Here’s one of the most interesting autoharp facts. Despite the name, an autoharp isn’t a harp at all. It’s actually a chorded zither.
How does it work? A series of chord bars are attached to dampers. When the chord bars are depressed during play, strings are muted to form the desired chord. Modern autoharps usually have 36 or 37 strings. Some have as many as 47 strings, and a rare 48-string model also exists.
In the United States, the autoharp often provides rhythm in bluegrass and country music. However, skilled chromatic players can perform a range of melodies on the instrument.
More Autoharp Facts
Did you know … a person who performs on this string instrument is called an autoharpist.
Notable autoharpists include Neriah McCubbins “Mr. Cub” Benfield and his son Kenneth Benfield, Bryan Bowers, Basia Bulat, Billy Corgan (The Smashing Pumpkins), Sheryl Crow, Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Janis Joplin, Linda McCartney, Dolly Parton, John Sebastian (The Lovin’ Spoonful), Kilby Snow and his son Jim Snow, Ernest V. Stoneman, and Joni Mitchell.
Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family
The autoharp was a favorite with the historic Carter Family, including Maybelle Carter, her cousin Sara Carter, and her daughters Helen Carter and June Carter Cash. The Carter Family adopted an upright style for playing that was developed by Grand Ole Opry star Cecil Null.
Maybelle Carter’s granddaughter Carlene carries on the family tradition today, performing onstage as well as on her recordings. Carlene’s 1990 song “Me and the Wildwood Rose” was dedicated to her grandmother Maybelle Carter.
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Solo by “Mother” Maybelle Carter
The legendary Johnny Cash introduces his mother-in-law Maybelle Carter on the February 25, 1970 episode of “The Johnny Cash Show.” The musical piece is called “Black Mountain Rag.”
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Oscar Schmidt 21-Chord Classic Autoharp
- 21-chord autoharp with select maple body
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