Autoharp: help for the perplexed

Buying and setting up an autoharp

pic of wg's blue Oscar Schmidt 21-bar autoharp I only recently (Christmas 2003) took up playing the autoharp again after a hiatus of at least 20 years, so I'm not the expert. But I did a lot of research on the Net when I restarted, so I figure people who want the benefit of that may as well have it. Further below, there are also links to the better sources of more detailed help.

Exactly what kind of autoharp you want to buy depends on what you want to do with it and how much you want to spend. My personal principle with all musical instruments is simple: spend the money to get a good one. A cheap, poor quality instrument will simply frustrate you. It will be more difficult to play, be less satisfying when you do, and be resalable for less money when you give up. Pay what you have to for good quality, and you will learn more easily, enjoy it more, and, if you do decide to give the instrument up, be able to resell it more easily and for a better price.

It is, however, not always intuitively obvious what constitutes a "good quality" autoharp, and this instrument may be the one exception to the rule. The high-end, handmade autoharps, such as those from Evo Bluestein, Orthey, and others are of course the most expensive, and my impression is that they can run you anywhere from $800 to $1500. The most common make of autoharp you'll find out there is Oscar Schmidt, and these are factory-produced jobs that run, new, anywhere from $250 (street) to $650 (list) depending on the model and the source. It does seem to me that if you're going to spend enough money for a high-end autoharp you might as well have it custom-made to your exact requirements, and you're not going to know what those are until you've been playing for a while. On the other hand, I do think it's silly to spend $650 on an OS mass-produced instrument if you can get a hand-made one for not much more. The blue autoharp above I picked up new off eBay for about $250.

My advice, however, is NOT to buy a new Oscar Schmidt autoharp unless you do so from a shop that really knows what it's doing in setting it up, such as Michigan's Elderly Instruments. The blue harp sounds fine, but it took quite a bit of work to get it that way, some of which I'd have had to do for any OS harp, and some of it because of the low price, which meant I did all my own set-up. Instrument store owners of my acquaintance tell me that after Oscar Schmidt (now owned by Washburn) moved its autoharp production to the Far East, the build quality of the instruments plummeted. It was, they tell me, common for harps to arrive cracked. Mine arrived in good condition, but it had never been tuned, there were buzzes in places where the pins had not been milled correctly, and several of the strings were so short that when they popped out of the tuning pins I couldn't get them to reset and had to buy new strings. It is not uncommon even for an expert technician to spend a couple of days getting the autoharp ready for sale. If you buy a new OS inexpensively (as I did), be prepared to put in the work. If you are not an experienced musician and do not have a good ear, pay more and buy from a shop that will do the tuning and setup for you. Otherwise you will probably have a miserable couple of weeks tuning the harp every day.

My advice if you're beginning the instrument and want to limit how much you spend is to look for a used OS in the 20-30 years old range. You'll still get a good instrument (assuming it's been reasonably well taken care of by its previous owner), but you'll know it's not going to fall apart and it will be in playing shape. Elderly Instruments (in the US) and Hobgoblin in the UK both get occasional used autoharps, but the primary source at the moment seems to be eBay, with all the normal risks that buying sight unheard over the Net involves. So far, I've bought two autoharps, both OS21s, one new, one 24 years old, over eBay and it's been a fine experience. But be careful Out There.

If you're in the UK, you're going to have a hard time finding *any* autoharp. I was astonished to discover just how rare and exotic this instrument still is in the UK, and if I had known I'd have kept playing it Back Then and brought it instead of the concertina when I toured here. However. Hobgoblin sells some used autoharps, and from them for about 75 you'll probably get an old black 12- or 15-chord harp, either OS or a German make. The suppliers at UK Autoharps can probably help you find a better instrument, and there are some listed on eBay UK, though the numbers are very thin and most of the instruments are, again, those old, black jobs. This may be the moment to take that vacation in central Pennsylvania, Michigan, or upstate New York you've always dreamed of.

