The Return of the Autoharp

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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.

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 (B?-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.

Replacing the felts is fairly easy if you use material with self-adhesive backing. When you remove the chord bar, mark the spot where the old pad is attached, take it off with a razor blade, cut new felt to the same size, peel off its backing, and just stick the pad on the bar where you made your mark.

On my harp, the chord bars are mounted high, so that all the strings can be strummed across the bottom (the end where the wires are anchored). Some people play the instrument this way while it’s lying in the lap or on a table. Others prefer the more mobile style popularized by Mother Maybelle Carter: holding the harp upright across the chest while strumming above the chord bars. The only problem with this style for an instrument like mine is that there’s little or no room “up top” to play the short treble strings, so Jewel suggested that I move my chord bars down a bit to allow access to the highest notes. This simply involved removing four screws, drilling new holes, and making sure the two end holders kept their relative positions (so that the bar mechanisms–with their springs!–wouldn’t fall apart).

You may encounter a difficulty once you start fiddling around with the placement of the chord bars. Sometimes the felts will touch the strings at a node (a spot on the strand’s vibration pattern where there is minimum movement). Instead of being deadened when this point is touched, the string produces a harmonic: a ringing note an octave or other interval higher than the one usually produced by the wire’s vibration. Such “surprise sounds” can be irritating because they’re not supposed to occur in the chord or melody you’re playing. (After all, they come from strings whose sound you’re trying to close off!)

If you move the chord bar assembly, you need to be careful to avoid this situation. So before you resecure the bar structure, temporarily fasten it in the place you think you’ll want it (using two small C-clamps or something similar), and then try all the chords, listening for unwanted overtones in each one. Or you can move the particular offending bar to another slot, which is something you may want to do with a few “chorders” anyway, depending on your style of playing. (Sometimes they aren’t located conveniently for the keys you like to play.)

By now, you’ve probably gotten the idea of how to “personalize” the instrument: You can replace the felts or chord bars, and even change felts or chord bars around, if you want to. Many of the contemporary autoharp players do this.

As a matter of fact, customizing autoharps goes beyond just switching or replacing parts. Bryan Bowers sets some of his instruments on a diatonic system (as opposed to the chromatic system harps traditionally use) by tuning some strings in pairs, rearranging the felts accordingly. This means his instrument can play in only one key, plus its related minor and modal scales, but with more strings vibrating on each chord, the harp produces a louder, fuller sound.

Bryan’s finger-picking style gave birth to the idea of a diatonic system partly because plucking a few strings is much quieter than strumming whole chords (covering broad sections of the strings at once), and he needed a way to increase volume. The idea has proved popular enough that Oscar Schmidt International, Inc., owner of the trade name Autoharp, is producing diatonic harps for sale commercially! (It will supply buyers with stock frames for personal experimentation and customizing.)

My friend Jewel plays Irish tunes on her autoharp. Since this requires plenty of fast chord changes, she improved the action of her instrument by cutting small squares out of wide rubber bands and gluing one to the top of every chord bar where it meets its holder. Not only does this lower the bar so it doesn’t have to be pressed as far down in order to dampen the sound, but it helps quiet the superfluous tapping that bars tend to make as they come back up and touch the holder (particularly if you release them quickly).

Both Jewel and Bryan use thumb and finger-picks to achieve their melodic styles, but you should try out a variety of techniques in the effort to find what feels right to you.

Autoharp Sources and Resources

Good news for autoharp aficionados! There’s now a quarterly, The Autoharpoholic, which deals exclusively with this instrument. The magazine is small but crammed full of interviews, articles on repair, discussions of playing techniques, tips on customizing, and information on where you can hear the best in “A-harp” music. (That reminds me: There’s now an annual International Autoharp Championship–held in conjunction with the National Guitar, Dulcimer, and Mandolin Championships–at Winfield, Kansas! The festival takes place in September.) The Autoharpoholic offers repair parts as well. New strings, felts, glue, springs, pins, chord bars, and the like are all available from the company by mail (through the magazine). [Editor’s note: The Autoharpoholic stopped publication in 1993.] Now that the instrument is picking up in popularity, there’s a growing body of autoharp recordings available. Bryan Bowers, of course, has a couple of albums out on Flying Fish Records, which has been mentioned in this column before. Bryan is currently working on two new albums, one of them a Christmas special.

