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Buyer's Guide for Autoharps - From Riverboat Music(tm),
Autoharps were one of many attempts to bring music into essentially non-musical households that started in mid-to-late 1800s. Traveling salesmen hawked similar devices from the East to the West. Mail-order catalogs listed instruments that "anybody could play." But the autoharp and some of its immediate ancestors came the closest to fulfilling that promise.
Then the radio came along, and that was even easier to play. The autoharp and its ilk took a back seat to broadcast music programs for years.
Then the autoharp made a comeback - through the radio of all things. More specifically through the early radio hits of the Carter Family. It has never quite gone away since. And there are plenty in attics and garages to prove it.
The good part of that is that they're relatively solid, so the physical structure lasts a long time unless it's exposed to temperature and moisture extremes. The bad part is that, even with good storage, the strings and springs age and rust, the felt hardens or crumbles, and unless you have time and skills to do the work yourself, they cost nearly as much to restore properly as a new one costs to buy.
The other bad news is that, to many people, it still bears the stigma of being an instrument for dummies. It got no respect from "serious musicians" a century ago. And in many circles it still gets no respect. This despite the fact that many people have figured out inventive ways to play them and even inventive ways to remake them into unique instruments with distinct musical voices.
Update for 2017 - After I first published this page, I started getting reader questions I didn't know the answers too. So I started to write ONE article to answer the most common questions and point to good resources for the rest. But the information I needed to answer reader questions was scattered all over the Internet, in many unorganized places like discussion forums and personal web pages. So I realized one article wasn't gong to do it, and I wrote four:
I also picked up four very different autoharps I didn't really need because I wanted to do the projects I was reporting on myself. But time to spend on those projects has run out, so I won't be getting back to them for a while. In the meantime, I hope these articles help answer your questions about these under-rated instruments.
What is an Autoharp?Instruments with a dozen or more strings stretched across a soundboard go back millennia. Attempts to help players play only the strings they want to play go back at least a century and a half. I once owned an unplayable ancestor of the Autoharp - a sort of psaltery with a metal bar across the strings and holes cut in the bar. Each hole represented a chord, exposing only the notes in that chord, so you could change chords simply by moving your flatpick over another hole. Clever in its way, I'm sure it was sold door-to-door in the mid-to-late 19th century. I'm sorry now that I didn't take photos before I gave it to a theatrical troupe to use as a prop, but that was many years ago, long before I owned a digital camera or knew I would be writing such articles.
Starting in the late 19th-century, emphasis changed to using dampers, so the musicians strumed most or all of the strings, but only the notes that fit the chord would sound. The two smaller Autoharps in the photo to the right were built by Zimmerman, who patented an autoharp design that looks nothing like any of these instruments, then came out with a series of instruments that resembled other folks' existing designs. After a time, Zimmerman sold his business to Oscar Schmidt, but continued to recommend improvements.
For the next sixty years, Oscar Schmidt's company built instruments that were essentially the same as the autoharp on the right above, although they eventually added three more chords and reshaped the chord buttons.
Oscar Schmidt registered the trademark Autoharp in 1926, even though he didn't invent the term and autoharp-like instruments had been produced for over three decades before he got into the business. However, Oscar Schmidt's design became the standard.
Eventually, folks realized that the Oscar Schmidt had no right to trademark the name "autoharp." So now anyone can make an Autoharp-like instrument and call it an "autoharp," as long as they don't use Oscar Schmidt's logo (above right). Several other very clever autoharp and autoharp-like instruments were made, including some built in Toronto by Rex, which had a better organized chord button arrangment.
Rising to the Challenge - In the mid-1960s, Oscar Schmidt began to be challenged by an Asian maker who makes "Chromaharps." At first, these were mostly clones of 15-chord OS autoharps that they targeted toward the educational market (sometimes under the Rhythm Band name). However, they included some improvements that made them easier to play in the modern upright position (see below), and the Oscar Schmidt company redesigned their autoharps to stay competive. They also began adding other features and 21-chord versions. That's why, autoharp parts and repair people generally divide Oscar Schmidt into "type A" and "type B" instruments. (For more information on that, click here.
