The autoharp for the new player as a knowledgeable musician

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

The autoharp for the new player as a knowledgeable musician

Postby admin » Mon Oct 01, 2007 12:40 pm

Doug Miller
Fri Sep 28 08:59:01 CDT 2007

I'm a retired university professor (Penn State School of Music) with
a growing interest in autoharp/folk music, after a career as an
orchestral/choral conductor. I look forward to learning about the
autoharp world through this site. Currently I'm especially
interested in buying a good resonant instrument with fine-tuning
capabilities. I'm also interested in learning about any special
tuning systems which have been found to work well. I'll appreciate
wisdom from you experienced folks.

Doug Miller


You are within easy traveling distance to visit Tom Fladmark, George Orthey, Warren Fisher, and Don Brinker.

Tom Fladmark
George Orthey (717) 567-6406
Warren Fisher
Don Brinker

Other than what I built for myself, my own luthier instruments are diatonics from Tom Fladmark. In a chromatic with 18-21 chord bars, I prefer a US vintage model B, because the more responsive luthier designs amplify node harmonics beyond what is acceptable to my ear, some worse than others. That becomes a real issue at greater than 14-15 chord bars, although 10 or less is ideal, any more than that reserved for complex chords with 4 notes per octave open and then unable to sound node harmonics for that many strings. Some of the Oscar Schmidt instruments from about the last decade of US manufacture (~1973-1983) are quite delightful by comparison. Those are very underrated. Some are nice and some aren't, but a good one is a keeper, one five times as expensive not necessarily a better instrument. Differences in opinion stem mostly from whether the player wants to be louder when playing in a group. An increase in volume seems to often bring with it a reduction in sound quality, more brash than musical.

As far as tuning, the autoharp is especially well suited to mean-tone temperaments, when limited to 6 related major keys and 3 harmonic minors. When playing other instruments, folks stay quite close to equal temperament ("standard"), but that is not the autoharp at its best. The edginess of equal temperament is accentuated by the autoharp playing chords across multiple octaves. Single key autoharps cannot really use Just Intonation unless excluding the ii for Just Major or the V for Just minor. 1/4 comma or 2/9 comma work quite well for anything from single key to fully chromatic, six key.

Considering what is actually available, not an old discontinued favorite, my favored tuning equipment for such applications are the Seiko SAT500 on the inexpensive end and the Turbo-Tuner at substantially more but quite affordable. Either is better served by having a clip-on pickup or microphone. Both tuners are small for easy packing with the instrument.

In considering instrument options, I highly recommend an installed magnetic pickup, because it is unparalleled as an input for the tuner, even without amplification. You might have one without any intention of ever playing amplified, dedicating it solely to tuning. Contact pickups are not the same because they require a powered preamp with impedance matching, more complicated and gear intensive to use for tuning alone. The magnetic pickup plugs straight into the tuner, unpowered, for the steadiest of all readings.

I do not recommend against luthier brands not mentioned. I simply don't have sufficient knowledge of them to say one way or the other. I just picked the ones within easy enough visiting distance for you, assuming you are in central PA (Penn State). Note in any visiting plans that luthiers do not regularly have good representative instruments to show off or any demonstrators. Typically, everything gets sold quickly or is pre-sold. The best way to evaluate brands is to attend an autoharp gathering or other event likely to include lots of autoharp players, and then ask them to allow you to examine their instruments.

Sampling collections such as Todd Crowley's won't be as useful as one might assume, because most if not all those specimens have been substantially customized (Toddified) to where it would be debatable to what extent they represent a luthier's work, some actually bearing another make of chord bars. I wouldn't really know, but don't believe any (or many) are in a mainstream configuration, similar to what a new player would likely want. I believe some are also not current generation models like you would be ordering new. That "collection" would be worth seeing but not IMO sufficient for a fully informed buying decision. That collection does not officially represent any of the builders. You could certainly judge workmanship and wood selection on the main box part of the instruments. You could also determine how any ergonomics would vary.

Most luthier instruments are made with deeper bodies than traditional instruments. The bulk of a deeper body is problematic for many players. There is also a significant range of gross weights, but that must be fairly judged by all specimens including fine tuners. The lightest weight, easiest to hold instrument is not the best of the lot IMO, not even in the same class as the nicest ones, so one must have priorities and consider them realistically, finding an intelligent balance.

