Inspired by Mark Brend’s, ‘Strange Sounds: Offbeat Instruments And Sonic Experiments In Pop,’ (a fantastic read!), this hopefully reoccurring series of blog posts will focus on strange and unusual instruments used by pop, psych, garage, and soul artists during the 60s (and, in rare cases, the early-70s). Most of the artists in Brend’s book profile bigger names and their hit records. I plan to stay true to my primary intention of this blog, and continue to showcase the underrated/under-appreciated/obscure. So let’s kick off this series with the autoharp!!
The autoharp is a fairly recent invention as far as musical instruments go. While there is actually some debate about the exact year the autoharp was invented, it was definitely sometime in the late 1800's. Some sources give Zimmermann credit for his 1871 patent of the idea for the autoharp. Other sources say that Gutter should get the credit for his 1883 patent and creation of the instrument (or rather, something somewhat similar to today's autoharps).
What is an autoharp?
Basically, an autoharp is a chorded zither. It is a stringed instrument that normally is made up of 36 strings (although, this number varies as there are several custom instruments out there of all kinds of specifications). A typical store bought autoharp will have 15 or 21 chords. Some of the older factory made autoharps may have only 12 chords. The exact chords used and the arrangements of the chords vary depending on the manufacturer. Many autoharpists change the chord bars around to an arrangement that best suits their needs. These chord bars dampen the strings that are not in the chord (using felt) so that you can easily play the desired chords on your autoharp. While the autoharp is not actually a true harp, it can certainly produce some beautiful harp-like sounds.
What can you do with an autoharp?
If you've ever even heard an autoharp before, chances are that you heard someone doing some simple strumming on one. The autoharp is great for strumming chords because you don't even need to know what notes are in each chord to be able to strum the chords. However, there is so much more you can do with an autoharp. The autoharp can function as a rhythm instrument in a band. You can also play melody on an autoharp, which is something that most people don't realize. Even though the autoharp is essentially a chord instrument, you have to remember that chords are in fact made up of individual notes. These individual notes can be picked out so that you can play beautiful melodies and even back yourself up with some chords.
How do you play the autoharp?
There are several different styles of playing the autoharp. This instrument does not have as many boundaries as say, a flute or violin. The autoharp can be played on a table or your lap. You can play the autoharp cross-handed or if you don't want to cross your hands, you don't have to. You can play the strings above or below the chord bars, your choice. If you don't want to play the autoharp laying flat, you can also hold it upright and play it Appalachian style, with or without a strap. You can stand up or sit down and play the autoharp. Some autoharpists use fingerpicks, others use flatpicks. Some people prefer to use their fingernails or even their bare fingertips to play the autoharp. If you look for an autoharp video on YouTube, you will see a huge variety in styles. Many people just play accompaniment, but there are still many different picking and strumming styles to choose from. Others play melody, but some use the chorded method while others use open noting. If you're tired of sticking to other people's rules on how to learn an instrument, the autoharp is for you. No rules, no boundaries, just fun and music.
Okay, so who's actually played the autoharp?
Autoharps have been used in the United States as bluegrass and folk instruments, perhaps most famously by Maybelle Carter and Sara Carter of the Carter Family. The instrument was then introduced to mainstream pop audiences in 1964 when the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian started experimenting with unusual sound combinations: “I played autoharp and knew it had never been used on a pop record. I'd been screwing around with the idea of taping a ukulele contact microphone to the back of the autoharp, and hearing its amplified sound was a real ‘Eureka’ moment. I realized instantly that this could be the heart of a new sound.”
Other bands like the Monkees and Rolling Stones followed their lead and featured the autoharp on several of their own recordings.
But what about psych... pop... SOUL? What? Yes to all! Download this mini comp (link below), and listen to these brilliant songs where the autoharp play a predominant, memorable or inspirational role:
01 The Electric Prunes – “Big City”
Previously recorded by San Jose’s The E-Types, “Big City” is one of the more popier tracks put out by this experimental psych band. The ethereal autoharp is played by James Lowe, who also sang lead and played harmonica and guitar.
02 Every Mother’s Son – “I Believe In You”
Monkees-style pop band who had a Top-Ten hit in the U.S. in ’67 with “Come On Down To My Boat.” But they unfortunately lost their notoriety after the release of their second album, and dissipated by ’69. “I Believe In You,” from their first album features gentle autoharp from vocalist and guitarist, Larry Larden.
03 The Merry-Go-Round – “Time Will Show The Wiser”
This pop band who was well known for producing singer/songwriter Emitt Rhodes, released only one album in ’67. “Live,” the first single from their album, became a huge hit in LA. “Time Will Show The Wiser” was the b-side, featuring overdubbed autoharp played by producer, Larry Marks, became somewhat well known too, as the Fairport Convention cut a version on their 1968 debut album.