Like Autoharps, Chromaharps have also come out under Sears' "Silvertone" name and others. Recently they were being manufactured by Samick, a company that makes many other instruments for other companies to put their name on.
An autoharp typically has 36 or 37 strings, and an array of sprung dampers called "chord bars" that you force onto the strings by pushing buttons. Most models have either 15 or 21 button/chords. All Oscar Schmidt and Chromaharp autoharps being made today are "chromatic," which means that they have over two octaves of chromatic notes (white AND black keys) plus some extra bass notes in the most common keys.
The photo to the right shows the buttons available on the standard Oscar Schmidt "21-Chord" Autoharp configuration. It includes major chords between Ab and A, with additional seventh chords and relative minors. Assuming typical chord progressions, you should be able to play most songs in Eb, Bb, F, C, G, D, and A. Since there are E7 and B7 chords, you could play a blues in E if you wanted, as well. That said, if you're playing with a guitar or dulcimer-centered group, you'll find yourself missing chords like E, F#m and Bm
A standard 15-chord Autoharp has the major chords between Eb and D, plus several seventh chords, allowing you to play most songs in Bb, F, C, G, and D. If you have one of these and wish you had the 21-chord version, don't despair. Oscar Schmidt has released a conversion kit. On the other hand, many advanced autoharp players are actually removing buttons, so don't spring for the upgrade kit just yet. More on that later.
Assume A Position
Early autoharps and the instruments that preceded them were typically played in the lap, like an Appalachian (mountain) dulcimer and most zithers. Country songwriter Cecil Null is given credit for popularizing the vertical position, playing it across the chest, pushing the buttons with the left hand and strumming with the right. He's also credited with recommending changes that made the instrument easier and more comfortable to play in that position, including rounding the corners and moving the chord bars down to make it easier to strum the strings above them.
These days, Oscar Schmidt still makes most of the autoharps you see for sale, with Chromaharp/Rhythm Band a strong second.
On Buying UsedI have been buying used instruments for over fifty years, and the autoharps I own now are no exception. But before I really knew what I was getting into, I made a few bad choices. If you buy an instrument that needs its strings replaced, assume $60+ if you do it yourself; add another $50 or so to pay someone else to do it. If the felts need replaced, you can buy new, felted chord bars for $50-$100, or you can refelt the existing chord bars yourself for about $25 and several hours worth of effort. If you accidentally buy an instrument with a cracked soundboard, plan on using it as a decoration. In other words, you may think you're saving $150-250 by buying an autoharp used, but you may wind up paying more to make it playable than you "saved" on your purchase.
I know that many people view autoharps as toys, but you can get real music out of them if you treat them like real musical instruments. Unfortunately most owners haven't done that, and an autoharp that hasn't been properly stored and maintained is no more likely to be playable than a guitar or banjo that hasn't been properly stored and maintained. My typical "Take someone along who knows what they're looking at" advice if you go to shop for a used one one is especially true in this case.
Update for 2018I wrote the original version of this article after I had purchased a few autoharps that could be made playable with minimum effort. Plus I have a lot of experience rebuilding instruments, so taking things apart and putting them back together doesn't intimidate me. So I was much more optimistic than I am now about the average person having success with used autoharps. I have several readers who have restrung and repadded used autoharps with great success, but I've encountered tales of folks spending more to have a used autoharp restrung and refelted than they would have spent buying one new.
I've also bought more than one used autoharp as part of my research that are not, frankly, worth restoring for the average musician, including a couple that looked almost brand new. Worse yet, some of the instruments have so much dust and or mold that they will actually threaten your health if you attempt to make them playable without a mask and or extraordinary ventilation.
Instruments for Refurb - If you're going to restring and remove the chord bars anyway, getting the dust off and out of the thing is much, much easier. So a filthy instrument that shows no signs of mold may suit your purposes. Just to be sure to do the immediate work outside or wearing a mask.
