It just doesn't seem to sound as nice as it did 30 years ago

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.

It just doesn't seem to sound as nice as it did 30 years ago

Postby Bob Lewis » Tue Feb 03, 2009 5:38 pm

This dialog is listed in reverse order. I include it here because it started with trying to put an old autoharp back in service.

Conclusion, he ordered felt, finding that a full roll was a better value than 21 pieces.

The best chord bar locations are the middle 15, 3 on each end less satisfactory. Definitely place the most often used chords there. The following is the chord layout I start with using the standard set of chords:

high, short string side
<--tuning pin and soundhole end


bass string side

This will favor the keys of FCGD which are the keys favored by the incomplete octave tuning in the bass. Customizing occurs from there. No change is a real improvement without changing the bass tuning and then some string sizes (customs, which I carry). As an example, if you wanted a better key of A, you would drop (the key of) Eb (three flats) from one end and add E (four sharps) on the other, like this:


Typically, this is done by changing the bass tuning to GACDEFF#GG#ABC instead of FGCDEFF#GAA#BC. That is the 10 note octave for CGDA instead of FCGD. Everything higher stays the same. Note that doing any tuning changes means all the bars have to be refelted. I often do this when refurbishing an instrument, refelting in any case, nothing wasted, no extra charge except some specially marked chord bar buttons.

Felt is still the best damping material. Been tested many times. Density of the felt matters a lot. Soft felt wears out too fast, and hard felt both takes a long time to seat or break in and conducts some sound. Autoharp felt is medium in the same range as "F1" grade felt, as one might use as an anti vibration pad under a piece of mechanical equipment.

Many people have experimented with different materials. Some last longer and then are more maintenance free, but none damp sound as well as (good) felt does.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Monday, February 02, 2009 4:32 PM
To: Bob Lewis
Subject: Re: String changing

Thanks again for the advice. I'll keep the one I have. I like old things anyway.

I'm going to try to place the order for the felt today or tomorrow. I have one spring that had broken. I stretched it - it works and the action seems OK on it (placed on a chord I hardly use anyway), but maybe I'll get a new one.

I was in a hurry to get to a meeting when I ended my last email and forgot to ask a couple questions. I want you to know that I appreciate the time you're spending with me.

The couple songs we use the autoharp on are mostly in G & D, and new songs will probably be the same. Muted strings seem quieter when the felt pushes near the middle of the string (like Eb) instead of the end (like Em). Do people place the chords they play most often on the left side to try to dampen the muted string sound? Or is this something nobody seems to bother with? Also, I assume the felt should dampen the muted strings as well as it can. That is, I assume that's the idea. So, I have to wonder if felt is used just because it's always been used. I mean, there are materials now that would make the muted strings quieter than felt. I'm not trying to re-write the book; I'm just curious. I have a product called Orange Pad that's a high grip silicon compound. When I'm applying the felt strips I buy from you, I'll have to try it on a couple chord bars just to satisfy my curiosity.

Thanks again,

----- Original Message -----
Sent: Monday, February 02, 2009 3:31 PM
Subject: RE: String changing

The one you have is one of the most valuable US vintage models. The new OS45 is unsatisfactory, fine tuners or not. I won't carry the new OS45. Definitely do not sell this one. It is well worth a full refurbishing, strings and all, then better than a new one.

The original USA springs are okay. It is the later imported springs that need replacing. My custom springs might be an improvement in feel, but it would be subtle...not a priority.

I take it you will place an order on my website or call me.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Monday, February 02, 2009 2:00 PM
To: Bob Lewis
Subject: Re: String changing

Hi Bob,

Thanks for the info. Entire family has been sick for a few days, so I couldn't get back to you sooner.
I guess I'll take your advice and order the felt first, and then take it from there. Do you think getting the softer springs would help, too?

If it needs strings, I may either send it to you, or just sell it and get a different one. I can find newer used OS45s with fine tuners for $200 to $250 if I search long enough. I know the fine tuners aren't the best without modifications, but I'd hope I could do that. Is there a reason to keep my older one instead? Better sound or anything?


----- Original Message -----
Sent: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 8:34 AM
Subject: RE: String changing

That is a 1975-1977 OS45C Appalachian, one of the very first 21 chord models available outside the education line. It is the same as my first autoharp bought in 1975.

I can supply felt and a template for how to cut felt to make each chord. The felt is $2 per bar length. Get a couple extras. The felt pattern or template can be printed from my website. See the Additional Information link on the home page.

A string set is $58 packed as a straight bundle or $64 with each in an envelope. A nice job of stringing is no easy matter and requires some tools and gadgets. That is what I do with people shipping instruments here to be restrung. I don't teach how to do it but do sell the strings. There are some guidelines in The Autoharp Owners Manual, which is available from To answer your question, yes, it is definitely time to change the strings, but the poor sound is more likely coming from poor damping by the felt. I suggest fixing the felt and then assess the performance from there.

Music stores rarely know how to do a proper stringing job. Don't count on doing it locally. Ship it here. There are only a handful of guys in the whole country. The instrument assumes that someone might change a string, but I rarely see it done well and was not good at myself when first starting out. Changing a broken string to keep going is one thing, but complete maintenance restringing is a bigger deal and should be done correctly.

Stringing labor is $50. Turn around is usually within the week of arrival.
If I were to also do the felting, it would be $5 per bar or $100 for the set of 21, including felt. That would be $208 for me to do the whole thing. If the instrument was here, I would add a few other things to soften and quiet the chord bar action, probably another $25.

Sent: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 11:59 PM
Subject: String changing

Hi Bob,

I have an older OS autoharp. I don't know model (paper is missing) or year, but I bought it used (but in perfect condition) in 1977 or 1978 and believe it was made between 1975 and 1977. I played it for about a year (could even pick a few notes) then put it away when life got too busy. Now my son is teaching me how to play the guitar and we do a couple songs together. I took out the autoharp to go with our growing guitar collection and we've been having some fun with it. I tuned it up with a Korg CA40, but it just doesn't seem to sound as nice as it did 30 years ago. So, I'm hoping you can answer a couple questions or give some advice.

Although the strings are in good shape and can be tuned, at 30+ years old should they be changed anyway? It sounds a little flat. Also, the felts have large indents where they rest on the strings. How can you tell when they need to be replaced? I've taken the cover and chord bars out and cleaned everything. Quite a bit of pressure is needed to get a good sound on some of the chords. The underside of the cover has a foam pad that surrounds the buttons and the action seems good.

Right now, I'm not really interested in picking notes, but I would like to use it for chords and a little more and would like it to sound good. Can you offer me any advice (or tell me what model it is)? If it makes a difference, I am a craftsman and capable of figuring out how things work and doing work myself.

I got your email address from your online forum where I've enjoyed reading many of your posts.

Thank you,
Bob Lewis
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