Ken Ellis Luthier

Autoharps

Autoharps come in two varieties, depending on the scale to which the strings are tuned: chromatic and diatonic. Chromatic autoharp strings are tuned to the 12-note chromatic scale (think of all the black and white keys on the piano), often have 21 chord bars and typically can play in as many as seven keys. Diatonic autoharps only play in a limited number of related keys, usually three or less, and have strings tuned to the seven, eight, or nine notes found in the major scales of those keys (think only the white keys of the piano, or white keys plus one or two black keys). Limiting the number of notes allows many of the notes in each scale to be doubled, giving a diatonic autoharp a louder and fuller sound than a chromatic autoharp. In my acoustical experiments, we have discovered that it is possible to voice the autoharp in two different ways by carefully positioning the braces and sound hole. The first voicing gives a very bright voice to the autoharp and produces excellant note separation. The second voicing gives a better balance of bass to treble notes, and minimizes the dead string noise (the clack that you get when accidently plucking a string that is damped by the felt). The voicings of the autoharps are listed in the descriptions below. Each Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharp comes with tuning wrenches, a really nice gig bag, a string schedule, and instructions for taking care of your autoharp. Any autoharp purchased directly from us can be customized with your desired chord set and chord bar layout at no extra charge. If you purchase an autoharp at a retail store and wish to have the chord bars customized, call us at (260) 249-5561 and we will be happy to make arrangements to do so. Browse our in-stock chromatic and diatonic autoharps below. If you don’t see exactly what you want there, you can skip to the section about ordering your own custom-built autoharp.

Chromatic Autoharps

We currently have two chromatic autoharps in stock.

Black Walnut top, Torrified Sitka Spruce back, Birdseye Maple trim

Classic Walnut Autoharp sound, but more of it! Extra bass, smooth and silky midrange and treble come from voicing the top and back for balanced bass and treble. To my ear, it sounds better than other autoharps that have been played-in for years, and has a fullness of sound approaching that of some diatonic autoharps. This autoharp features a torrified Sitka spruce back. Using torrified wood for guitar tops has been a breakthrough technology for improving the sound of new guitars. So I thought I would try it out on an autoharp and see how it works. Torrified wood has been cooked at a low temperature in a vacuum chamber in order to cause resins and pitch that are in the wood to  evaporate much more quickly than untreated wood. It basically speeds up the effects of aging the wood for decades. This produces a lighter and stiffer wood that has the wonderful sound of having been played for a long time. This autoharp also features a beautiful "Sunrise Chord Bar" set, cut from a piece of Black Walnut that varied from almost black on one side to blonde on the other.

Sycamore top, Adirondack Spruce back, Black Walnut trim 

Sycamore (sometimes called Lacewood) is seldom used in musical instruments, so you might wonder what kind of sound it has. This autoharp has a nice bright sound, something between cherry and maple but more similar to cherry than maple. The sound is crisp and has a lot of punch. The bracing in this autoharp has been optimized to produce a good balance from bass through treble. Like all Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharps, this one has a loud voice that projects well.  You won't have any trouble hearing yourself in a jam.
© Whippoorwill Acoustics LLC, 2015-2016

Custom-Built Autoharps

We would be happy to build an autoharp just for you, chromatic or diatonic, with up to 21 chord bars / lock bars, and any keys you desire. We use only the finest instrument woods and find the following wood combinations from our current inventory of wood species to be particularly attractive. (Click here to see pictures of the different woods.) •    Air-dried Cherry top with Macassar ebony trim •    Curly Cherry top with Macassar ebony trim •    Curly Maple top with black walnut trim •    Black Walnut top with birds-eye maple trim Each of these wood species has its own way of coloring the sound of the autoharp. A discussion of general trends may be found here. In addition to the species listed above, we currently have the following species in stock: Sycamore, Scottish White Oak from a 200 year-old tree, Wenge, Padouk and Curly Redwood. Here are some pictures of an Arts & Crafts style autoharp from the 200 year-old oak. This one sold before I could get it up on the website, but I would be happy to build another just for you! Other, more exotic, wood species may be available in limited quantities. If you have a preference for a wood species not listed here, give us a call at (260) 249-5561. Like many acoustic instruments, autoharps have a softwood plate and a hardwood plate. Unlike guitars, autoharps have a front/back symmetry that permits the plates to be swapped. The backs of our autoharps are generally spruce, a softwood, while the tops are usually hardwood. We do this for two reasons.  1.    Musicians have found that Autoharps with a spruce back tend to have more even sound quality across the different octaves than those with a spruce top.  2.    Why would you want to hide the beautiful hardwood by putting it on the back of the autoharp? Spruce is beautiful in its own way, but it is much more subtle than that of the hardwoods. Call us today at (260) 249-5561 to order your beautiful and unique custom autoharp!

Diatonic Autoharps

We currently have one diatonic autoharp in stock.

Cherry top, Adirondack Spruce back, Macassar Ebony trim 

This autoharp features a Cherry top, Adirondack Spruce back, and Macassar Ebony trim. It plays in the keys of F and C. The bracing on this instrument has been optimized for brightness, sustain and note separation. There is definitely something special about the timbre of this autoharp. And so much sound erupts out of this ‘harp that I should have named it “Vesuvius”. This is the autoharp featured in Jo Ann Smith’s video that explains lock bars. Click on the thumbnails below for a better look at this beauty.