If there are signs of mold, though, steer clear. To some extent, excess rust for the age of the instrument can imply significant exposure to moisture at some point. So if you have a 90 or 120-year old autoharp with some rust, you're probably okay. If you have a 50-year old instrument that is well-rusted, steer clear, even for refurbs, unless it is an extraordinary instrument otherwise. Even after a good external cleaning, mold can still linger inside where you can not get to it without, say, taking the back off, and then you're into a serious rebuilding effort.
Instruments for Immediate Use - If all you're trying to do is get an instrument that can be made playable without replacing the strings or pads, look for one that had a case and shows little evidence of dust or rust. If you select a dusty or grimy instrument, just be aware, that you'll spend some time getting enough dust out of the works to make playing it safe for your sinuses.
Instruments with Cases - All other things being equal, if you have a choice between an instrument that has a case and one that doesn't go for the one with the case. Dust gets everwhere on and in these, and is very hard to get out of some places unless you're doing a complete rebuild. Now, a lot of people who own these things leave them out even if they have cases for them, but if they had no case, you can pretty well expect a very dusty instrument that will take hours longer to clean up. If they had a case, there's a chance that the instrument is less dirty.
We now return you to our regularly-schedule article.
"Refurbished" Autoharps"One user-friendly variation on the "used autoharp" scenario is the guys that pick up used basket-case autoharps cheap and rebuild them, either as they were new or as "diatonic" autoharps, usually for use in Folk, Celtic, Bluegrass or other roots music. If you've chosen the latter conversion, the rebuilder will replace the 15 or 21-chord button arrays with smaller arrays that only play a few chords (maybe enough to play most songs in the keys of D or G). Then they retune strings that would have been used for notes like Eb to notes that fit within the chords they've chosen to use. This doubles the notes you will use, the same principle as a 12-string or mandolin.
With one of these two- or three-key harps (called a "diatonic"), you can no longer play in 7 keys (like a 21-button autoharp allows) or even 5 keys (like a 15-button autoharp allows). But the keys you can play in sound great. In this cottage industry, the fellow doing the conversion may have spent $100- $200 for a "project" autoharp, $80-110 for replacement parts, and put in 8-12 hours of labor. Most of these guys will do any reconditioning or restringing that is necessary while they're doing the conversion, so you wind up with a like-new, customized autoharp for what is actually a reasonable price, considering the work they've put into it. Something worth considering if you're a Folkie, Celtic, Bluegrass player, etc.
One fellow who has done many rebuilds and conversions is Bob Lewis of Autoharp Works. His discussion forum page on buying autoharps - new, used, or refurbished - is a resource in itself. As is his chart on how he reworks classic 15-button autoharps into G/D diatonic models.
Buying NewTo me, buying a used, unrefurbished autoharp is a bad gamble unless it shows no signs of rust, is in good condition, and is half or less the cost of a similar new one. Buying a used autoharp that has been refurbished for playing in two or three keys is probably something you should hold off on. Buying a new 21-button "chromatic" autoharp will give you a place to start. Even if later on you order a custom version, you'll have an instrument you can take to gigs with folks you don't know who might wind up playing in strange keys. Plus if you're "out" somewhere and someone throws a chromatic autoharp at you and tells you to join in, you won't embarrass yourself. If you decide later, you need a custom or converted C/G/D autoharp or some such, you still have this one as a backup. In fact, autoharp pros and semi-pros often have multiple instruments they take along for different keys, the same way harmonica players do. Of course, it is easier to drag around extra harmonicas.
Autoharp technician Bob Lewis recommends that if you do buy an autoharp new, you should try to buy it from a vendor that tunes them up and checks them out before they sell it to you. That's one reason I recommend Elderly music for your autoharp purchases. They claim to check out and set up every instrument they sell, and they do stand behind their merchandise. Obviously, if you are near a music store that is concientious about what they let go out the door, and someone in the service department knows autoharps, that should be your first stop.
