some direction please

Addresses frequent cases of someone having, finding, or buying an old autoharp and wondering about either its value or what would be involved in putting it in good playable order.

some direction please

Postby Bob Lewis » Sat Nov 01, 2008 3:00 pm


I'm a music teacher, having been a professional woodwind player and singer for many years. Over the past few years, I have been researching family history and the traditions of American Folk music, with a special interested in acadian music, which led me to looking for an instrument to play that would allow me to play with other musicians in the folk, bluegrass, canadian reel or cajun fields of music. I have found myself lucky enough to be involved with a group of talented musicians that are also interested in some of this, and we have been getting together every week for fun. The musician combo is: (what each musician plays) mandolin/guitar, upright bass/guitar/mandolin, banjo/guitar, guitar, and me on vocals and recorder and flute. Everyone in the group sings, and I found myself wanting to play a string instrument with this group, as a rhythm section player who can also play lead. So, I remembered that someone had given me an autoharp from their basement last year, and I took it out, tuned it and practiced. It's an old OS with only 12 chords, and of course I started playing combos of chords to get the chord I needed and have been playing with a thumb pick and some finger plucking.

So, I've been searching the internet, bought a couple of books on maintenance and repair, and find myself wondering what I should do next? Should I restring and refelt this instrument, or should I not bother and buy one, new or used, that will help me get to the next level? I don't even know enough to figure out if it's worth doing any work to. I want to play the thing, but don't know how to expand my base of knowledge, step by step, remembering that I have years of music theory knowledge, teach AP music theory, started out as a jazz saxophonist, have sung and led many bands - but everything I find is either way too technical on the instrument for a beginner, or so simple as to be frustrating.

15 chord or 21 chord? It seems like 21 chord would expand my selection of songs - are they that common and considered acceptable and traditional enough? I'd love to also eventually go to some jams and don't want to be embarrassed by the instrument I have, and I also don't want to be that newbie that shows up with an instrument that's more than I need. As I get better, I can always buy a better instrument, but I know as a music teacher that the better the instrument, the easier it is to learn. Then again, I've seen students with ridiculously expensive instruments that were more than they needed at the time.

So what would be a good middle of the road instrument to get, or should I stick with what I have and fix it up? I am feeling limited with 12 chords, would I feel that much better with only 15? Any sources for learning for someone with my background?

A: (from Bob)

I would advise not to invest any money in the one you have. Purchasing a new or fully refurbished instrument is a better plan, and newer instruments are of much better grade.

21 chord is the best choice, not for number of chords but for having three button rows. With three types of chords...major, minor, and 7th...the three button rows allow a logical spatial relationship of chords and more consistent fingering patterns from one key to another.

A used instrument is not a good choice because it will usually need repair, if not full refurbishing. The instruments are built in China but repaired/refurbished in the US, so paying for labor on the things is a big deal, often meaning buying another instrument may be preferable to refurbishing. Rebuilding an instrument is more often done to preserve one of US vintage, production ending in 1983.

The best of what is available new is the Oscar Schmidt "Model A Reissue". Refurbished, US vintage, used instruments include the 21 chord Appalachian, known for its more mellow tone. Used instruments are almost exclusively the model B style.

I would suggest getting a custom tuning to favor the keys of C, G, D, and A in the bass. The standard favors F, C, G, and D.

Some of the 21 chords will be in unfavorable areas over the strings. The best chords are toward the middle, basically the middle 15. Again, the main concern is having three button rows. Think in terms of having 3-4 good keys, because that is what the bass tuning and chord selection will support. It is not a piano and cannot play in every key. Many players have and carry multiple instruments in different configurations, if concerned about covering more keys. I always carry three instruments, for example. One of them is optimized for my best vocal key. One specializes in the main fiddle keys of G, D, and A.

Barring some physical handicap, plan on playing the instrument held upright. The older method, or "lap style", is not the way the autoharp is usually played these days. The 21 chord assembly does not allow room to strum at the base of the strings. That is now done out toward the middle of the strings on the other side of the chord bar assembly.

That is the basic story. If you want to pursue the question, please give me a call.
Bob Lewis
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