info for buying an autoharp

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

info for buying an autoharp

Postby Bob Lewis » Sat Feb 28, 2009 12:38 pm

I am going to buy my first autoharp. I am in my 50's and just want to learn how to play an autoharp for my own pleasure. I am looking for suggestions on a brand and model for a beginner. I appreciate any info or suggestions you can give me. Thank you for your help.


Don't buy used unless professionally and expertly refurbished.

Don't buy an old lap style instrument. They have been out of production for 40 years and are firewood compared to the modern autoharp. The cheap glue joints don't age well, and the instruments were never more than a toy from the start.

Don't buy an odd model until checking to make sure strings are still available and where to get them. Examples are the Chromaharp Caroler, the OS10 Sierra 3/4 size and smaller, the Guitaro, any antique other than a Zimmermann Model 73, the ancestor of the 36-37 string, chromatic autoharp.

In a new instrument, don't buy a stock, two button row 15 chord just because it is a little less expensive. Get the 21 chord. That will give you three button rows instead of two. That will allow 3 types of chords to be in a more logical and consistent arrangement. The number 21 is not as important as three rows of buttons, because the outer 2-3 bars on either end of the 21 chord set wind up in an area over the strings that is unfavorable for good felt damping and then nice sounding chords. You still have basically 15 good chords, but arranged more logically and in a way that is easier to both play and remember. The remaining (6) can be thought of as nice-to-have, but players tend to avoid them, gravitating to the best sounding keys on the chord bars toward the center of the set.

Don't buy a new OS45C, and don't buy anything used that doesn't have a complete new set of strings on it, expertly installed (it shows). The OS45C is the cheapest thing with fine tuners. Those tuners cause lots of people to pick the W-R-O-N-G model, since other models without fine tuners sound S-O-O much better. Forget about poor man's fine tuners. They aren't worth it unless there is a good instrument underneath. The new OS45C is just too disappointing in sound. I am also aware of cases of failed tops on the OS45C. The tops appeared thin on examples of that model that I have seen.

Don't worry about fine tuners unless you are prepared to pay a couple hundred more. The Oscar Schmidt version doesn't work right anyway without being torn down and each cam machined. I think it is luthier grade instruments and their fine tuners that people actually like and relate to re fine tuners. They say "get fine tuners" but then don't actually use Oscar Schmidt fine tuners themselves. They speak from behind a $2000 custom job (or a half dozen of them). It is a nice theory and no doubt a sincere wish for others to enjoy easy, precise tuning, but good tuners add a lot to the price and can be a deal breaker on taking up the autoharp. Get good fine tuners by all means, if you can provide the money. You won't regret it, provided the guy providing the tuners knows how to fix them and is committed to delivering a unit that actually performs properly; extra work, extra expense.

I am preparing to ship a refurbished instrument that has fine tuners on it. The tag is $645 plus case. It is a 1975-1977 OS45 Appalachian, the red sunburst classic. The tuners are custom aluminum jobbies that are exactly the quality that luthiers use but made to my specs especially for the model B. Parts alone retail for $230 plus the string set.

Other models of the same 1975-77 vintage like the OS21C are available without fine tuners for $325 plus choice of new cases. A nice one of those with reworked OS fine tuners included would be well over $500, case not included.

The one I sell the most as an entry level instrument is the new, basic Chromaharp 21 chord. It is good looking, beautifully made, and needs very little TLC from me except upgraded wound strings and some felt tweaking and tuning. That would be only $250 for those who prefer the thought of something new rather than recycled, what we might call preloved but too often unloved, now reincarnated, still in excellent to mint condition. The Chromaharp is very respectable for the money and frankly sounds better than most of the Oscar Schmidts, certainly better than the (newer flower soundhole) OS45Cs that I have handled.

The thing to watch for is, don't pick the OS45C because it has fine tuners. I'm telling you, the sound will be disappointing, so the tuners will have to be forbidden fruit in my opinion. If you make it all about "must have fine tuners", I think you will come up wrong unless having a generous budget.

The one to own is the 1975-1977 red sunburst Appalachian. The Centurions are nice if the top's okay, but they favor Bb,F, and C. The Appalachian is the C, G, and D instrument, strongest in G with a relatively fat, warm tone.

If trying to buy used and do your own refurbishing, avoid the 15 chord sunburst Appalachian OS45 or 21 chord conversions. Those would be pre-1975 and possibly a bracing scheme that is less desirable, perhaps disappointing in tone. I have done a few that were okay, but get no consistency unless sticking with the 21 chord original equipment, which means 1975-1977. I have handled some fine exceptions outside this range but don't get the consistency. What I want is something that can be purchased from a distance and not have too many write-offs. As a used instrument, some blemishing of that 30+ year old red finish has to be tolerated, but they are nice instruments, certainly compared to the alternatives in that range.

Re Oscar Schmidt, US vintage, pre-1984; I avoid trapezoid-shaped logo, model B instruments (pre-1975), because that correlates strongly with uneven bridge pin heights and the resulting irregular string bed and poor felt damping. I can fix that, but the pins will be marred. It can't be sold as first quality. Good sound though and worth messin' with for ones own use, a loaner, or a donation.

