Instruments Page

Great Canadian Autoharps

The Autoharp is a relatively rare Canadian folk instrument that is, tragically, mostly forgotten these days, by people whose only skill is plugging in iPods and going off to lala land with headsets clamped on.

Left is a vintage workhorse from the 1960s showing all the earmarks that it was heavily used by a devoted folk singer: the bridge assembly for the chords has been moved down to the end, clearing more room to get at high strings over the sound hole, a scratched patch to the lower left of the label, where the player's harmonica mount rubbed extensively on the body, and broken strings from vigorous plucking by an enthusiastic player.

The autoharp was actually invented in Germany, in the 1860s, by Karl August Guther, who adapted it from the zither (on which Anton Karas played the fabulous theme for Orson Welles' and Joe Cotton's film, The Third Man in 1949)

The zither was a multi-string table-top instrument and was hard to play; it took two hands to pluck individual strings. So Karl hit on the idea of dampening sets of strings with a muffling system of pads on bars mounted on a bridge, so that only strings related to a chord could sound. You pressed a damper bar to get a chord and by alternately pushing three buttons you had three chords, enough to play many songs. Karl called the instrument that anyone could play the "Folkszither." It produced amazingly beautiful full chords just by holding down a damper and stroking all the strings with a finger pick.

The "Folkszither" was brought to the US in the 1870s, and Charles F. Zimmerman of Philadelphia took out a patent on it. In the 1880s it became Americanized as the "Autoharp," a harp that would practically play itself.

Instruments could have 36 strings and up to 21 bars. The pin block - inside the frame edge, where the pins are screwed in, around the top, is usually of rock maple, mahogany, or spruce.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Autoharp, Oscar Schmidt - 1963

Orig. autoharp - Size - 56 cm
Found - Kingston, ON
Serial No - 6287

The chord bars were made with glued in felt pads, cut to allow only a few strings to sound; about a third played for each chord, and two thirds were dampened. With time the felts bent, or hardened, and had to be replaced. Another reason many players instead, reached for their iPods...

Other fanatic players just cruised auctions to find throw-away instruments so they could cannibalize the bars which were usually in very good shape since instruments were rarely played for long.

The trouble with the autoharp, for most people, was: too many strings. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, they gave up, finding it impossible to keep them all in tune. If you did it by ear you would be way out by the time you got to the strings on the other side. The resulting noise would be awful. Tuning by harmonica, or piano, was better, but it took a lot of time to get the half tone harmonics working properly. Electronic tuners have made it far easier.

But the autoharp is not seen as a cool instrument by today's young crowd of wannabe musicians To them the autoharp is not nearly loud enough, autoharp players have hair that is far too short, a vocabulary that is far too proper, and also appear to take far too many baths to warrant real rock star status worthy of emulating. Alas, it's a losing battle for the autoharp as a popular instrument.

Right showing the ravages of time, a split from a long sojourn in the dry climate of the arctic.

But you never throw them out. This vintage Oscar Schmidt, has a crisper brighter sound than the more mellow, softer tones of succeeding models.

And you keep it in affectionate memory of that young girl Sylvia Fricker Tyson, who played hers, so inspirationally, in that small club, not ten feet away from you... almost fifty years ago... In private homage to one of Canada's most uniquely evocative voices and finest songwriters... And an autoharpist from way back...

The record player, the TV, the CD, the DVD, and the iPod, and the lap dancer, has put an end to the long tradition of home made music in community life. Where artistic men and women once sought to express the joys and sorrows of their daily existence in music at Saturday night dances across Canada, for most people, today, it is far easier to be a couch potato, turn on an electronic device, clamp on a set of ear phones, and drift off... or go to a bar and get soused while doing karaoke, or watching a game you can't hear on the giant TV, or a table-top dancer, where it doesn't matter...

But, to a significant group of men and women, all over North America, the string band tradition lives on, kept alive by proactive people who want to keep alive a heritage tradition of music. They know full well that there is nothing on earth that can remotely touch the exuberant joy found in live, home made music, produced by a group of spirited human beings. That natural high, no recording anywhere on earth, or bottled spirit of any kind, will ever match...

A Canadian Tragedy

Even into the 1950s fiddle dances were still happening in communities in south western Ontario. We can recall hearing Golden Slippers on a yousing fiddle outside a rural public school (Ousley School, SS #8 in Euphemia Township) during a Christmas concert in 1953. The parents were inside dancing away... The school was torn down years ago, and square dancing faded from community life to the retreat of merely club status among a few die-hard devotees.

Indian and Inuit communities kept the tradition of home made music alive longer than anyone else. We attended lots of fiddle dances in Indian and Inuit communities in the 1970s in Canada's arctic and sub-arctic.

At community dances, at Gjoa Haven, in Canada's high arctic, in 1973-74, we routinely played our autoharp as lead, no less, in the butterfly, a dance that alternated Stoney's Waltz (fast) with Likes Liquor Better Than Me (slow) with fiddle (Eddie Kikoak) and guitar (Raymond Kamookak) playing back up. Outside the temperature bottomed out the thermometer at -60 but we kept warm inside. We repeated till everyone was too exhausted to move... The shouting and hollering, we recall, gladdens the memories down the passing decades...