You will not need much in the way of accessories. Most autoharps, new or used, come with a tuning wrench and at least some picks. If you want to play any of the modern styles, you will need a thumbpick and three fingerpicks. For the latter, I prefer Dunlop 0.25 gauge, as these can be shaped to fit but aren't so soft that they get easily bent in transit. I would never consider using an electronic tuner for a guitar or banjo, but for autoharp it really does make a huge difference, particularly when the harp or its strings are new. I have a Korg CA-30 chromatic tuner with a suction cup pickup I can shmush onto the anchor cover. Ideally, you do want a tuner that shows you what the exact pitch is. This is because even with an electronic tuner you do end up tempering the pitch a bit (another Google search, if you don't understand this), and if you have a readout that tells you what the pitch is when you're happy with it, you can match it more easily next time. If you want to play the autoharp standing up (recommended, certainly for singing, if you're going to perform in front of an audience at all), you will want to attach a strap. To do this on any of the OS harps, you will need to install strap buttons as per the picture about halfway down this page. You may want to get a professional to drill the necessary holes, but if you do, make sure s/he understands where the buttons go. Once you have the buttons, a guitar strap works fine. There are, of course, many more modifications you can make -- they make pickups for autoharp, for example -- but you don't need more than this to get started. If you like to learn out of books, there are a number to choose from, available from any of the shops already mentioned.

The one other thing you may want to spend money on is a good case. Autoharps are wonderfully portable instruments (no fights over carrying *these* guys on aircraft), but the standard nylon "gig bag" sold by Oscar Schmidt is pitifully inadequately padded, and the cardboard ("chipboard") cases many of the old ones come with is even worse. I'd advise against the other extreme, the hard, velvet-lined variety because although they protect the instrument admirably they are so heavy they take away the fun of having something you can take with you more easily than a laptop. I vote for well padded, well made cases. Tough Traveler makes some gig bags, but has yet to answer my query about autoharp bags. At the moment, Blue Heron and Colorado Cases make high-quality, well-padded gig bags for autoharp, and while these are expensive (about $150 including shipping within the US), you don't have to take your nylon OS bag many places before the stitching starts to rip and you hit something and get a dent in the instrument you've just finished customizing.

How many chords?

It all depends what you want to do with your autoharp. But as a general rule, I'd say the more the better. If you're buying one of those very old black jobs with 12 bars because it's cheap and pretty, be aware that what you can do with the harp is going to be very limited. You will wind up either a) only playing songs with three or four chords in them or b) only playing in one or two keys with a greater range of chords available in each. For general playing and accompanying singing, I'd make a strong pitch for either buying a 21-chord harp (the maximum you usually see on the market) or buying a 21-chord assembly to install on one of those older harps. You can get the assemblies from any of the specialist retailers such as Elderly or Andy's Front Hall.

You will at some point come across references to chromatic versus diatonic autoharps. The average autoharp you buy, unless otherwise specified, is chromatic. That means that it has all the notes in a scale on the piano, both white and black keys. This is the most versatile in terms of having many different notes available, but is limited in terms of the number of notes filling out each chord. My recommendation: unless you know you want a diatonic harp for some reason (in which case you're probably too advanced to be reading this), stick with your chromatic harp until you've learned the basics of how to play it and your ideas about what kind of music you want to play on it are taking shape. You can convert a chromatic harp into a diatonic (and vice versa); to do so, expect to change both the set of chord bars and their layout *and* the stringing schedule -- that is, the pattern in which the strings are tuned. This may in turn involve buying some new strings to ensure that the retuned strings do not overly stress the instrument. (Thirty-six strings tuned up to pitch put a lot of tension on that sound board.)

Setting up your instrument

Assuming you've bought an OS harp from one of these sources, you are likely to find that some work will greatly improve its playability. This is work you will not have to do on the handmade harps, as the people making those all tend to play themselves and therefore have designed harps that are much easier to play.

