Musical Instruments

Passing the bar exam


This post takes another look at the often blurry lines separating what are regarded as categorically distinct types of chord zithers. The focus this time is on variant forms of the autoharp that branched off before it had fully acquired its current identity. The baseline is an unmechanized zither with free strings only, tuned to a continuous scale that can be anything from single-key diatonic to fully chromatic.

It becomes an autoharp by the attachment of a battery of movable bars with damping pads — but there’s more to it. Adding that the pads on a given bar have to be arranged to mute the strings that don’t belonging to a specified chord still doesn’t cover everything. The lock bars now commonplace on two- and three-key diatonic autoharps mute strings that don’t belong to a specified scale, rather than chord. Systems that produce chords by pressing two bars simultaneously entail further variation, so it is also necessary to distinguish between one type of bar and another.

There are also instruments where the damping action is reversed, muting all strings until a bar is activated. Such arrangements are also scale-oriented, with a bar opening every instance of a given note, and typically present the player with a piano-type keyboard rather than one or more rows of buttons. However, both operate damper bars and the requisite additional qualifier is whether they cause strings to be muted — ‘additive action’ — or unmuted — ‘subtractive action.’

Instruments with additional devices that strike or pluck the strings, sometimes in elaborate hybrid configurations, are aggregated under the apt heading ‘gizmo’ harps. In terms of family relationships, they are cousins of the autoharp and don’t need to be weighed into any precise definition of it. However, plucking mechanisms appear side-by-side with damping mechanisms in early patents for instruments that are presented as autoharps and would otherwise be seen as such. The following closer look at them is intended to inform the discussion of how current notions of design specificity developed.

I’ll wade into it midstream with an illustration taken from a patent for a “Harp” applied for by John St. John on 11 December 1890 and issued as US Patent No. 463368 on 17 November 1891.

Patent detail

Only one detail in this image differs from the standard six-bar autoharp of the day. The buttons are at the lower ends of the bars rather than in the middle. (The design also includes a “top plate” that is cut away in the drawing.) This is also how they are positioned on the instrument for which Charles Zimmermann was issued his well-known US Patent No. 257808 on 9 May 1882, where the term “autoharp” is first attested. The drawing showing it from the front was included in the preceding post and here is the side view of an individual bar (with the bass side to the right).

Patent detail

This differs from what was to become the standard design by bringing the dampers into contact with the strings by moving parallel rather than perpendicular to the stringbed. In a side view in St. John’s patent (with the bass side to the left) the dampers are replaced by angled picks that set the strings into vibration. The patent text clarifies that the picks are arranged “for securing musical effects — such as the sounding of a chord, etc.”

Patent detail

Although of watershed musical consequence, the physical difference between laterally-acting dampers and picks is little more than the material that comes into contact with the strings and the shape of the bits of it that are affixed to the bar. St. John’s design also raises the button end of the bar on a spring to lift the picks clear of the strings when the spring at the other end returns the bar to its initial position. The diagonal orientation of the picks requires an escapement of this type but the utility of St. John’s implementation is restricted to the lower strings.

Theodor Meinhold described several types of bars with picks for “striking chords” in German Imperial Patent No. 33193 for a “Zither with a plucking device” (Zither mit Rupfvorrichtung), effective from 12 October 1884. It illustrates two full-width chord bar configurations. The first “permits a lateral displacement by mounting the bar against the springs labeled d,” which would also need to raise the angled picks above the strings when the bar returns to its initial position.

Patent detail

The second device is more robust and supports the bar by placing it in “a groove in a bridge E.”

Nothing is said about springs being a part of this nor can any be seen. The picks are vertical and can pluck the strings when the bar is moved in either direction. No escapement is required but the bar would need to be secured with enough friction to prevent it from sliding unintentionally and bringing the picks into contact with the strings. The bar could then simply be left in the position to which it had most recently been moved.

This design also appears in British Patent No. 1884-8888, where the autoharp is illustrated in the form that it has retained ever since. It was issued to Johan Matthäus Grob and Karl August Gütter for “Improvements in Stringed Musical Instruments” with the priority date 12 June 1884. The solid line under the strings in the patent drawing is a projection of the lower string support and occludes the free ends of the picks. I’ve edited it out of the middle of the illustration to show two plausible pick lengths.

The proximity of the dates of the Meinhold and Grob-Gütter patents makes it effectively impossible to determine who came up with the idea of pick bars first, and how it then propagated into a broader range of patented designs. Similar considerations beset the evolution of damping bars.

The laterally acting device in Zimmermann’s patent is often regarded as categorically different from the one that moves the damper bars perpendicularly toward the stringbed. The latter mechanism is the one seen on his exhibition and production autoharps (also discussed in the preceding post) and appears in the Grob-Gütter patent as well. Here is the frontal view as illustrated in that document, with damping bars that are pressed toward the instrument’s body.

Patent text

And here is the drawing of the model with pick bars that move parallel to it.

Patent drawing

Anyone familiar with Zimmermann’s patented damping bars would likely see the second drawing as an implementation of them rather than of a mechanism for active sound production. The UK patent ascribes no significance to whether the bars have a damping or plucking action. It claims the invention of two coequal devices “so that the instrument can be played without requiring the player to find the tones belonging to a harmonious chord.”

This makes an autoharp a chord zither in two literal senses and brings us back to the matter of chord bars not being the sole attribute requiring consideration when narrowing its definition to the current one. The list of relevant characteristics can easily be extended to include ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ mechanisms. However, the latter is subsumed by ‘additive damping,’ so ‘voiced’ would only need mentioning in a description of our autoharp’s pick-barred sibling.

Referring yet again to the preceding post, it introduced another fundamental aspect of this discussion. From their first appearance in the 1880s and well into the following decade, autoharps were made with two decidedly different profiles. One is trapezoidal and the other wing-shaped as in the two illustrations immediately above. (A trapezoidal design from 1893 is illustrated in another earlier post.) This suggests that the instrument’s outline can also be factored out of the basic definition and qualified adjectivally when necessary.

If active damping bars remain the primary definitive attribute of an autoharp and the instrument’s shape is a secondary characteristic, things fall comfortably into place. If both factors are equally determinative, a concise definition becomes even more elusive. Taking a less reductionist tack, the observed shapes of autoharps can be categorized independently of the configurations of their bars. Both attributes can then be taken into consideration when deciding whether a given specimen is what is now regarded as a true autoharp, or a closer or more distant variant.

Zither-like instruments with both trapezoidal and wing profiles were in manifoldly documented use for centuries before the flurry of late-19th-century innovative activity that resulted in anything resembling an autoharp. By definition, the barring schemes applied to the latter group are a more tightly focused area of study. But that doesn’t make it simple.

Given the date of this post, I suspect that the following side view of yet another autoharp bar might be taken as a concocted prank. However, it comes from US Patent No. 583162, issued to Charles Zimmermann fifteen years almost to the day after the one where he gave the autoharp its name. This time the patent is also headed “Autoharp” (the earlier one was for a “Harp”) and implements both voiced and damping functionality on a single bar.


This post’s featured image isn’t an April Fool’s Day joke either. It comes from an advertisement in the 21 October 1901 issue of the Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau and was selected to illustrate the even greater breadth of the term ‘bar’ when associated with chord zithers.

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Bill Bryant
Bill Bryant
1 April 2022 17:45

You left out moveable chord bars, to gain more chords. My patent relates to a moveable rack, that allows it to play every key possible.