Physical limitations, lap style playing , and fine tuners

Common questions and discussion about what to buy, how much to pay, and where to get it.

Physical limitations, lap style playing , and fine tuners

Postby Bob Lewis » Fri Nov 30, 2007 10:02 am

Autoharps meant to be played exclusively in the lap or on a table haven't been commercially manufactured for 40 years. One exception is the Attaché or Portaharp models built into a case and meant for teachers as well as to be playable by students too small to hold an autoharp. These instruments are actually mirror image orientation or "left handed", chorded with the left hand and played with the right without crossing hands. That is the same as old lap style instruments except now one is picking on the sweet part of the strings, away from the string anchor end of the instrument. The sound is more musical, less wash board impression.

The modern autoharp, reinvented in 1967 as the Oscar Schmidt model B, and now further developed by private builders (luthiers), is with rare exception built intended to be played while held upright, "Appalachian style". Because of the positioning of the chord bars to favor this style of playing, one who wanted to play those instruments laid down in front of them would need to play left handed or cross hands in order to play the strings.

Left handed or mirror image instruments are available from private builders. Lap style instruments are still built privately. They just aren't available in any factory brand line.

Small people, very busty people, or people very much over weight and who would find it difficult to hold an autoharp can still lay the instrument down to play it. Those with joint pain or other aging problems or abnormalities can also adapt.

A number of blind or otherwise sight impaired people play the autoharp. They are known to do their own tuning and one even learned to change an entire set of strings. Cases known hold the instrument upright to play it.

Holding the instrument upright can be demanding, especially if needing to stand up, perhaps to a microphone. A strap is recommended.

There is a range of weights in instruments, and one may need to ask about relative weight before purchasing. The very lightest instruments are missing a fine tuner mechanism, so they are not really a fair comparison.

Fine tuners are very important too, i.e. it is not okay to think of tuning as being "close enough". In any case, precise tuning will provide more pleasure in playing the instrument. Getting the right notes and chords is only part of the total experience. One has choices, but the advice would be to opt for fine tuners regardless of weight or cost considerations.

Budget constraints are important, an extra pound of weight is certainly noticeable, and fine tuners are expensive, but the option without fine tuners suggests that it is okay, when fine tuners should be standard equipment. Frankly, I think one who says fine tuners aren't essential is just trying to sell you an autoharp and wouldn't play it personally, conceding that you aren't going to spend the extra money. He like most people very likely started without tuners also. It's just that once understanding what fine tuners offer, people will be very firm about what new players should buy, wishing for the newcomer a better experience than what they had.

The integrity in what autoharps are offered comes from private builders, the luthiers, who with rare exception do not offer any option on fine tuners. The tuners are standard. Their buyers are typically not overly budget conscious in any case.

Tuning is definitely possible without fine tuners, but real precision, that truly makes a difference in sound and enjoyment, is only realistic with fine tuners. I sell instruments without fine tuners merely because people would go elsewhere if I didn't. A buyer's first question is usually "what's the cheapest model".

One can do a lot without fine tuners, marginally in tune, but my sense is that most seasoned players wind up with fine tuners sooner or later.
Bob Lewis
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