I avoid model Bs with screened on white music scale lettering on a plain cherry stain, because that correlates to solid wood pin block instead of laminated rock maple for tighter pins. I guess those must have been some budget educator model. At a minimum, one cannot assume the very plain models include laminated pinblock. It's best to inquire specifically about the appearance of layers in the wood behind the tuning pins.
Bob Lewis
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another take on the same question

Postby Bob Lewis » Sat Feb 28, 2009 12:45 pm

Cyberpluckers is not a good place to ask that question. There is no basis for you to trust any answer, when all the replies are private, and there is no discussion sorting out good from bad information. You need someone you trust. The right question is who to work with, not what to buy. Even then, you might get referrals to buddies rather than true professionals and proven experts.

We (Cyberpluckers) don't know what our group position is, because all replies are covert, sent only to the person asking. How would we know if we serve you well or not? No answer is validated by group discussion. You can detect some consensus, but would have to guard against picking the answer you like rather than the right answer.

Your question comes up a lot, and Cyberplucker subscribers have no idea how it was answered the last time. The group typically doesn't even get a public report back summarizing the private responses.

As far as I know, there is no easy answer, unless there is a considerable amount of money on the table. An important question early in the process is, what budget amount you have in mind. Like other major purchases though, good things often cost more than we expected, possibly causing some delay while more funds are accumulated. The urge to have immediate gratification can badly compromise a purchase decision. What we do sometimes is buy something modest while sitting on some luthier's waiting list for a year (or more).

It causes me, and I believe others, a level of pain to read reports that a new player has purchased a new OS45C Appalachian. That instrument might look like a good decision on paper, but the reality of it is too often disappointing. We have a case now where someone repeatedly had Cyberpluckers jumping through hoops trying to be helpful, only to report that she bought a model about which she was explicitly cautioned (the OS45C). Now she is having warranty issues with it, and we are supposed to be enthusiastic in troubleshooting it.

I would be interested in a head count of people who actually followed advice about what to buy, or did they defeat the whole process by ultimately shopping for price?

I am frequently frustrated by calls inquiring about buying an autoharp, when the first question is "what is the cheapest model?". There simply are different kinds of buyers. The rest of us don't have much in common either. Some have $2500 autoharps and some have dumpster rescues. By the way, the answer is, the new Chromaharp is the cheapest model, and it's prettier and sounds better than most of the others at twice the price. I carry those basic, entry level instruments, because some people simply will not consider something used...not at that point in their understanding. They don't comprehend what it means for a used autoharp to be rebuilt to better-than-new condition. It is too easy to reason that they can get started for a lower price, and they are correct. The problem is in a possible write-off, as a better direction is eventually recognized, and the wisdom of advice with deeper meaning and the result of experience becomes apparent. All you can do is lay out the alternatives and the caveats and let each person pick their own direction according to what seems to work for them. It is not a simple process, trust me. It is only simple when they just trust me and do as I suggest, ready to pay the bill that hopefully I have made realistic.

Why 21 chord? - because it has three rows of buttons to make logic from three types of chords. It's not because it has MORE chords.

Why used? - because the refelting involved is a good way to get custom chords, and the inevitable refurbishing is a good chance to change the tuning while installing new strings. More importantly, the older US vintage instruments generally have better tone and volume.

Why chromatic? - good question. Most of them are not set up well for the favored keys anyway. The 21 chord serves pretty well if you are basing your learning on songs and tunes from books. I sell a cheap used Chromaharp GD conversion that would be a terrific way to learn the basics of playing. It's 12 chord, two button row. The chord bar set, although two button row, is set up following Chuck Daniels system of setting minors off to the side, playable with the thumb. The majors and minors are then left in the same relative position as a three button row, Bryan Bowers type layout, allowing an easy transition later to an instrument with a three button row configuration. That would look like this:

Chuck's 15 bar - std chords

My GD 12 bar with similar reasoning
G Lock--------Am---Em---D7---A7---Bm
-------D Lock----C----G----D----A----F#m

Am----G Lk--D Lk----D7---A7--Bm
---Em-----C------G----D----A----F#m - favorite

--G Lk----D Lk----C-----G----D----A

I prefer having the couple minors on the right, so that the principal majors and 7ths are out on the juicy part of the strings, away from the stiff, anchor end area. The lockbars are placed under the natural thumb position, so I can "play" them with my thumb during a tune that uses parts of both G and D, for example, "Ragtime Annie", C part; or Ashgrove. Any G tune that includes the II7 of A7 would be another. This is as described in Stephen Young's tune books for diatonic "open chording", what I call "open noting". Note, however, that if the 12 chord bar set on a model B is left in its factory position, there is already spacing away from the anchor, so prime or principal chords can go all the way to the right, as follows:

G Lk---D Lk----Bm---F#m---D7---A7

The final layout or chord set placement would depend upon mapping harmonics, what final position gave the best compromise in avoiding the sound of harmonics spoiling a critical chord.
Last edited by Bob Lewis on Sun Mar 15, 2009 4:36 am, edited 2 times in total.
Bob Lewis
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Posts: 260
Joined: Wed Jul 04, 2007 7:11 pm
Location: South Carolina

Postby CrossTronic » Mon Mar 02, 2009 1:31 pm

I wish I had read Bob Lewis' summary before buying my new OS45CE. It is exactly as he described. I based my purchase decision on this being the only factory model I came across that had fine tuners.