The Seattle area has recently been blessed with an extended visit from Lindsay Haisley, a very fine instrumentalist (autoharp, guitar, Indian harmonium banjo, and trombone) from the Austin, Texas area. I met Lindsay at a local open mic, and he gave me a copy of his first album, recorded “live” at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. The album contains several of Lind say’s original compositions for autoharp–he writes beautiful marches–and some traditional tunes done on the Indian harmonium banjo, a sort of “autoharp dulcimer” (a dulcimer with a piano keyboard that takes care of the fretting).

Lindsay has also released an album of music entitled Christmas on the Autoharp. It features 14 familiar carols performed on the autoharp with various accompaniments, including guitar, flute, piccolo, horns, and triangle. This is a really fine record and should be a valuable addition to the collections of harp players and anyone who loves Christmas music.

Some of the cuts on this album feature the electric autoharp, which has been around for twenty years or more, I think. In fact, I first heard one through the playing of John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful, but Lindsay has customized his own version of this instrument by including a second pickup he designed himself. I venture to say that anyone would find the sounds he gets just fascinating. Of course, one advantage of the electric model is its ability to play along with louder instruments. Lindsay’s been using his to sit in with my Okie Doke Band lately, much to the delight of audiences and band members alike.

Another new autoharp album arrived in my mail recently from Kicking Mule Records: Bonnie Phipp’s Autoharpin’. This is actually an ensemble album rather than a solo effort, and includes cello, guitar, penny whistle, and concertina. Bonnie is the current national champion, and has been playing since 1971. Several of the tunes on her album include vocals, such as Loudon Wainwright III’s “Swimmin’ Song,” Paul Simon’s “Old Friends,” and Bob Bovee’s “Street Singer’s Heaven.” In addition to Bonnie’s championship-quality autoharp picking, the disk contains some really fine guitar flatpicking by Mike Scap, particularly on “Streetsinger’s Heaven.” Bonnie also wrote one of the songs in this collection, giving us a glimpse of her inner feelings. (To me, such personal expression is an important feature of folk music: Making contact in this way with another person’s humanity helps connect us with our own. Somehow it means more than most of the popular music on the radio, which is usually designed to express the ways everyone thinks people should feel.).

If pitching your autoharp is a major chore for you, you might consider buying one of the electronic tuning devices on the market. More and more companies have jumped on the bandwagon to manufacture these items, so their prices have gone down considerably. The other day, I saw a chromatic tuner on sale in a music store for about $60. (Used to be you had to pay at least $150 for the things!) Electronic tuners are also available by mail. One supplier for these, for ChromAharPs–a Japanese model of the autoharp–and for a host of other folk-music items is Lark in the Morning. These people seem to specialize in the instruments for Irish music, and their catalog opens with several different Irish harps. (Stay tuned for a future column devoted to Irish-harp record reviews and related information.)

Oscar Schmidt Autoharps–still the best, according to the players I know–are available by mail from Elderly Instruments. Elderly also carries some of the repair accessories, tuning wrenches, books, and a great deal of other folk-music paraphernalia…almost anything you’d need, in fact. What they don’t have for autoharps, they say you can get from Fretted Industries (which bought out Oscar Schmidt several years ago). Several other mail-order suppliers are listed in the Resource section of my book, Homegrown Music.

There! That ought to be enough information to get you started. So get that autoharp out of your closet, tune it up, and let the fun begin!

Marc Bristol–a homegrown musician who performs regularly throughout the Pacific Northwest–began sharing his knowledge of do-it-yourself entertainment with MOTHER readers back in Do It Yourself Entertainment for Grassroots Musicians. Marc’s columns have touched on everything from access information for recorded music to detailed instructions on how to make your own instruments.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Autoharpists and fans might be interested to know that a book on the history of this instrument is forthcoming in mid-September. Called simply The Autoharp Book, it’s by Becky Blackley and will be available from the publisher, I.A.D. Publications.