Inquiring about the autoharp

Addressing whether an autoharp is really for anyone, sorting fact from fiction, the right idea from misconceptions, reality from stereotypes, cost, quality, old or used instruments, taking up the autoharp for the right reasons.

Inquiring about the autoharp

Postby Bob Lewis » Thu Nov 08, 2007 7:36 pm

Q: I would appreciate some information regarding the autoharp. I really love the sound of them and would love to have one. However, I've never played one and would be a complete beginner. I do play guitar and have played acoustic guitar for over 20 years. I'm a big fan of bluegrass music and would love to have the autoharp as one of my other instruments. I confess, I know nothing about them and would like to know which is the best for a beginner and how difficult it is to tune them and play.

A: You can make some basic music pretty quickly on an autoharp, but beyond that there is real work and skill involved as with any other instrument.

Plan on spending about $500 minimum for instrument and accessories. Autoharps can go up to $2000 and more, so $400 plus $100 worth of gear is not actually too bad.

Autoharps have a lot of parts that age and wear out with use, so don't buy anything used unless recently and completely refurbished, essentially strings and chord bar felts. Those are definitely not permanent. An autoharp is a bit of a gadget that requires maintenance to be at its best. Used autoharps, unless reconditioned, should only be bought by people who already know how to do some refurbishing.

Tuning is manageable but you really have to think about touching it up every time you play. It is not a piano. The key will be in getting a good wrench. The typical tool is pretty shameful. I sell a good one. I throw factory supplied wrenches in the trash.

You will need a chromatic tuner. A specialized guitar tuner will not suit.

A recommended instrument would be either the ChromaHarp or Oscar Schmidt OS73C, both 21 chord. If you were up for spending a lot more, I would do fewer keys and then fewer chord bars, probably one that just plays in G,D,A.

Do not buy a 15 chord model. Long story, but 21 is what you want, the essential difference being three rows of buttons, so that three types of chords; majors, minors, and 7ths; can be logically arranged. Only the Oscar Schmidt 21 will readily allow custom arrangements of chords. It is very common to change how the factory arranged the chords. It is quite simple to do. An instrument can be delivered with a recommended layout already in place. The lowest price discounter will not do that for you however. They do not even open the boxes, let alone inspect or optimize anything.

A factory built autoharp is not ready to play right from the box. It is a reasonable expectation that it should be, but it simply is not. That is not the real world. It still requires inspection and adjustment. Were it otherwise, the instrument would be much more expensive. These are mass produced and thus the modest prices. They are pretty decent for what they cost. They just aren't yet ready to play. An expert dealer needs to spend some time with the instrument "setting it up". Very few discounters know the first thing about autoharps, so watch out.

A stock autoharp does not play in every key. The bass supports only four (4), even though the chord set might support (7). Diatonic autoharps, customized instruments, are popular because they sound really good. They are not as versatile though.

The stock instrument favors the keys of FCGD, intended really for vocal accompaniment. It will also play in A, Bb, and Eb with weak bass support. If you really had in mind to play with other musicians, especially in bluegrass keys, you either need something more customized, or that can come later in an upgrade of instruments.

The majority of new players start with a pretty stock chromatic instrument and go from there. As with guitars, it would be unusual for ones first autoharp to be their last, if really taking to the instrument and sticking with it. You kind of have to learn the basics and get your bearings first to know what specialized instrument would be best in the long term.
Bob Lewis
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