I am happy (so far) with the fine tuners, but the only thing I have to compare them to is tuning without fine tuners. I am also happy with the amplified sound, because I can EQ and add effects to get a nice full sound. However, just playing without amplification results in a thin, somewhat harsh sound that compares unfavorably to a 1958 Model 73 I got off Ebay for $39.

Even having a very well-known setup man prepare the instrument in advance, I have been disappointed with the OS45E.

Last edited by CrossTronic on Wed Mar 04, 2009 12:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Bob Lewis » Wed Mar 04, 2009 8:00 am

CrossTronic wrote:I might add that all luthiers are not created equally. I bought my instrument from a very well-known setup man and have been grievously disappointed in the setup. On one bar, I had to cut a missing notch myself for a custom chord (a missing minor 3rd note--not in the bass octave). On another bar, there was glue on the business end of the felt that was not dampening the string, but instead allowing it to "clank." I eventually had to replace that section of felt.
I don't think any autoharp guy has been without an occasional error. The thing to do is report the problem to the fellow, so he can make it right. I absolutely agree that not all setup work is equal, and I also propose that a pro can do things an amateur cannot, partly because of heightened skill and experience level, special tools, and commercial access to the best parts and materials.
Bob Lewis
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More on buying an autoharp

Postby Bob Lewis » Fri Aug 28, 2009 2:47 pm

A 21 chord instrument is the de facto standard recommendation for a new player because it has three rows of buttons, no so much because of the number of chords. Only about 14-15 sound good anyway, with others nice to have but avoided if possible. It does actually take 15 to have a minimally "chromatic" instrument, every note of the 12 tone scale used by at least one chord bar.

A chromatic is considered more versatile in that you are less likely to encounter music with chords you don't have or for which there can be found no reasonable substitute. It is an important consideration when owning only one autoharp. Diatonics and other more specialized instruments typically come later and after one is quite sure what they need to suit the music they want to play.

Lately, I have become of the opinion that if one intends to do nothing but play with dulcimer groups, a very inexpensive, older vintage, 12 chord Chromaharp conversion to GD is actually quite a neat, rather loud instrument and excellent choice as a place to start. If later finding a need for a chromatic instrument, it's not like a great deal of money has already been tied up. You also don't have enough money invested to bemoan the fact that you lack fine tuners. It's kind of a musical toy but good enough as a starter and something to enjoy as a bargain. You can learn all of autoharp 101 with this simple instrument and modest investment.

Where you can get caught is when insisting that your instrument must be new and that it be one you can play indefinitely. Most people of which I am aware don't really spend enough initially to own a keeper. I see that as somewhere in the $700 range to include fine tuners and a serious case.

Referring only to 21 chord instruments, the best sound among the very least expensive new instruments is in the Chromaharp. You might hear a lot about rearranging chord layouts as essential, but it's not important enough to warrant selecting an inferior instrument that happens to have the favored chord set. The Chromaharp can be reworked. For the applications you mention, the stock configuration might be adequate. If not, the reworked Chromaharp is still competitive in price with any Oscar Schmidt OS21 comparable model.

A used, US vintage Oscar Schmidt model B, circa 1975-1983, would be the better investment. There is a strong element of populist politics, aka the DIY crowd versus the pros, but these instruments are best if purchased already selected and fully refurbished, better than new, by a legitimate professional. Part of their work is cleaning up other people's messes, so do yourself a favor and skip the tinkering and dabbling in eBay until you know what you are doing. It is not where new people belong. There is too much to know, when you don't even know how to hold the thing yet.

Buying a used instrument and expecting it to be serviceable as-is would not be realistic. Of the 200 or so used instruments I have bought, 100% of them were totally stripped and refitted. They might have been playable but not so one should wish it on anyone else. The value added is making them better than when new and better than any common new autoharp at a comparable price. I could do less and still sell at a profit, but I look for the customer who respects the autoharp and what they plan to do with it, enough to afford a worthy instrument.

Your budget and patience will ultimately determine what you buy, but the instrument that would make the most sense for you as something to play indefinitely would have fine tuners. That too often equates to a new OS45C, which is not a good autoharp, despite many being in denial about it or not familiar with how a good one really sounds. That money is better spent on something refurbished but might be less than actually needed. I see an autoharp worthy of an established player as in the $600-800 range, including a good case. Any other recommendations at lower prices are just trying to work with your budget. With few exceptions among well informed opinions, they aren't what anyone would truly wish for you or would settle for personally. "Entry level" is what it is, and buying the very cheapest alternative is not a terrible idea, saving money to do it right later. The instrument needs to function well enough to not be discouraging for the new player. Someone new is not going to know what that minimum level is, so deal with a pro.
Bob Lewis
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