04 The Mystery Trend – “House On The Hill”
One of the more overlooked bands of the San Francisco music scene. But rather than mindless jamming or trip-outs, they were more interested in putting out well-crafted pop songs, recalling Burt Bacharach or Brill Building. “House On The Hill,” one of their exceptionally strong pieces, features electric autoharp.
05 Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours – “Mirror Mirror”
They were one of the first groups in Britain to use an amplified autoharp (following the success of The Lovin' Spoonful in the States). They were signed to Decca Records in late 1965 and recorded "Mirror, Mirror", which became a No. 8 British hit in 1966. Autoharp player Samuel ("Pinkerton") Kemp was also a vocalist in the band.
06 The Golden Earrings – “Daddy Buy Me A Girl”
More known for their countless hits during the 70s ("Radar Love") and 80s ("Twilight Zone,” "When The Lady Smiles"), the electric autoharp kicks off “Daddy Buy Me A Girl,” their second hit single released in the summer of ’66.
07 The Avengers – “Everyone’s Gonna Wonder”
Considered by many to be the finest pop song to be recorded in the 1960s in New Zealand. This song comes off their first album, after hooking up with US hippie hitch-hiker Chris Malcolm who went on to write over half of the songs on this record, playing and singing his tunes to the band on his autoharp. The band went on to become one of the biggest local sensations of the late 60s, releasing seven 45s and three LPs in their two year period of fame.
08 The Folklords – “Jennifer Lee”
This Canadian band released one album in ’68 then disappeared into obscurity. “Jennifer Lee” is like most of the songs on the album: a nice piece of folk/sunshine pop with resonant autoharp and guitar.
09 Hearts And Flowers – “10,000 Sunsets”
This band was among a handful of '60s groups to turn out stellar major-label releases to little or no acclaim, and only faint memory among the few who heard them at the time. Their two Capitol albums of West Coast country-inflected folk-rock predated or paralleled many. Their eerie cover of Hoyt Axton’s, “10,000 Sunsets,” was one of the many Hearts And Flowers songs featuring singer and guitarist Dave Dawson's hypnotic use of the autoharp.
10 Michaelangelo – “Son (We've Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)”
Yet another band who only recorded one album. Sounding more like a record from the late '60s than the early '70s, its folk-rock-psychedelic blend was unusual for prominently featuring the autoharp of Angel Autoharp (as she's billed on the record), which sometimes functioned much as a lead guitar or organ would within a rock lineup.
11 The Charlatans – “We’re Not On The Same Trip”
The first on the scene of the 60s San Francisco psychedelic rock bands. With most of their songs written by Dan Hicks, his classic anthem of hippie relationship ennui, "We're Not On The Same Trip" (with band founder, George Hunter, on autoharp), should have had the success he envisioned for it. The Charlatans were not fated to get swept up in the massive SF Band Signings by major labels in the 60s.
12 The Lewis & Clarke Expedition – “Freedom Bird”
Originally from Dallas, Texas, Travis Lewis (aka Michael Martin Murphey) was a passing acquaintance of Mike Nesmith. The connection helped Murphey and songwriting partner, Boomer Clarke, place one of their compositions "Hangin' Round" with the Monkees, in the process bringing them to the attention of Colgems which quickly recognized their potential and signed them to a recording contract. Produced by Jack Keller and built around the talent of Lewis and Clarke (the line up rounded out by multi-instrumentalist (autoharp included) Ken Bloom, guitarist John London and drummer Johnny Raines) actually debuted with an instantly obscure 1966 single for the small Chartmaster label. While parallels to The Monkees were apparent, there were also some major difference; notably the fact the band were all capable musicians and namesakes Lewis and Clarke were responsible for the majority of material. That said, their debut was easily as good as anything in The Monkees catalogue. Unfortunately, with Colgems devoting most of his energy to marketing The Monkees, neither the band nor the LP had much in the way of promotional support. Needless to say, it failed to chart.
13 George Edwards – “Never Mind, I'm Freezing”
Ex-folk troubadour who cut a solo 45 for Dunwich Records. Directly after recording “Never Mind, I’m Freezing, “he sang backup on the Shadows Of Knight album, ‘Gloria.’ He continued to work at Dunwich as an in-house session vocalist before he joined H.P. Lovecraft in February 1967.
14 The M.H. Royals – “She's Gone Forever”
Chicago area band who recorded two fine garage 45’s. Any more info would be greatly appreciated.
15 The Dutch Masters – “You're Nearby Me”
An experimentally daring group with a proto-punk attitude. They started off as backing vocalists for My Records label-owner, Earl Denton. They continued on their own and recorded two solid 45’s.
16 Diamond Joe – “Fair Play”
The inspiration for this blog series, “Fair Play” is one of the great lost soul songs of the 60’s. Never discovered, not even comped, it probably never even had any airplay outside of New Orleans. With brilliant arrangements by Allen Toussaint and heart-wrenching vocals by Diamond Joe, this is probably the only soul/R&B record to feature autoharp (?) A masterpiece !!
Download 'Unconventional Instruments Of The 60s: The Autoharp' - HERE