Welcome to Whippoorwill Acoustics. We build and sell the finest autoharps and kalimbas, and provide resources for autoharp players. For me, building musical instruments combines elements of my education (physics), vocation (systems engineering, modeling and simulation), avocation (wood-working), and recreation (playing music). It is the implementation of sound principles of acoustics and structural mechanics using premium woods, careful joinery, quality craftsmanship, esthetic design, and the finest wood finishes. My goal is to build instruments that are beautiful to see, desirable to hold, wonderful to hear and enjoyable to play. What could be more fun?
“Every piece of wood is a work of art” Ken Ellis
Ken Ellis Luthier

Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharps feature:

High dynamic range. Dynamic range is the ratio of loudest to softest sound. A larger dynamic range lets you play more expressively. Even response from bass through treble. Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharps are notable for the enhanced bass relative to other autoharps. This gives them a nice even response so that notes can be easily played at about the same volume whether they are in the bass, treble, or midrange. Good note separation. Note separation gives listeners the ability to distinguish notes that are played simultaneously, an advantage for making fast runs sound cleaner and making the melody sound distinctly over background chords. Less dead string noise. When you accidentally pluck a string that is damped by the felt, you get a clack that detracts from the beautiful sound of the open strings. Our proprietary process of customizing bracing for every autoharp results in significantly less dead string noise than any other autoharp brand. Low-profile chord bar holders for a shorter reach around the autoharp. Light Weight. Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharps are noticeably lighter than most other luthier autoharps and significantly lighter than factory-built models. This reduces fatigue while playing and makes it easier to schlepp your gear to your jam. French polish finish. French polish is the traditional finish used on premium classical guitars. The French polish is best for bringing out the beauty of the wood, giving the grain a 3-D appearance. It is also a very thin finish, allowing an instrument to vibrate freely so that it produces the best sound. Ebony chord bar buttons large enough for my fat fingers. The polished ebony provides a tactile experience while playing, which complements the feel of the French-polish finish. Integrated headrest to prevent the back from being scratched, without relying on those rubber feet that always fall off and get lost. Quarter-sawn wood. The exclusive use of quarter-sawn wood for all elements that affect the sound produces the best sound due to its uniform response to vibrations. Quarter-sawn wood is also the most stable wood, making the resulting instruments easier to keep in tune while minimizing the possibility of developing cracks with humidity changes. Hand-carved bracing for the most beautiful sound and the shortest "playing in" time. Customized voicing. Using the results of acoustical testing, the positions of the braces and sound hole in every autoharp are customized for the actual acoustical properties of the individual pieces of wood used for the top and back. The acoustical properties of wood from the same plank can vary by as much as 30%, making it difficult to get a consistently wonderful sound from one instrument to the next. By customizing the bracing and soundhole for every piece of wood, every Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharp has a rich, full sound, with the chromatic autoharps having a sound that approaches that of the diatonics. Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharps also have all the features that musicians expect from a luthier-built instrument: • All solid-wood construction • Fine tuners for easy tuning • Low, fast action • Custom wood choices

About Our Name

Our name, Whippoorwill Acoustics , was inspired by The Whippoorwill Song and is a tribute to the Grande Dame of the autoharp, Patsy Stoneman, who passed away in the summer of 2015. It was one of Patsy's signature songs, which we enjoyed hearing each time we had the privilege of seeing her perform at the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering.

About Our Luthier

In the shop
Joining an autoharp back with a shooter board. A tight joint is key to keeping the seam from opening up.
You can never have too many clamps.
Ready for light sanding, wearing the protective gear recommended by lawyers from the sandpaper manufacturer.
In the acoustics lab
There is plenty of information out there about how to build a good musical instrument. However, nobody really understands why some instruments have exceptionally good sound while seemingly identical instruments are only average. Or maybe they do and are not telling. Our instruments are based on the work and the knowledge of my predecessors and colleagues, who have been more than generous with their advice, supplemented by results from on-going experiments in our acoustics lab.
The acoustical properties of every piece of wood are different, even for two pieces of the same size from the same tree. The top and back of each Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharp are tested in the acoustics lab so that the bracing and soundhole position can be tailored to get consistently good sound, dynamic range, and note separation.
Measuring the acoustical properties of an autoharp
After 34 years of being a research engineer and scientist for aerospace companies, Ken left a good job in the city, workin’ for the Man every night and day. As it turns out, those years combined with his music and woodworking hobbies were good preparation for building acoustic musical instruments, bringing a systems engineering and analysis approach to the problem of understanding the physics of acoustics. That and his irritating ability to continually ask “why does it do that” and “how does this work?”, questions that led to his regular column on the subject in the Autoharp Quarterly and to conclusions that affect the sound of our instruments.
Sprinkling salt on a vibrating top to visualize the vibration modes.
© Whippoorwill Acoustics LLC, 2015-2023