectively at the same time. To follow her method, remove the bar carriage and take out the chord bar. Then check its felts. If grooves are worn in them, sand them flat and even by rubbing the whole set against a long piece of sandpaper laid on a table. Next, apply a thin layer of clear silicone glue (the stuff used for bathtub caulk and other such purposes) to the bottom of each felt. Make this layer uniform by pressing the chord bar down on a piece of wax paper and letting it dry overnight. The silicone won't stick to the wax, and the excess glue around the edge can be trimmed away neatly with a razor blade or an X-acto-type knife after it dries. Although any color of the glue would be serviceable, Jewel prefers clear: She feels it's more pliable than the others. 

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