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Buyer's Guide for Autoharps - From Riverboat Music(tm),

Written by Paul D. Race for CreekDontRise.com(tm)

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CreekDontRise.com is our resource for people who want to learn, or to learn more about traditional music and the acoustic instruments on which it is played.  Click to visit our home page.Some of our articles contain recommendations for products we like and vendors we personally trust. Some of those vendors may pay us a very small commission if you click on a link and buy their products. This costs you nothing at all and helps offset the costs of what we do.

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Buyer's Guide for Autoharps - From Riverboat Music(tm),

Autoharps are fun instruments that anyone can get a good sound out of (providing they've been tuned first). And it's possible, with practice and coaching, to get great music out of them. Furthermore, with proper care, they should last a lifetime without so much as new strings.

Autoharps have had their ups and downs, including long periods of stagnation and intervals of crazy experimentation. Researching that history has led to many articles on our CreekDontRise.com page.

But in the interest of practicality, I've taken the historical information out of this page, so I can focus on information you need to make a purchasing decision.

Today, there are basically two manufacturers selling off-the-shelf instruments and several custom builders who give this class of instrument the quality it deserves. Dozens of other kinds have been made in the last 135 years, but if you're looking to learn and play (not to tinker), you should consider "modern" autoharps - which is to say, the configurations that were introduced in the late 1960s and are still being produced today.

"Off-the Shelf" Autoharps

"Store-bought" autoharps are made in two basic flavors - 15-chord and 21-chord.

They are made by two companies - Oscar Schmidt and Chromaharp (although both lines have been produced under other brand names like Samick, Airline, MEG, Sekova, etc.).

Similarities include:

  • Both companies have been around a while, and their basic designs haven't changed since the 1970s (though they have both produced many other versions that are now discontinued).

  • All of their current autoharps use either 36 or 37 strings. The sound is very similar.

  • Both companies use the same chord setups.

  • Both companies have also switched factories multiple times since the 1970s, with the result that some eras' instruments have better quality control than others.

  • Both brands are now made in Asia.

Differences include:

  • Chromaharp makes only one line of autoharps, available in 15- and 21-chord versions. Oscar Schmidt makes only one version of their 15-chorder, but they make several "upgrade" versions of their 21-chorder.

  • In my experience, quality control on the Chromaharp line is generally better than quality control on the "entry-level" Oscar Schmidt lines.

  • Oscar Schmidt has much better support, both from the manufacturer and from a number of third-party aftermarket suppliers.

  • Oscar Schmidt's 21-chorders are easier to customize and find repair parts for than Chromaharp's 21-chorders.

Fifteen-Chorders

The "entry-level" of both lines is currently a 15-chorder. They are fun to play and - frankly - have the same construction and number of strings as the 21-chorders from the same line.

So, say, a C chord on a 15-chorder will sound about the same as a C chord on a 21-chorder from the same line. You're not sacrificing sound, just the number of chords, when you choose a 15-chorder over a 21-chorder.

A typical post-1967 Oscar Schmidt 15-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo. A typical Chromaharp 15-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.

This is the chord bar arrangement on all Oscar Schmidt and Chromaharp 15-chord autoharps that have been made in the last 30 years.  Click for bigger photo.Fifteen-chorders from Chromaharp and Oscar Schmidt both have the same chords in the same arrangement, as well as the same basic chord bar design. They allow you to play basic (three-chord) songs in Bb, F, C, G, and (if you have large hands) D.

Frankly, if you're a beginning player, either a Chromaharp or Oscar Schmidt autoharp 15-chorder would give you the same learning and playing experience (though most Chromaharp 15-chorders are more solid than most OS 15-chorders).

No one offers a significant "upgrade" version of these 15-chorders. So if you feel the need for a better instrument, you'll probably be going to a 21-chorder or custom instrument eventually.

One other point - if you're on a really tight budget, and shopping for used instruments, you'll soon discover that many more 15-chorders have been sold in the past than 21-chorders, so it's usually far easier and cheaper to get a playable used 15-chorder than a good used 21-chorder. (There is more about buying used autoharps below).

21-Chorders

Both Oscar Schmidt and Chromaharp offer 21-chord versions. Again both brands offer the same chords in the same arrangement.

A typical post-1967 Oscar Schmidt 21-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo. Chromaharp's 21-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.

This is the chord bar arrangement on all Chromaharp 21-chord autoharps and all but one Oscar Schmidt 21-chord autoharps that have been made in the last 30 years.  Click for bigger photo. Because they have more chords, 21-chorders enable you to play in more keys. In some keys, you can play more complex songs than you can on the 15-chorders.

Out of the box, the Chromaharp 21-chorder and the Oscar Schmidt OS21C (their entry-level 21-chorder) share essentially the same chord bar setup and similar sound.

The Chromaharp 21-chorders tend to be more solid than the entry-level Oscar Schmidt OS21C. Unfortunately, Chromaharps have less manufacturer and aftermarket support than Oscar Schmidts. And, if you're ever considering reconfiguring the chord bars, as many "serious" autoharp players do, you'll learn that it's a lot easier on the Oscar Schmidt than on the Chromaharp.

15 or 21 Chords When Starting Out?

