Ken Ellis Luthier


Whippoorwill Acoustics is proud to sponsor the 2018 International Autoharp Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival. We are donating this beautiful 15-chord bar Curly Cherry prize autoharp. 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. Unlike some autoharps, Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharps sound great in all keys. If you see one here that you want, but is in the wrong key for you, we will convert it to the key that you want. We can even convert a chromatic autoharp to diatonic. In my acoustical experiments, I 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). My personal preference is for the balanced voicing, so that is what I usually build. However, I would be happy to build you an autoharp with either voicing. Each Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharp comes with tuning wrenches, a really nice gig bag, a string schedule, and instructions for taking care of your autoharp. Customizing the chords and chord bar layout to your specific desires is included in the purchase price. Browse our in-stock chromatic and diatonic autoharps below. A magnetic pickup can be added to any of these autoharps. If you don’t see exactly what you want there, see the section about ordering your own custom-built  autoharp.

Chromatic Autoharps

We currently have two chromatic autoharps in stock. The Heartland - a more affordable autoharp from Whippoorwill Acoustics! This all solid wood autoharp has a Cherry top and an Adirondack spruce back. It has a bright, sweet sound and a loud voice. Chord bars are Sugar Maple with polished Osage Orange buttons and have the Whippoorwill Acoustics low profile and easy action. This one is currently set up as a chromatic with the string schedule optimized for the keys of G, D, and A, but it could easily be set up as a two-key diatonic. Don't let the light weight and low price of this autoharp fool you. It is built with the same quality and attention to detail as our premium autoharps. The Heartland Autoharp features a more durable polyurethane finish so you don't have to worry about taking it to the outdoor jam.

Kauri top, Torrified Sitka Spruce back,  Red Heart chord bars and trim 

This is a left-handed autoharp, suitable for lap-style players who find that playing with crossed hands is too awkward. The Kauri used for the top comes from a tree trunk found in prehistoric peat bogs in New Zealand. It is at least 50,000 years old according to radio-carbon dating. It's old growth wood, but also the ultimate in responsible wood harvesting! Quartersawn kauri has a beautiful yellow sparkle with reddish rays. It almost looks like there is gold dust embedded in the wood. Kauri is no longer being imported into the US, so I don't know how many more of these I will be able to make. This might be the only Kauri left-handed autoharp ever. The back is torrified Sitka Spruce. Torrification is a process that bakes the wood in a vacuum, driving off volatile organic compounds that would normally take decades to evaporate and crystallizing the remaining resins in the wood. This makes the wood lighter, stiffer, and resistant to absorbing moisture. It is intended to speed up the aging process, so that the wood sounds as if it has aged for years. So it makes a good match to the naturally aged Kauri top. The bracing wood was repurposed from a broken-down piano that was built in 1913. It has been optimized to produce a good balance from bass through treble. Initial impressions are that Kauri has a very clear sound, bright and sweet like cherry but with more bass. Also, the midrange and treble have a fullness that Cherry lacks.

Curly Koa top, Adirondack Spruce back, Wenge trim

The Koa top gives this autoharp a sound that is very similar to cherry in brightness and bass-treble balance. Unlike cherry, however, the koa adds harmonic overtones that give this autoharp a full, luscious sound. Curly Redwood top, Wenge back and trim  This autoharp features a beautiful Curly Redwood top, and Wenge back and trim. Wenge is also known as African Rosewood. Although it is not a true rosewood, several notable luthiers (including Ervin Somogyi and Dana Bourgeois) say that wenge does sound like rosewood. The bracing on this instrument has been optimized for bass- treble balance, and it does indeed have a very even volume across the string bed. Click on the thumbnails below for a better look at this beauty.                          

Diatonic Autoharps

We currently have two diatonic autoharps in stock. 18 bar Arts & Crafts Style White Oak Top, Adirondack Spruce back, and Ebony trim The Whippoorwill Acoustics Arts & Crafts style autoharp is made from white oak that grew on an estate in Scotland for 200 years. The cool climate there results in slow growth that translates into wonderful acoustical properties for the wood. Response is very even from bass through treble. With a bass similar to that of cherry and a midrange and treble that projects even better, this autoharp just really sings out. Read what one of our customers says about the sound of his Arts & Crafts autoharp. The chord bars are made from torrified white oak. Torrification heats the wood in a vacuum, driving off volatile organics in the wood and making them lighter and very stable with respect to changes in humidity. It also gives them the dark brown color. Chord bar holders are white Ebony, in keeping with the Arts & Crafts style.


Buy this Autoharp at our Etsy Shop

Listen to an Arts & Crafts autoharp on our YouTube channel

Torrified White Oak top, Adirondack Spruce back, Curly Maple trim 

The White Oak top on this autoharp has been torrified, a process that gives it a dark brown color and makes it very stiff, light weight, and resistant to moisture. The ray flakes in this quarter-sawn White Oak almost  look like they are floating above an iridescent background. The bracing has been optimized to produce a good balance from bass through treble. An Adirondack Spruce back adds harmonic overtones for a big, full sound. This autoharp has a dramatic bass, a very clear sound, and, like our other oak autoharps, really sings! And it is loud. This might be the loudest autoharp I have ever built, which gives it a big dynamic range. If you are used to pounding on your autoharp to get much volume, you will want to use a gentle touch on this one. Its big dynamic range lets you play more expressively with less effort.

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, right- or left-handed, and any keys you desire. See our Gallery for pictures of autoharps we have already sold. 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: Koa, Mahogany, Sapele, Sycamore, White Oak from a 200 year-old tree from Scotland, Wenge, Padouk, Goncalo Alves and Curly Redwood. Other 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. With a custom build you also have the option of having either a magnetic pickup or a mono or stereo piezo-electric pickup installed. Each of these types of pickup has pros and cons. Read my Autoharp Quarterly article for more information. 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!  
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