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Jody Kruskal

Concertina Vs Autoharp

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What’s the difference between an autoharp and a concertina?

 

I know it sounds like a joke... but I’m serious. Of course the differences between these two are dramatic, yet I’m struck by their similarities. I’ve been playing Anglo concertina for 30 years or more and during most of that time I’ve also owned a decent 21 key chromatic Oscar Schmitt B autoharp... dabbling with the harp off and on.

 

Recently, I’ve been devoting hours in learning to actually play the little stringed monster, and my new love is the harp. My friend Drew Smith actually knows the instrument well and he’s been showing me a thing or two. As I apply myself to this new instrument, I’m struck with how much like the Anglo concertina it is. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much.

 

Both have buttons and some have button bushings.

 

Both have a dedicated niche following well outside of mainstream music.

 

Both have a thriving internet community.

 

Both have numerous festivals where players come to learn and mingle.

 

Both are manmade contraptions that require an odd approach to melody and harmony that is distant from natural instruments like the violin or flute or theremin where it is much clearer how the physics of pitch is accomplished.

 

Both entwine melody and harmony in a unique and limiting way that makes you consider how to get both working at the same time, like a puzzle with a solution or two or three.

 

Both are acoustic music machines with an eccentric mechanism developed in the mid to late 1800s.

 

Both encourage and even demand instrument maintenance by the players, opening them up for tweaking the mechanism with the resultant danger of losing a little screw in the carpet. With the concertina it’s the reeds that need care, and with the autoharp it’s the felts.

 

Both are deceptively simple and can be played with good results at first go, but require deep study to get beyond those first successful notes.

 

Both have a bewildering variety of systems where nothing is standard. For concertinas there are English, several duet systems and Anglo with both Wheatstone and Jefferies varieties. For autoharps there are from 3 to 21 button instruments, factory setups that differ from the Bowers setup or the triangle setup or custom setups that add color chords or diminished and 6 chords. Then there are chromatic vs diatonic harps that are both quite different from each other.

 

What a wonderful world! I am certainly enjoying discovering it.

Edited by Jody Kruskal

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What’s the difference between an autoharp and a concertina?

 

 

 

What a wonderful world! I am certainly enjoying discovering it.

 

I remember music teachers giving kids autoharps in grammar school 60 years ago, and thinking it was the ultimately dorky instrument.

 

And then seeing Bryan Bowers for the first time and thinking 'whoa, that's pretty amazing.'

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Agreed, Jody. I don't play my autoharp (an 18-bar with relatively standard setup) all that much but you're absolutely right about the combination of melody and harmony feeling similar to the anglo.

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Concertina and autoharp also make a fine duet pairing. However, the trio I used to play with could really draw a crowd.

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The Hohner Harmonetta is also close in spirit to the autoharp. One difference: on the Harmonetta pressing a button allows notes to sound, the more buttons one presses the more notes play; on the autoharp, the more levers on presses the fewer the strings that play.

 

Chattanooga Boogie on the harmonetta: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAMr3s5GB6s

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What’s the difference between an autoharp and a concertina?

 

I know it sounds like a joke... but I’m serious. Of course the differences between these two are dramatic, yet I’m struck by their similarities. I’ve been playing Anglo concertina for 30 years or more and during most of that time I’ve also owned a decent 21 key chromatic Oscar Schmitt B autoharp... dabbling with the harp off and on.

 

Recently, I’ve been devoting hours in learning to actually play the little stringed monster, and my new love is the harp. My friend Drew Smith actually knows the instrument well and he’s been showing me a thing or two. As I apply myself to this new instrument, I’m struck with how much like the Anglo concertina it is. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much.

 

Both have buttons and some have button bushings.

 

Both have a dedicated niche following well outside of mainstream music.

 

Both have a thriving internet community.

 

Both have numerous festivals where players come to learn and mingle.

 

Both are manmade contraptions that require an odd approach to melody and harmony that is distant from natural instruments like the violin or flute or theremin where it is much clearer how the physics of pitch is accomplished.

 

Both entwine melody and harmony in a unique and limiting way that makes you consider how to get both working at the same time, like a puzzle with a solution or two or three.

 

Both are acoustic music machines with an eccentric mechanism developed in the mid to late 1800s.

 

Both encourage and even demand instrument maintenance by the players, opening them up for tweaking the mechanism with the resultant danger of losing a little screw in the carpet. With the concertina it’s the reeds that need care, and with the autoharp it’s the felts.

 

Both are deceptively simple and can be played with good results at first go, but require deep study to get beyond those first successful notes.

 

Both have a bewildering variety of systems where nothing is standard. For concertinas there are English, several duet systems and Anglo with both Wheatstone and Jefferies varieties. For autoharps there are from 3 to 21 button instruments, factory setups that differ from the Bowers setup or the triangle setup or custom setups that add color chords or diminished and 6 chords. Then there are chromatic vs diatonic harps that are both quite different from each other.