If you're looking at new autoharps, you may discover that the price difference between the 15-chord autoharp you have your eyes on and its 21-chord "big brother" is only 25-30%. In that case, you might be better off saving for a few more weeks and getting the 21-chorder. (Again, if you're shopping used instruments, used 15-chorders are usually much cheaper than used 21-chorders, just because there are so many more of them.)

Storage Issues

In most situations, an autoharp will survive indefinitely if it is stored at room temperature in a situation that is neither very humid or very dry. So no attics or basements. In addition, a box, case, or gig bag that protects it from dusts and dings will reduce maintenance issues.

Click to see information about cases, tuning hammers, and more accessories.Accessories

When you purchase your first autoharp, you may want to consider accessories to make storage and transportation safer, and to make them easier to tune and play.

Examples include:

  • Cases and gig bags keep your autoharp from getting dusty and make taking them places easier and safer.

  • A better tuning hammer will make tuning easier.

  • A guitar strap and - if necessary - strap buttons make it easier to hold if you're playing standing up.

  • An electric pickup could come in handy if you plan to play "open mics," etc.

  • Flatpicks or fingerpicks will help you strum or pick your autoharp.

Most of these accessories are described in greater detail in our "Autoharp Accessories article.

Sample Instruments

The following table shows examples of autoharps that should meet or exceed your needs when you're starting out. Even if you're shopping for used instruments, try to look for instruments that look like the ones on this page. Otherwise, you might wind up with something that's a century old and needs completely rebuilt.

Why Amazon links? - I put Amazon links in each block, because Amazon provides direct links to each product, and most of the other vendors have product pages that "move around" or disappear if they're out of stock for more than a day. In addition, if you click on an Amazon link and buy an autoharp, I get a few dollars. That said, even Amazon links change over time, so if you click on a link and it gives you nothing, that doesn't mean the product is unavailable.

Other Vendors I don't get commission from these, but they may save you money or hassle. For example, you will likely get the best service on off-the-shelf autoharps if you try Elderly, a brick-and-mortar store in Michigan. On the other hand, you can often get better prices if you try the Autoharpstore. If you try any other vendors, be certain to "deep-dive" on their reliability before you send money.

Buying Used? - I love picking up wonky old instruments that I have to restore to play. But that's not what you want. Sadly, several I have bought on line were too far gone, or just plain too smelly to restore, much less for a beginner to tune up and play.

So be certain to buy from someone with a good return policy. Best of all, get your hands on it. In the meantime, you can use the following illustrations as a guideline for the sort of products you should consider shopping for new or used.

Model
Illustration
Amazon Link
Oscar Schmidt 15-chorder
Entry-level 15-chord Oscar Schmidt autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.
Click to see this autoharp's availability on Amazon.
ChromaHarp 15-chorder
Chromaharp's 15-chorders were initially designed for classroom teachers to use - the little point at the top end makes them easier to carry.  They have similar features and sound to Oscar Schmidt's 15-chorders.  In some folks' experience, they have better average quality control. Click for bigger photo.
Click to see this autoharp's availability on Amazon.
Oscar Schmidt OS21C
An electrified version is also available
Entry-level 21-chord Oscar Schmidt autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.
Click to see this autoharp's availability on Amazon.
(This link takes you to one with a case. They also sell it without a case, but they won't let me link to it at the moment.)
ChromaHarp 21
Chromaharp's 15-chorders compete with Oscar Schmidt's low end models.  Their 21-chorder gives midrange OS 21-chorders a run for their money. Click for bigger photo.
Click to see this autoharp's availability on Amazon.
Oscar Schmidt OS73CE "1930s Reissue Electric"
This is a reproduction designed for the movie A Mighty Wind. Non-electric and 15-chord versions are also available.
This was introduced in conjunction with 'A Mighty Wind.' It looks like the old model 73s, but it's a modern autoharp built for upright playing.  Click for bigger photo.
Click to see this autoharp's availability on Amazon.
Oscar Schmidt OS110 21AE "Americana"
This "pro" autoharp sacrifices Ab, Cm, and Bb7 to provide E, Bm, and F#m, three chords that are important for playing many Folk, Bluegrass, and Country songs. That said, a handful of these have been produced with standard chords, so buyer beware.
This one sacrifices Ab, Cm, and Bb7 to provide E, Bm, and F#m, three chords that are important for playing many songs in D.  That said, some of these have been produced in standard tuning so buyer beware.  Includes fine tuners.  Click for bigger photo of the standard tuning version.
Click to see this autoharp's availability on Amazon.

This Tahoma 'harp is one of Pete D'Aigle's most recent models with many new features, including a one-piece face and pin block combination and fine tuners. Click for bigger photo.Moving further upstream, I am an infrequent, but happy customer of D'Aigle Autoharps. They mostly make and sell professional instruments you'd have trouble equaling anywhere. Of course, you can order their custom harps in any chord setup you'd like. And they have a wide array of parts and accessories.

I've bought and recommended the "Sparrow" mini-harp, a very clever adaptation of a 36-string harp, that folks with short arms can play comfortably. And it comes in under six pounds.

If you contact Pete, tell him I sent you (no, he doesn't pay me to send him customers).

I've come across several other builders whose work I respect, so if you're feeling out the "high end," feel fee to investigate, read reviews, etc.

Conclusion

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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All material, illustrations, and content of this web site is copyrighted (c) 2014, 2015, 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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