Recommend what autoharp I should buy

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

Recommend what autoharp I should buy

Postby Bob Lewis » Tue Sep 09, 2008 8:43 am

This Cyberplucker thread, summarized below, died before reaching any meaningful resolution. The upshot seems to be that if someone asks for recommendations re what autoharp to buy as a new player, we can only offer some awkward answers that don't translate to reality very well. One also has to be politically sensitive. The actual recommendations may be so discreetly made that we have no collective sense or recognized consensus.

We can maybe provide an autoharp to play but not one destined to be a keeper and not one we would care to be playing ourselves. For example, it might be a very nice playing and sounding instrument but lacking fine tuners. If a model B, adding fine tuners is not even a particularly good idea. The expense of that upgrade would mean one is bonded with that instrument and committed to playing it indefinitely. Otherwise, the money can seem better invested in an entirely different instrument. The model B without fine tuners might be considered a perfectly good instrument, but it is not getting the recommendations…sorry. It might be a compromise and might be what people indeed pick, but is not going to be the recommendation. That recommendation is going to be more expensive and more difficult to obtain than people would like.

I think what we have (and need) is both a recommendation we would like to see people enjoy and one from among those instruments people are likely to actually buy. If that is not acceptable, then integrity would lead us to actively attack both the cheap choices that draw people away from having competent instruments and the lack of integrity in the people who sell them. If a person has to back away from the real object of desire for lack of either funds or patience, that will be up to that person. We tried. Our motivation, of course, is to protect people from the same mistakes we made. What we lacked was qualified advice or the will to follow it.

In terms of what we can find comfortable as a recommendation, if the opening price point was $1000, and we managed to direct a significant portion of new people to that serious side of the autoharp, the current builders would quickly choke on the demand, and waiting lists would extend indefinitely. There are few builders I know of with any interest in hiring help or doing anything approaching mass production. Most seem to value working alone or certainly to a small scale. That mode is better suited to high quality, low volume, and high price. A $1000 autoharp with any integrity would not be very profitable unless mass produced in some degree or limited in features that required significantly more time and materials to provide. Customer expectations would need to be limited, or it would be a $2000 autoharp trying to be a $1000 autoharp. Builders would shy away, hard enough to manage as it is.

Wood supplies don't appear out of nowhere. Builders have a stock of seasoned or seasoning wood in proportion to what they expect to use. One does not suddenly start shipping 100 autoharps a month. Sourcing wood that is ready to use and available in steady supply is not a simple matter. What we know as "luthiers" is a source that is not likely prepared to provide instruments in any real quantity, anything like what would be required to supply new players.

Within the realm of what we assume are realistic budget assumptions, we see repeated mention of getting an instrument, whether new or used, from a person who can prepare the instrument expertly. Well, IT'S NOT HAPPENING, certainly not in the numbers that might be assumed. People are buying the most features for the lowest price off the internet, making the reasonable assumption that a new instrument should work perfectly and that the guy selling it can stand behind it.

The other thing that is noteworthy is that people ask for advice, find it not to be the answer they wanted, and then they ignore it, again corrupted by the assumption that a new product can't be that bad, can't require $100 worth of TLC from a specialist.

What we are really dealing with is imported labor and domestic labor, one dramatically more expensive than the other. The cheaper labor is not harnessed to build what we want to buy. A factory autoharp is not in the keys or configuration we want. While one already committed to playing the autoharp might step up and pursue what he needs at whatever price is necessary, a new player typically should not be expected to do that.

I believe what we confront in realistic terms is that a new player is not going to buy what we would like to recommend. The ante is too high, and the availability is not there. The recommended instrument is only theoretical. The one with the pile of instruments for sale, warts and all, is either Oscar Schmidt or eBay.

Alternatively, one can stand his ground and insist that an autoharp worth having costs at least $1000. If not the desired answer, oh well. The person asking for a recommendation and dismissing it will then flounder around like others and eventually see the error in his ways. We did the same, didn't we? We eventually graduated to "a real autoharp" or got the upgrades.

In the end, I think we need to line all the choices up and create some sort of decision making logic:

1) old model A bought used

12-15 chord

2) old model B bought used

12-15 chord
21 chord
diatonic

3)Used Chromaharp

4) new Chromaharp (or Samick, et al.)

5) New Oscar Schmidt model B

15 chord
21 chord

6) New Oscar Schmidt Model A Reissue
15 chord
21 chord

7) Enhanced and customized US vintage model B (used)
Fine tuners, fully refurbished, better than new

8) Customized new Oscar Schmidt
Model A Reissue with fine tuners, possibly custom chord bars

$665 (std 21 bar chord set)

9) Lumbert Mountain

Only a few instruments available a year. Not actually selling many or able to produce many more per year. Semi-retired, effectively. I asked.

$735

10) Unicoi
Cynical offering at the price without fine tuners. Predatory in that the absence of fine tuners can catch people off guard. At the price, it is definitely not a peer of fully equipped and trimmed instruments.

11) Evoharp
Cynical offering at the price without fine tuners. Predatory in that the absence of fine tuners (and button tops) can catch people off guard. At the price, it is definitely not a peer of fully equipped and trimmed instruments. Advantages of light weight and compact size.

12) Desert Eagle/Desert Rose

Functionally and tonally worth considering. Striking appearance but lacking in detailing, as should be expected at the price. Only one real competitor.

13) Arkansas Autoharp

Ideal at the price point. Best buy as far as features at a price, assuming one likes the sound and feel of it.