15- or 21-Chord Autoharps? I only show 21-chorders on this page because the $50 or so you save by buying the 15-chord versions is more than made up for in long-term inconvenience, not being able to play in keys other people use all the time. Plus 90% of the affordable used autoharps out there are 15-chorders, so if you have your heart set on a 15-chorder, you have at least some chance of finding a good used one. Try to get a dust-free, rust-free Oscar Schmidt type B or Chromaharp. For more information on the difference between Type A and Type B Autoharps, please click here. The Type A/Type B quesion doesn't apply to Chromaharps, since they were invented about the same time the Type B OS Autoharps came out and haven't been redesigned since.
The most useful 21-chorder, if you're interested in using it for Folk music is the Oscar Schmidt Americana, because it has chords that make it better for playing songs in the sharp keys favored by guitarists and fiddlers. That said, Elderly music also offers replacement chord bars that allow you to convert any Oscar Schmidt 21-chorder to Americana tuning. For more information on that topic, please see our article on Making Your Autoharp Folk-Friendly.
Autoharp Factory TuningsUnless you buy your autoharp with the assumption that you're going to fiddle with it extensively from the start, you should also pay attention to which keys you can play on the autoharp in question. Don't get me wrong - all 15-chord Oscar Schmidt or Chromaharp autoharps you can buy new today have exactly the same chord setup, and all but one 21-chorders have exactly the same setup. But if you've heard the rumors that autoharps don't play well in the most popular guitar keys, you should have access to the details. For that reason, we've written an article - Autoharp Factory Tunings - that explains the four most popular "storebought" configurations, and some variations you might stumble across or want to spring for.
One popular variant is the Oscar Schmidt Americana, which sacrifices Ab, Cm, and Bb7 chord bars to make room for E, Bm, and F#m, three chords that are important if you're playing in the key of A or D (the most popular Folk and Country key). If you already have an Oscar Schmidt 21-chorder, or if your budget doesn't allow for a high-end instrument, don't despair - you can buy the chord bars for E, Bm, and F#m separately, and rework your 21-key Oscar Schmidt to Americana settings or some variation you prefer in a single evening. I hope to have an article on this conversion at some point.
The following table shows examples of autoharps that will probably meet or exceed your needs when you're starting out.
We start with the 21-chord model, since having the 15 doesn't seem to save you that much money, compared to the reduced flexibility, which is the main reason to have a chromatic autoharp in the first place.
Chromaharp 15-chorders are usually sold to schools, along with cheap bongo drums, maracas, and tambourines. But they're pretty solid, and may teach you want you want your first autoharp to teach you. But I'm told that the 21-chord Chromaharp sounds as good or better than many Oscar Schmidt 21-chorders made in the last twenty or so years.
If you click on any of the vendor links below, you'll see a couple dozen other options, so this is just a starting point to familiarize you with what the basic options look like.
Shop for Cases, Too - As mentioned above, dust is one of the great enemies of autoharps. Neither the cardboard cases or cloth gig bags that most people buy for these will really protect the instrument from physical damage in a packed car or whatever, but either will protect the instrument from collecting dust in hard-to clean places.
Once you've got started on one, you may want to find your way to custom builders/refurbishers who can set you up with one. Or once you understand the maintenance involved, you might want to buy a second one to convert into a diatonic and keep your first one. The George Foss book shown at the right purports to tell you how, as do a number of Internet resources.
If you really strive to make progress in this instrument, you'll soon learn that - far from being a "dummies' instrument," these guys take their autoharps very seriously. And they should.
Moving further upstream, I am not a customer of D'Aigle Autoharps (yet), but they sell everything from beginner's instruments (including Oscar Schmidt) to professional instruments you'd have trouble equaling anywhere. Interestingly, if you're a folkie buying an Oscar Schmidt from them, they have a $25 option that replaces the Ab, Bb7 & Cm chord bar with Bm, F#m, and a true E. Of course, you can order their custom harps in 2- or 3- key diatonic versions if you'd like. And they have a wide array of parts and accessories. I'm especially intrigued by their "Sparrow" mini-harp, a very clever adaptation of a 36-string harp, available in various tunings and finishes. And it comes in under six pounds.
However you chose to acquire the instrument coming into your household, we wish you the best, and we'll answer your questions if we can.
Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*
Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.
Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the musical instrument market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online listing until I can find a replacement or another supplier.
*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.
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