Chords at the Press of a Button

The autoharp (or autochord) is a strummed or plucked instrument that in terms of construction resembles a zither. It is characterized by the fact that chords are formed using buttons; when pressed, all strings not belonging to the chord are dampened. The strings of the autoharp are usually strummed with a pick or the hand, but can be plucked individually if necessary.


The Autoharp is known since the late 19th century. It is mainly played in American folk, country and bluegrass music. No one is certain who the actual inventor of the instrument was since there are two persons who built similar precursors. For some time the American Charles F. Zimmermann has been considered the inventor and the German Kar August Gütter. Zimmermann, in 1882, registered an instrument for a patent (1883-84), the body of which consisted of two wings, on which the strings had different tunings. This instrument can not be described as an autoharp in the narrower sense, despite its typical vertical damping mechanism.

A year later, in England, Gütter filed a patent for an instrument which he called a Volkszither. This corresponded essentially to today's autoharp. During a trip to his native Germany, Zimmermann became familiar with the Volkszither. Back in the US, he filed a patent for it there (1885). Subsequently, he successfully distributed the instrument under the name "autoharp", the name which has prevailed and is now a registered trademark.

Construciton and Features

The instrument consists of a flat wooden body. The strings are strung across the top. The sound body usually tapers upwards, since as the strings become longer and longer, the lower their pitch. At the lower end, the button mechanism is attached above the strings. With one hand, the chord buttons are pressed and thus a felt-covered bar dampens all strings that are not part of the desired chord. The undampened strings can then be strummed or plucked with the free hand similar to a guitar. This makes the autoharp an easy instrument to learn.

The assignment of the buttons is standardized and is as follows:

Eb    Bb    F    C    G    D    A

  F7   C7   G7   D7   A7   E7   B7

     Ab  Bb7  Cm  Gm  Dm  Am  Em

When playing, the instrument is placed upright on the lap or hung from the body. This is another way in which the autoharp differs from the zither. The range is two to four octaves and up to 36 strings.

Those who would like to purchase an autoharp will find a selection of insturments in our shop with 15 or 21 chords, as well as with or without pickup.