Marc Gunn, Bard Autoharpist of Mage Network Marc Gunn, Bard Autoharpist of Mage Network


Mistaken Instrument Identity: Autoharp, Zither, Dulcimer, & Harpsichord

The autoharp is such an obscure folk instrument that it seems no one ever remembers what it is called. Since 1999 I've had people call it a dozen different things from Zither to Dulicmer, Harpsichord to Harp, or even a Hammer Dulcimer. But I'm sorry to say, it is just called the Autoharp or Chromaharp by some.

So to help clarify things a big, let me tell ye a little about the other instruments:


According to the Dictionary, the zither is a stringed instrument consisting of usually 30-40 strings stretched over a flat-sounding box. It is played horizontally with the fingertips, a plectrum, a bow, or sometimes by wind, as is the case with the Aeolian harp.

Traditionally, it is a folk instrument of Austria and the Bavarian Alps. The melody strings are stopped against frets on the finger board while being plucked with a plectrum.

Alternate names: zitera, cithara, kitthar, cither, zithern., or German version of the cittern.

Some also call the Pennsylvania German zither, the German concert zither, the guitar-zither, and some plucked psalteries zither's as well.

FolkRoots Fretted American DulcimerFretted Dulcimer

My dad used to play the fretted dulicmer. Fretted dulicmers are usually either hourglass-shaped or tear-drop shaped instruments with three or four strings and a fretted fingerboard. It is usually held flat across the knees while being plucked or strumed. It's a popular instrument for American folk music.

Alternate names: Appalachian dulicmer, mountain dulicmer.

The FolkRoots "California" dulcimer style is characterized by it's deep body (2 1/4") and longer scale length (29 1/4") giving it more volume than traditional dulcimers. Body dimensions are 36 1/2" long X 7 3/4" wide. Fingerboard width is 1 3/8". All solid woods, metal tuning gears and ebony nuts & bridges are standard.

Hammered Dulicmer Hammer Dulcimer

The Hammer Dulcimer is a trapezoidal zither instrument, with stretched metallic wires that are beaten with two light felt-tipped 'hammers'. It is an ancient musical instrument that may go as far as back as the times of the Old Testament, as it is named in Daniel 3:5, 15.

The Hammer Dulcimer pictured is an extended note range Hammered Dulcimer with concert sound. In addition to arched construction, the sound board is suspended away from internal frame members by a special bracing system. The result is a much bigger sound than expected for the physical size of this instrument.


A harpsichord is a keyboard instrument whose strings are plucked by means of quills or plectrums. It is of German origin and was made popular from the 16th to 18th centuries.


If you happen to mention an autoharp without having one visibile, many people will think you are talking about a harp. But try again.

Harps are ancient instruments usually upright triangular framed instruments with pillar or curved neck and a hollow back containing the sounding board. There are usually 46 or 47 strings of different lengths that are played by plucking with the fingers and occasionally come with pedals.

Similiar instruments: Lyre

The Erin Harp pictured above is a light weight, light medium string tensioned travel harp, perfect for strolling minstrels and the casual harpist. Its 22 strings are pitched from the "C" below middle "C" to the second "C" above. (3 octaves) giving it a good bass range and playing versatility for its size. The body, neck and pillar are made of solid Mahogany. The soundboard is Baltic Birch. Height is 36". Maximum width is 20". Soundboard width is 7.5". Weight is 7 pounds! Loveland sharping levers may be added optionally. Includes removable display feet.

Copyright 1999-2020 Marc Gunn - Celtic American Music and Podcaster - Talk to Me

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