The autoharp is an instrument that's rarely used in country music today, but it played a crucial role in the development of American folk music, bluegrass, Appalachian music and country music as we know it today. Country fans may remember seeing videos of June Carter Cash performing with the unique stringed instrument. Reese Witherspoon notably portrayed Carter Cash in the movie Walk The Line where she is shown performing "Ring of Fire" with the autoharp. Here's a history of the classic instrument that has made such a mark in current music.
The autoharp, a distinctive stringed instrument, comes from the zither family of musical instruments. The instrument is unique in that it features strings attached to dampers which mute all the strings other than the ones needed for the desired chord. The autoharp's origin goes all the way back to 1882 when a German immigrant living in Philadelphia named Charles F. Zimmermann received a patent for a string instrument that featured a similar mechanism to today's autoharp. Zimmerman's mock up, which he named the autoharp, differed from modern models in that it was a symmetrically shaped version. Around the same time, Karl August Gütter of Markneukirchen, Germany created an instrument called the Volkszither, which looked more similar to the current autoharp.
Soon, Zimmerman began producing autoharps using his own patent but Gütter's design, which has caused Zimmerman to be considered the inventor of the instrument. The name "autoharp" in stylized lettering was trademarked in 1926 by the Oscar Schmidt Inc. division of U.S. Music Corporation, but it has since been ruled that the general instrument term can be used without the stylized lettering.
The autoharp was a somewhat obscure instrument through much of the 20th century until it was popularized by music pioneer, Mother Maybelle Carter. The singer began playing the instrument in her youth, but she began regularly playing it around 1940. Not only did Maybelle Carter popularize the instrument, but she created a new way of playing it. Prior to her use, the autoharp was used mainly as a rhythm instrument, but she soon began using a plucking technique that allowed her to play melodies. Carter would also strum while fingerpicking, which was similar to her "guitar-scratch" guitar playing style.
Another way that Carter played the instrument included strumming higher up on the strings as opposed to down low near the chord bars. This also became a popular way to play the autoharp, and manufacturers even changed the design to accommodate for this technique. Carter would also press cord bars between notes, creating a slide effect. This technique is said to have inspired the piano playing of Floyd Cramer. Of course, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family as a whole were artists who influenced the landscape of folk, bluegrass and country music for years to come.
For many years, the only way to amplify an autoharp was using a microphone, but in the 1960s, a bar magnetic pickup was added to the instrument, creating the acoustic electric autoharp. Most autoharps feature 36 strings that run parallel from top to bottom in a "semi-chromatic" way and can be either chromatic or diatonic. Many Oscar Schmidt autoharps are available for sale today, including the OS15B, OS21C, OS21CE, OS11021AE, OS73CE and others. The dulcimer is also part of the zither family of instruments, and of course, the banjo, mandolin and ukulele are similar instruments.