Type: Chordophones > Zithers > Box > Fretless.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 314.122.4
Region: North America.
Description: The autoharp is a musical instrument that is a fretless box zither. Two rows or flanges mounted at each side of the autoharp above the top sound board. A pair of two flanges usually of a hard plastic contains a grove for each bar. The bars are inserted side by side. The bars function as dampers when they are strummed to to produce a chord. Although the keys are arranged in a diatonic manner.
Notes or chords in sharps [#] or flats [b] can be played by plucking the chords individually from the bars on either side of the autoharp. The term autoharp has colloquially come to be used for any hand-held, chorded zither, regardless of manufacturer. Autoharps are usually strung in a chromatic manner.
History: The luthier Karl August Gütter of Markneukirchen, Germany, built a model that he called a “Volkszither”, which most resembles the autoharp played today. Gütter obtained a British patent for his instrument circa 1883–1884. Zimmermann, after returning from a visit to Germany, began production of the Gütter design in 1885 but with his own design patent number and name. Gütter’s instrument design became very popular and Zimmermann has often been misnamed as the inventor.
The exact origin of the autoharp is debated. A German immigrant in Philadelphia, US, Charles F. Zimmermann, was awarded US 257808 in 1882 for a design for a musical instrument that included mechanisms for muting certain strings during play. He named his invention the “autoharp”. Unlike later autoharps, the shape of his instrument was symmetrical and the felt-bearing bars moved horizontally against the strings instead of vertically. It is not known if Zimmermann ever commercially produced any instruments of this early design.
The Autoharp Trademark: A stylized form of the term autoharp was registered as a trademark in 1926. The word is currently claimed as a trademark by the U.S. Music Corporation, whose Oscar Schmidt division manufactures autoharps. The USPTO registration, however, covers only a “Mark Drawing Code – Words, Letters and or Numbers in Stylized Form” and has expired. In litigation with George Orthey, it was held that Oscar Schmidt could only claim ownership of the stylized lettering of the word autoharp, the term itself having moved into general usage.
Construction: The body of the autoharp is made of a rectangular frame of wood with a corner cut off. On top of the autoharp the soundboard often features a sound hole, The wood used is either solid or laminated. A pin-block of multiple laminated layers of wood occupies the top and slanted edges. The pin-block serves as a bed for the tuning pins, which resemble those used in pianos and concert zithers. On the edge opposite the top pin-block is either a series of metal pins, or a grooved metal plate, which accepts the lower ends of the strings.
Directly above the strings, on the lower half of the top. The chord bars, which are made of plastic, wood, or metal and support felt or foam pads on the side facing the strings. These bars are mounted on springs and pressed down with one hand, via buttons mounted to their topside.
The buttons are labeled with the name of the chord produced when that bar is pressed against the strings, and the strings strummed. The back of the instrument usually has three wooden, plastic, or rubber “feet”, which support the instrument when it is placed backside down on a table top, for playing in the traditional position.
Citations: Bibliography: Mary Lou Orthey 2001 Autoharp Owner’s Manual, p.3. ISBN 0-7866-5883-5 ; U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Trademark Electronic Search System, May 25, 2009 ; Kelly Williams [May 11, 2003] “Background of the Guitar-Zither”. The Guitar-Zither Clearinghouse. Terminology on the “Chorded zither” [referred Autoharp without trademark infringement with Oscar Schmidt International], “Guitar-Zither” patented by Fred Menzenhauer in 1894 and “Chord zither” referred Guitar-Zither, appeared in The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments, and The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments ; Orthey, Mary Lou 2001 ; Autoharp Owner’s Manual, p. 3. ISBN 0-7866-5883-5 Websites: Google Patents ~ Charles F. Zimmerman, Philadelphia US 257808 1882 ;