There are two main things that you might want to do to an OS harp to make it more playable. One: lower the action of the chord bars so it's more responsive. Two: change the chord bar layout to make it more convenient. Most of what you need to know about the first of these is at Chuck Daniels' how-to page. The one comment I'd make is that if it's prohibitively expensive or logistically difficult for you to get his die-cut molefoam quieting button template, I found that I could get reasonable results by using small pieces of molefoam to fill around the buttonholes inside the chordbar assembly. It's not going to win any beauty contests, and it's not as elegant as the job he would do, and it may all fall out in another few months, but so far, so good. The rest of his instructions re lowering the chord bars themselves I followed pretty much as electroned.

Chord bar layouts

I probably spent about two weeks reading everyone's ideas on chord bar layouts. It seems as though everyone who plays autoharp has *the* definitive chord bar layout. After reading the relevant threads on Mudcat and elsewhere, I made up a big sheet of paper with everyone's layouts on them. And then I constructed *the* definitive layout, which is what I am currently using.

The vogue for changing the chord bar layout began, I believe, with Bryan Bowers, the father of modern autoharp playing. The fact is that if you want to be able to pick out melodies and have a shot at playing fiddle tunes and complex melodies, you will need to find a layout that suits you. This may or may not include changing the actual chords themselves.

If you do want to change the chords, you can do so either by removing the existing felt and replacing it (you can buy chord bar felt by the foot from Elderly, Andy's Front Hall, or the UK suppliers listed at UK Autoharps) or by buying blank chord bars (from the same sources), which come with the felt and button you need, and making the custom chords you want.

Several of the people I read on the subject of chord bars and layouts were adamant that any autoharp needs the three diminished chords (if you don't understand what these are or why there are only three, you probably need to read up on some music theory; try a Google search).

The chord bar layout below assumes you're using the standard OS set of 21 bars and have made no substitutions. Configured this way, your chromatic harp will have the fullest chords and be the most versatile in F, C, and Bb, and their relative minors. While these are *terrible* keys for playing with fiddlers (or mandolins) in sessions, for many people they are good keys for singing. My second harp, which is another OS21C, I intend to optimize for the fiddle keys D, G, and A. I decided there would be advantages in having two identical harps that would use the same parts.

This layout isn't perfect for every situation, but then no layout will be. I decided after some thought that the procession of major chords in fifths up the center would provide a valuable "home row" (to borrow a typewriter expression), and so it has proved. The layout is designed to use the same configuration in all keys as far as is possible given the uneven chord list, so that if you need to change keys you can without putting much thought in to it. It is a little more awkward playing in minor keys, as it's a bigger stretch to the major 7th chords, but it does work. As a side note, if you wanted to play a single note, you can do so by pressing two adjacent chord bars simultaneously (eg, the C and F, which are next to each other, if pressed together, will give you all the Cs on the harp but nothing else). I'm convinced this could be a usable gambit for getting a specific note when you don't have the appropriate chord, but have yet to incorporate it into anything.

Here's the layout:
Ab Bb7 F7 C7 G7 D7 A7
Eb Bb F C G D A
cm gm dm am em E7 B7

Everyone has a different set of three or so chords they'd dump in order to gain room for their favorites. Since I find Bb a useful key on the autoharp -- partly because I don't like playing in it on the guitar but I do like singing in it -- I'm not inclined to follow eg Bryan Bowers' advice and dump the Ab chord, certainly not in favor of making the harp easier to play in A, which I think really needs to be improved by a slightly altered stringing schedule (hence the plan for a second harp). I'd be willing to dump the B7, though, and maybe the E7, in favor of a couple of diminished chords. I do use the E7 for color in a few places, but that could easily be covered by a diminished chord. But that way lies madness, because you quickly start thinking how useful some minor 7ths would be, and then you start thinking about maybe a minor-optimized harp, yes, and then a diatonic with the full range of...and next thing you know you're in a 12-step program chanting, "One harp at a time."

What to play

You're in luck. A three-CD collection called "Autoharp Legacy" has recently been released that covers the gamut of modern playing styles. To get a feel for what you can do on this instrument, buy it, and listen all the way through. Fortunately, the set is remarkably reasonable at only about $20.


Wendy Grossman
February 13, 2004

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