Ken Ellis Luthier


Whippoorwill Acoustics is proud to have sponsored the International Autoharp Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival. Congratulations to winner Cindy Harris, Steve Luper, who selected the Sapele Whippoorwill autoharp as his prize, and George Haig who placed third. Hope to see you there in 2024! 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 excellent 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 accidentally 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. Every Whippoorwill Acoustics autoharp comes with fine tuners, 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 below 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 no autoharps in stock, but would be happy to talk to you about building a custom autoharp to your specifications. For more information, call (260) 249-5561 or email Ken today.

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 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 her. 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. The advantage of ordering a custom-built Whippoorwill autoharp is the ability to pick your own top wood. Because different woods will produce a different timbre, selecting your own top wood lets you pick just the sound you want. And you can be assured of getting this sound because our proprietary acoustical testing produces consistently good results, something no one else can offer. A discussion of how each wood species colors the sound of the autoharp may be found here, along with video demonstrations for many of them. We use only the finest instrument woods and currently have the following species in stock: Black Walnut, Cherry, Curly Maple, Koa, Mahogany, Sapele, Sycamore, White Oak from a 200 year-old tree from Scotland, Hickory, Ziricote, Ovangkol, Zebra Wood, Wenge, Padouk, Goncalo Alves (aka Brazilian Tiger Wood) 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. 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. And for you keyboard players out there, we now offer an autoharp with piano keys instead of chord bars, allowing you to immediately pick it up and start playing. The Whippoorwill Acoustics keyboard mechanism uses a new patent pending design. Our design eliminates the need for periodic readjustment of the damping pads and the noisy mechanical linkages that characterize other autoharp keyboard designs. Call us today at (260) 249-5561 to order your beautiful and unique custom autoharp!

Fine Furniture for your Autoharp

Starting Fall 2023, we are offering display stands made from premium hardwoods to show off your beautiful autoharp. The Whippoorwill X-Stand, shown below, is available in White Oak and Black Walnut, spalted Ash and Black Walnut, or Cherry and Maple. These stands are designed to not only look great but also hold your autoharp securely, with a low center of gravity to keep from tipping if someone should accidentally bump into it. These stands are $125 (autoharp not included) plus shipping. Call us today if you would like to order one to show off your prized autoharp!
© Whippoorwill Acoustics LLC, 2015-2023
“It has a sweet, bright, clear tone that makes melody picking a breeze. I love my Heartland autoharps, and I think you will, too!”