When playing an autoharp for evaluation, be aware that the impression given depends quite a lot on the note array (the tuning), the string array (the string set), the chord voicing (cutting felt in the bass), and the location of the chord bars over the strings for the key you are playing (relationship to harmonic node locations). Luthiers vary in how they approach these variables, and instruments that are customized for one player could vary considerably from anything mainstream. It is only the factory chromatic instruments or a luthier's "standard" setup that conform to any standard and which can then be judged pretty fairly side by side.

A diatonic configuration invariably can be impressive in sound by comparison to a chromatic, but one pays the price of having less versatility in a single instrument. We all pick which level of compromise is acceptable for our own needs or for whatever stage we may be in at the time. Ultimately, one really serious about playing the autoharp likely (but not necessarily) has more than one instrument, perhaps several, few if any of them configured the same. Personally, the size of my stable is constrained by how many I want to keep in tune, preserving the string set while saving some time for other things besides tuning and maintenance. One that hasn't really been "played" in a year will likely be up for sale.

Grabbing nice used instruments when available requires setting some money aside, at least reserving credit, to be ready for such things with no warning. Nice luthier autoharps that come up for sale have been known to sell within minutes of the announcement. I recommend against buying like that unless really knowing the instruments. Brand name alone will not tell one what it is they are buying. Some could actually be undesirable, trust me, more an issue of fit than quality. Some are simply not well matched to a buyer's needs. There are many more variables than brand name alone.

To sellers, I strongly recommend auctioning the instrument to determine its true market value and to allow buyers to make more considered decisions, having time to ask questions and do other homework. Otherwise, forcing buyers to be overly competitive and to make quick decisions could wind up making everyone have regrets in the long run.

Recently, I saw a US vintage Festival OS200 pulled from eBay for a private sale, when I was prepared to pay $200 more on behalf of a customer. That just tells me that one would be wise not to underestimate what an instrument is worth and to let an auction proceed to its logical conclusion. That is to say that IMHO a Buy-It-Now option does not make sense on an uncommon or relatively expensive item.

Used autoharps can be a money pit, deceptively less expensive. Most will need refurbishing or a complete reconfiguration to be suitable. Be aware of at what point you would be better off ordering something new and customized. To do that, you need to know what the actual lead time (wait time) would be for obtaining a new instrument made to your specifications. It might be shorter than you think. Find out. The issue there is often a tolerance for not achieving speedy gratification in obtaining the object of your desire. We can be cavalier in saying that depreciation in reselling what for us was a "mistake" is not very much, but the actual numbers indicate a loss of enough to actually buy another decent autoharp with lesser pedigree. The percentage loss may not look significant, but the actual dollar amount is real money. For example, we might see $1450 as a good price and a lot of money, when there actually was a $500 write off involved, compared to what the instrument (and case) actually cost originally.

Another example of how these big impulsive moves don't always add up is paying top dollar for a used instrument knowing that the chord set will need to be replaced, later finding out that the cost of the chord bar change and the time to get the chord bars all adds up to very much the same as having ordered a brand new, personalized instrument.

The appearance of a made to order instrument, or any for that matter, is important. Just take it that selecting the best looking instrument means that musical qualities are irrelevant and one cannot then claim to have both the best looking and the best sounding/playing instrument. I would be most enthusiastic about seeing instruments selected for their musical qualities but admire and covet fancy work as much as the next person. It is not an obsession though. One has to find the balance. Fancy wood or trim can be quite expensive. I take great care with my instruments but feel better with something not extra fancy and which I am almost afraid to take away from home. Again one must find the balance.

The foregoing is a lot of information, but someone coming to the autoharp with real musical credentials, likely to want an instrument to be taken seriously, needs to know quite a bit in order to have an efficient start. There are few easy answers, but one, like in many other things, is to look around and see what real numbers of other players have chosen and just go with that...sort of the "consumer reports" approach. Some seem happy with that method, which has some merit. Others prefer to grind through the details, understanding and considering every aspect. That may take more time, perhaps a year actually, including time to find and try out various samples.

Bob Lewis
Site Admin
Posts: 16
Joined: Tue Mar 20, 2007 11:08 am

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