An Autoharp is a stringed musical instrument with a series of bars attached, that when pressed, push down certain strings, resulting in a desired chord. There are usually between 12 and 21 chord bars or buttons, and 36 to 47 strings. Autoharps, also sometimes known as stringed zithers, are strung in either diatonic or chromatic scales.

Or, there is the definition that I ran with while I obsessively scanned Craigslist, determined to purchase one within the week because I was just so sure that my entire life experience would be somehow lessened without an Autoharp of my own: it’s that kind of hillbilly blue-grassy thing that’s a bit like a guitar but you don’t have to figure out the chords and press down on the hard strings.

Yeah. That’s what I knew about them. I actually, at one point, believed it was called a Harpsichord. Imagine my surprise when I found that Harpsichords are actually those little piano-like instruments that Baroque musicians during the Renaissance played in parlours after dinner.

I can only hope that I didn’t casually insert my intentions to learn how to play a Harpsichord into too many conversations. “I’ve never really mastered the guitar at all, but I’d like to be able to bring an instrument to a party or something and maybe sing a few tunes with everyone. So I’m considering taking up the Harpsichord”. Uh huh. Anyone in the know would have thought I was losing it – imagining me packing up my Harpsichord in the moving truck that I generally travel to social events in, lugging it, tied to my back with furniture moving straps into a party, just nonchalantly dropping it in a corner, just in case someone mentioned it and cajoled me into ripping off a few concertos.

As a bluegrass music fan, I did know a tiny bit about the Autoharp – I mean, I knew I liked the sound, I liked the history of it, I knew it was supposed to be relatively easy to play as a rhythm instrument, and I knew that I’m just enough of a hipster that this somewhat obscure instrument appealed to my sensibilities.

I have tried to play the guitar. There is a very solid argument that I did not try hard enough. But I will say, in my defence, that I didn’t just pick it up and put it away after one go. I actually took some lessons, I actually practised, I actually even wrote a couple of simple songs while actually playing guitar. I just never got it. My son, who can play quite well, has several lectures prepared on the topic of how that “not getting it” excuse is BS. I have heard, I believe, all of them. Practice, muscle memory, practice, your fingers will toughen up, practice, practice, practice… that seems to be the gist. Fair enough. But sucking at something so bad after giving it what feels like a real effort is tiresome and defeating and I guess I just don’t have what it takes to push through. I admit it. I am a guitar giver-upper.

My real interest in music is the singing part, and the writing part. Not that I want to, or ever wanted to be a real performer or anything, but I can carry a tune, and it’s fun, and I write songs sometimes, and I grew up around people sitting around at parties and singing, and I love the sound of that. I love harmonies – there is a resonance in the air between voices singing in harmony that you can feel in your chest, and it’s awesome to be part of that.

I still write songs, but I was really into it for a while a few years ago. I wrote with a good friend of mine that was a talented, fantastic guitar player. He was one of those guys that could pick out any tune, and just invent the perfect piece of music as he was going. I wrote most of the lyrics and the simple melodies, then he’d fill everything in and make it a real song. We played together at a few writer’s circle events here and there. It was fun. We even recorded a demo of four of our songs in a local studio. I took that demo to Nashville Tennessee.

My best friend and I took a month off from our lives and went to Nashville. I just wanted to get a feel for the place and the business of selling songs. We had an adventure, that’s for sure. It was great. We met a lot of musicians and songwriters, and characters and weirdos. Nashville is drenched with music history of course, and there are still a lot of places and people there that honour that, despite the shiny new glitz of the industry. I got asked in by some publishers – which is apparently no small feat, and a couple of them really liked the demo, told me they’d keep it on hand, and to keep submitting stuff. They also told me that the business had changed so much over the last decade or so that they just didn’t shop songs around like they used to, and getting known as a writer was harder than ever before.

That was all fine. I had a little boy at home that I was anxious to get back to, and I knew it wasn’t my destiny to move to Nashville. But I learned a lot, met some very interesting people, and wound up with a ton of good stories to tell. I walked down the alley behind the Ryman Theatre with a guitar in my hand. I stood in that alley like Patsy Cline had, like Johnny Cash, like Hank Williams, like a thousand people before me, just wondering, what if. Pretty cool.

But it would have been cooler if I could have played that guitar worth a lick. Hence the Autoharp.

I bought an Autoharp yesterday. Let it suffice to say that today I am not exactly making music. Tuning 36 strings is a bit of a workout, and I’m not so sure that my brand new electric tuner is not a dud: the needle indicates that the string is in tune, but the overall sound of the thing is more Harp Seal than harp right now.

What have I done?

It’s a bit awkward to hold. I assume that will change. I hope it will. I bought three finger picks, not taking the moment to realize that a thumb pick is an entirely different thing. Duh. I just want to strum chords right now, but it seems that I first have to take a semester or two of music theory after all. My guitar lessons and my piano lessons have vanished from my brain. Scales? What? Are you kidding me? My mental image of me pulling off some folksy rendition of Wildwood Flower, curled up on the porch with my feet bare, is kind of fading into me sitting at the computer and placing my own Craigslist ad.

My son, knowing that I would not be deterred from buying this thing with anything as logical as reason, made a bet with me. He said if I couldn’t play two songs with some reasonable clarity in one year, I would owe him a hundred bucks.

Hmmm… that’s like, less than three cents a day, right?

Okay. I’m going to make an effort here. I really do like the sound and the whole idea of being able to play this pretty little thing. I can do this. I will resist the urge to smash the tuner into little shards of plastic by striking it repeatedly with the tuning wrench. I will stop creating mathematical equations in my head that explain how many hours I will have to work next week just to replace the money I paid for it. And I will learn to love it. It will be the best decision I ever, ever made.

Or at least up there in the list of the best decisions I ever made. You know, somewhere in the top ten thousand for sure.

As someone in Nashville once told me: just keep pickin’ little girl, just keep pickin’.

Okay. I will.


3 thoughts on “Autoharp

  1. After not playing the saxophone for years, I rented one and quickly discovered I couldn’t remember a note! My solution? I googled “how to play the saxophone” I am sure there is lots of info for your new instrument too! Have fun!

  2. Whoa! I’ve wanted to play the Autoharp for years! Cannot believe that you do too!!! I borrowed one for awhile and hated to give it back. Just never found one. You and I need to talk…lol. I love the Autoharp!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s