Ken Ellis Luthier


Whippoorwill Acoustics is proud to have sponsored the 2019 International Autoharp Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival. Congratulations to Doug Pratt on winning this year’s championship and to Steve Luper and Ivan Stiles for coming in second and third. And thank you Doug for choosing the Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharp for your prize! Autoharps come in two varieties, depending on the scale to which the strings are tuned: chromatic and diatonic. Chromatic autoharp strings are tuned to the 12-note chromatic scale (think of all the black and white keys on the piano), often have 21 chord bars and typically can play in as many as seven keys. Diatonic autoharps only play in a limited number of related keys, usually three or less, and have strings tuned to the seven, eight, or nine notes found in the major scales of those keys (think only the white keys of the piano, or white keys plus one or two black keys). Limiting the number of notes allows many of the notes in each scale to be doubled, giving a diatonic autoharp a louder and fuller sound than a chromatic autoharp. In my acoustical experiments, I have discovered that it is possible to voice the autoharp in two different ways by carefully positioning the braces and sound hole. The first voicing gives a very bright voice to the autoharp and produces excellant note separation. The second voicing gives a better balance of bass to treble notes, and minimizes the dead string noise (the clack that you get when accidently plucking a string that is damped by the felt). My personal preference is for the balanced voicing, so that is what I usually build. However, I would be happy to build you an autoharp with either voicing. Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharps sound great in all keys, so there is no need to do anything during construction to “tune” the body to a certain note or key. Like many acoustic instruments, autoharps have a softwood plate and a hardwood plate. Unlike guitars, autoharps have a front/back symmetry that permits the plates to be swapped. The backs of our autoharps are generally spruce, a softwood, while the tops are usually hardwood. We do this for two reasons.  1.    Musicians have found that Autoharps with a spruce back tend to have more even sound quality across the different octaves than those with a spruce top.  2.    Why would you want to hide the beautiful hardwood by putting it on the back of the autoharp? Spruce is beautiful in its own way, but it is much more subtle than that of the hardwoods. Each Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharp comes with tuning wrenches, a really nice gig bag, a string schedule, and instructions for taking care of your autoharp. Customizing the chords and chord bar layout to your specific desires is included in the purchase price. A magnetic pickup can be added to any autoharp in stock for an extra charge. If you don’t see exactly what you want there, see the section about ordering your own custom-built autoharp.
We offer two different autoharp models: the Whippoorwill and the Heartland. The Whippoorwill is our flagship model and features premium top woods, up to 21 chord bars, a French polish finish and other top-end cosmetic features. All Whippoorwill autoharps undergo testing in our acoustics lab in order to optimize bracing and sound hole placement during construction. The Heartland is a more affordable autoharp with a Cherry top, 15 chord bars, and a musical instrument grade polyurethane finish. While Heartlands do not undergo acoustical testing, the Heartland bracing geometry was developed from acoustical tests on the Whippoorwill autoharps, giving the Heartland a similar voice.

The Whippoorwill Autoharp

We currently have two Whippoorwill autoharps in stock. Check our YouTube Channel to hear some Whippoorwill autoharps. A20057 has a Curly Hickory top. The trim is Black Palm and the back is the best piece of bear claw Adirondack Spruce I have seen. The back has unusual dark streaks that remind me of smoke, so I call this the Smoked Hickory autoharp :). The chord bars and holders are also Hickory, which came from the tree that dominated the backyard of the house that I grew up in (it came down in an ice storm a couple of years ago). The sound is bright like Cherry with more treble than bass, but it has an enhanced midrange (like Mahogany and Sapele) and overtones that Cherry and Mahogany don't have. If I were to compare it to Mahogany vs. Rosewood guitars, I would say that it has the balance of Mahogany (with a little less bass), and the overtones of Rosewood. A20054 has a Sugar Maple back and Curly Redwood top. Maple has a bright, chimey sound when played in. Pairing it with the Curly Redwood tones down the brightness a bit and give a more balanced sound. Both of these woods produce a sound with a strong fundamental and minimal harmonic complexity for excellant note separation. The trim is a beautiful curly Black Walnut. Chord bars and holders are also Walnut. If you would like to own either of these beauties, email or call Ken (260-249-5561) for a consultation to get it set up to match your playing needs.

The HEARTLAnD Autoharp

A more affordable autoharp from Whippoorwill Acoustics! Designed to Jo Ann Smith’s specifications, this all solid wood autoharp has a Cherry top (Jo Ann’s favorite tone wood) and a Spruce back. It has a bright, sweet sound and a loud voice. The Heartland Autoharp features 15 Maple chord bars with polished Osage Orange buttons, fine tuners, and a durable satin finish so you don't have to worry about taking it to the outdoor jam. Lock bars and a magnetic pickup can be added for an extra charge. Don't let the light weight and low price of this autoharp fool you. It is built with the same quality and attention to detail as our premium autoharps. The label in each Heartland is personally signed by Jo Ann, and the purchase price includes a free setup consultation with Jo Ann. To order your own Heartland, click here to contact Jo Ann and set up your personal consultation today. Here is a video of Jo Ann playing one of her Heartlands.

Custom-Built Whippoorwill Autoharps

We would be happy to build a custom Whippoorwill autoharp just for you, chromatic or diatonic, with up to 21 chord bars / lock bars, right- or left-handed, and any keys you desire. See our Gallery for pictures of some of the autoharps we have already sold. We use only the finest instrument woods and find the following wood combinations from our current inventory of wood species to be particularly attractive. •    Air-dried Cherry top with Macassar ebony trim •    Curly Cherry top with Macassar ebony trim •    Curly Maple top with black walnut trim •    Black Walnut top with birds-eye maple trim In addition to the species listed above, we currently have the following species in stock: Koa, Mahogany, Sapele, Sycamore, White Oak from a 200 year-old tree from Scotland, Wenge, Padouk, Goncalo Alves and Curly Redwood. Other exotic wood species may be available in limited quantities. If you have a preference for a wood species not listed here, give us a call at (260) 249-5561. Each of these wood species has its own way of coloring the sound of the autoharp. A discussion of general trends may be found here. With a custom build you also have the option of having either a magnetic pickup or a mono or stereo piezo-electric pickup installed. Each of these types of pickup has pros and cons. Read my Autoharp Quarterly article for more information. Call us today at (260) 249-5561 to order your beautiful and unique custom autoharp!
© Whippoorwill Acoustics LLC, 2015-2018