TV coming into remote towns put an end to much of that. People preferred to see new faces (on the tube and elsewhere) than dance with the same guys you saw all week... or go home with the guy who brung ya...
Go to Canadian Fiddle
A classic American family string band of the 1890s, when farmers in remote and rural America, and Canada, had to supply their own entertainment. Everyone was harnessed into play, with many children of five and six taught to play guitar , fiddle, banjo, or autoharp.

The men, probably father and son, play lead, while their respective spouses play autoharp, the traditional way, on their laps, brushing the strings with a thumb pick with long, rolling strokes. The daughter drums out the beat on the guitar to keep them all together.

During the late 19th century the autoharp was played on a table, or on the lap, with the player depressing the keys with the left hand and stroking the strings along a narrow expanse of exposed strings, along the bottom right. The vast area of open strings at the top were not touched.

The instrument was widely used in schools to teach music, and in poorer areas even replaced the piano. Some churches used amplified autoharps in place of organs.

With the coming of iPods - I mean phonographs around 1900 - homemade music went into a decline, and so did the autoharp, especially among the suave urban crowd, though it persisted in the remote countryside.

Then recordings resurrected the autoharp again...

In the 1920s the Carter Family records of country or "old time" music (featuring Sara Carter on autoharp) and later, Mother Maybelle Carter (Johnny Cash's mother-in-law), gave the instrument a new burst of popularity, when Sara picked it off the table, held it against her chest and stroked the strings in the wide expanse above the chord bridge.

But then the sax, and the clarinet of the Big Band era took the fickle popular fancy and the lowly autoharp went into the attic once more.

In the early 1960s, as the folk boom took off, so did a resurgent interest in the autoharp, certainly in Canada, thanks to Sylvia Fricker Tyson of Ian and Sylvia.

It was after hearing Sylvia, just barely out of her teens, playing hers, at the Bohemian Embassy, in Toronto, in 1963, that, full of enthusiasm, but on a student's meager dole, we bought the Oscar Schmidt model near right and pounded away joyfully on it for decades. It does show the love...


But manufacturers were behind the times. The chord bridges were too high up on the strings, so not giving you access to the short, higher strings on the right. So, like many folkies, we unscrewed the bridge assembly on our brand new instrument and relocated it downwards some 50 mm, uncovering plucking room for high notes. Another 1960s Schmidt left shows the bridge in its old higher position, and reveals the amount of offset on the other.

Most autoharps came to bad ends. For a musical instrument the usual cause was benign neglect...

Our autoharp was raucously plucked for ages, which is why so many strings are broken. Others have been replaced many times... The modern pluck and pick method of play breaks a lot more strings than the old rolling stroke.

The harp on the left above was ignored, and so retains all its strings, very likely the original ones, from the 1960s, as is the case with so many other autoharps.

Left the view over the lap position in which autoharps were played the first fifty years. Three full octaves were available, plus extra high and bass notes.

It is easy to see that the playing position for both hands were extremely close together; so it made for cramped playing quarters.

An electronic multi-octave chromatic tuner that lights up a led when you pluck a string at the right frequency, as you tighten it with a tuning key, takes the old time headache out of keeping the instrument tuned. Wooden handled ones were used in the 1960s and before; plastic is more recent.

Tuning pins are difficult to use. They are literally only screws into the pin block. You must guess how many turns will take up the slack, and unwind them first, before putting in the string. Many have over tightened and broken pins or split the casing by being overzealous.








































Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Autoharp, The Appalachian, Oscar Schmidt - 1975
Orig. autoharp - Size - 60 cm
Found - Edmonton, AB
A fabulous Oscar Schmidt for the high end player that came out in the early 70s featuring improved chord buttons, a spruce top, rock maple pin block, and maple back.


























Due to demands of folkies, Oscar Schmidt had moved the chord bridge further to the right, so choking off access to the strings on the bottom. It is now impossible to play it "old style" on the lap or table, unless you're left handed.

But there is clearly room - 40 to 50 mm - to get at the high strings. As usual there are broken strings, the very highest one and several in the middle.

Unlike any other instrument - fiddle, guitar, banjo, uke, mandolin, bouzouki, etc. - broken strings don't stop the autoharp music; there are many others left to sound the chord. One out of 12 is barely missed.















Like for many quality guitars, a solid piece of spruce is preferred for autoharp tops.

Spruce gives a rich tone and softens the treble notes and highs. Maple or mahogany gives brighter tones.

Many old folkies, prefer earlier instruments like the one right played in the preferred modern manner as first showcased by Sara Carter (1898-1979) in the 1920s. Her sister, Mother Maybelle (1909-1978) invented the clasp and strum method of play used today by most autoharp players. As the Carter Family (with AP 1891-1960), they were at the forefront of promoting country music during its first two decades as a commercial art form. And with fiddle and guitar, they put the autoharp, on an equal basis, into a starring role as an American country music instrument.

Below Sara on the right playing banjo while a friend plays old style autoharp.














Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. - 1996, 1999, 2005

Great Canadian Autoharps, 1880-2000 - 2

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