 

What a wonderful world! I am certainly enjoying discovering it.

Well, Jody, perhaps the reason for the similarity is that they both come from the same inventor....at least in part. Carl F. Zimmerman (1817-1898) was one of the early player-champions, and later, developers of the Uhlig German concertina (later to morph into the Anglo) in Germany. He built two and three row concertinas and may have been the first of the German concertina builders to adopt the six sided shape borrowed from English concertina builders (see my Anglo-German Concertina, A Social History, vol 1 pp 9-19). He also invented the Carlsfelder keyboard system for the concertina. He then moved to the US, built concertinas for a time, and then invented an early version of (and coined the term) "autoharp." See this link for that part of the story http://www.pickaway.press/fz/ahhistory.html. Zimmerman appears to have first patented the instrument and term in 1882, but a German inventor built the first one that more closely resembles that played today. Zimmerman was the first to build and mass market the improved version in the US, however.

 

So it is no coincidence that they have so many similarities! Raise a glass to old Carl while (or maybe better before) you play them both.

 

Dan

Edited by Dan Worrall

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My glass is raised. Bravo Carl Zimmerman.

 

As soon as I finish writing this, it's back to work editing my new recording project, a CD of train songs that will feature the autoharp among the other instruments (concertina, guitar, banjo, mandolin etc...) and a first for me, an autoharp vocal solo number.

 

Another thing that makes the autoharp and the concertina brothers, is their capacity to self accompany. Melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, bass and treble all available at once in a handy little package. I'm lovin' it!

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Jody,

Congratulations on your new passion!

 

The autoharp was one of the first instruments I laid hands on as a child, because my mother accompanied herself on one when she had to sing at a venue with no piano. She had an old German diatonic in G, which she must have bought in the early 1930s, at a time when the Third Reich hadn't yet cut Germany off from international commerce. Most of the old 'harps offered on Ebay from the British Isles or Australia seem to be German; the American models didn't reach us (in Ireland) in the Zimmerman era. In the post-war period, German production was dormant, and the girls I knew who were at Teachers' Training College in Belfast had black Oscar Schmidt A-model 'harps from across the pond.

 

Some years ago, I decided to use the autoharp I had now inherited, and discovered the "thriving internet community" you refer to. I have corresponded with your friend Drew Smith and others, who taught me a lot. I now play a 21-bar chromatic with the button layout recommended by a community member (Lyman Taylor). I even have one pupil to my tally!

 

Accompaniment is definitely the strong suit of the autoharp - I can get a decent arrangement worked out very quickly on it. It teaches you to think in harmonies, and the rhythmic and melodic elements are pretty intuiitive. With the chord names on the buttons, I can easily transfer an arrangement to any other chording instrument.

 

You're right about the similarities to the Anglo. However, there is one big difference: If you think a different button arrangement might be nice to have, you don't have to find a technician who can rearrange or retune your reeds - you just shift your chord bars around, or strip the felts from a seldom-used chord-bar, and cut new ones with the desired chord. And if it doesn't work for you, you just change them back.

 

Another difference, of course, is that the autoharp does go out of tune, more or less quickly, depending on the weather! You can tune a chromatic by ear, but what they did with chromatics in the days before electronic tuners, I don't know. (Of course, pianos were more widespread in those days, so you could use them for reference.)

 

I find the autoharp both useful and fun. I can accompany almost any tune that I can sing on it more or less ad hoc. It's great for American old-time jams, and meanwhile I've got the knack of melody playing. With your musicality, I would imagine you should be doing autoharp solos pretty soon!

 

Hoping to hear more about your 'harping exploits!

 

Cheers,

John

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... My friend Drew Smith actually knows the instrument well and he’s been showing me a thing or two.

 

 

... I have corresponded with your friend Drew Smith and others, who taught me a lot.

 

 

Reading John’s post, I just realized I’ve met Drew Smith, at a folk music weekend at Solway House some time in the 1980s. He was the first person I ever heard play the autoharp “melodic” style, with finger picks rather than a flat pick. Probably also the first time I saw someone play it up against the chest rather than across the lap.

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Yes, Drew has been around the block a few times and he's still going strong. He's a deep well of autoharp knowledge and I'm honored to be working with him.

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I would imagine you should be doing autoharp solos pretty soon!

 

Hoping to hear more about your 'harping exploits!

 

Cheers,

John

 

I've just completed recording my first solo song on the the autoharp. I chose the Freight Train Blues and it sounds real good. More train songs on the way including lots of concertina. My new CD is seeing the light of day at the end of a long tunnel. The current working tile is "Train On the Island".

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