Note that favorite color and soundhole shape are not good reasons, not musical reasons, for picking an autoharp. Aside from tonal quality and playability, how an autoharp feels is important. How it looks is not immaterial but should be secondary. Buying an instrument is different than buying wardrobe or accessories. This may seem obvious, but trust me, some of the ladies in particular need to have this pointed out. I too like a good looking instrument, but it is not top priority.

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I could have said to establish a budget first, but it doesn't work that way. People decide they want something and then start shopping, adjusting their desire to something they see as financially manageable. The main thing will be, I WANT IT N-O-W! Hurray for the exceptions. That is a sure formula for ones first autoharp not being their last, hopefully not a complete write-off at some point.

In considering any of these choices, note that a more expensive instrument or one hand made domestically is not necessarily a "better" instrument. If it is not louder than a typical factory instrument, it is not a bit better and does not represent a solution to anything significant enough to warrant the expense. The single exception is when it provides a chord set that factory brands do not, for example, a 15 bar, 3 button row set.

Note that if one is ordering an entire instrument just as a platform for the desired chord bar set, it is an aberration. There are sensible workarounds such as simply purchasing the chord bars and installing them on a respectable base instrument. This is evident in Buck Lumbert indicating that he and Lois have a nice little trade in producing just chord bar sets, few complete instruments. However, I submit that this is really a subject more related to "diatonics", because a well set up factory 21 bar chord set is more than adequate for a conventional chromatic instrument, such as we would expect a new player to have.

I have only provided a minimum of considerations (or none) for each category. Others can fill it in or consider it obvious.

Beyond this point, I am not aware of much middle ground. I see luthier offerings effectively ignored until commanding the range that approaches $2000. I believe that means people either want one that sounds really good and is functionally perfect, yet economically priced, or they want to add expensive appearance features or premium sound quality, real or imagined, obtaining "the best available".

Nice wood, player friendly chord bars, and well functioning fine tuners are critical features in the category I think of as "field grade", luthier built instruments, selling at approximately $1000. Detailing cannot be there, or the instrument would be forced into a higher price category. It has to be Spartan in order to both compete and to be profitable at a given price.

It is obviously a long way from $1000 to $2000, but I think value is very difficult to measure in that range. Sometimes it just doesn't matter, if only one guy can deliver within the next two years.

Where do I see all this ending up? Well, we need an adequate supply of nicely made, respectable sounding autoharps that function the way they are supposed to function and which are manageable in price. I believe we have that in the professionally prepared Oscar Schmidt Model A Reissue, in scarce supply at times, and with the Desert Rose and Arkansas Autoharp at the high end of the range, probably available enough to satisfy demand at that price. I see the model B as out of the picture with no satisfactory fine tuner solution or one that can make sense economically. It languishes at the bottom end, where recommendations are based mostly on cost rather than what we would like to see people playing, what we would wish on them, what we would consider playing ourselves.

Many other new OS models will sell and probably well, but anyone who really knows autoharps will probably not mention them as any recommendation. In terms of sound, it is just too easy to find a better choice in the Reissue or US vintage used instruments. The new Chromaharp is also better and cheaper. Only the Reissue or something to be fully refurbished in US vintage has a practical fine tuner solution.

It costs real money to have a nice autoharp. One can invent their own feel good fantasy, perhaps enjoying playing at some level, but should note that those who have played for awhile tend to have more elaborate, more expensive instruments. It may be just a matter of having something to play while you sit on some builder's waiting list. Our choices are very much influenced by what is available in two weeks, not in two years.

I don't mean to say that one has never arrived until owning a relatively expensive autoharp. I am only intending to portray my observation of what people actually do on average, to the extent that I could know that.

As a parting comment, I think the luthiers have distorted the economics of the autoharp. To some extent it has been done, but if I had a two year waiting list, I think the message should be clear that my prices are too low, assuming I had no desire to add capacity and give up controlling all of the output personally. We have these guys charging $2000 for an autoharp and few if any making any real money at it.

Bob Lewis ♫
boblewis@autoharpworks.com

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<subscriber>

Hi All,

I have only been playing for about 3 weeks, but have always loved the autoharp. I seem to be making pretty good progress, but have a lot to learn, of course. I prefer the oldtime mountain music, as well as jigs, reels and bluegrass styles. Presently, I have a borrowed Oscar Schmidt, 12 key harp, and am looking into buying my own. I would like to know what you think about the OS45CE? (21key, fine tuners, etc.) I have a chance to get a new one for $389.00. I want to buy a harp that I can use for many years, not just for the time being. I cannot afford the $1800.00 for an Orthey at this time. Should I go ahead with this one, try to find something a little better, or save my shekels and eventually buy an Orthey? Any suggestion, or recommendations? You all seem like such a friendly, helpful group, and I really enjoy reading the mails. And love the youtube posts, especially Terwilliger Jones' lessons!

Thanks to all of you, <subscriber>
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<subscriber>

quote: > I would like to know what you think about the OS45CE? (21key, fine tuners, etc.) I have a chance to get a new one for $389.00. I want to buy a harp that I can use for many years, not just for the time being. > I cannot afford the $1800.00 for an Orthey at this time. Should I go ahead with this one, try to find something a little better, or save my shekels and eventually buy an Orthey? Any suggestion, or recommendations?>

Well, I can only pass along what I've learned from this fine bunch of folks, and it's this: cheap ain't good; good ain't cheap.

The thing that makes an Orthey (or D'aigle or Fladmark or other luthier harp) cost so dear has to do with the mechanics of the thing (smooth action, proper placed bars, craftsmanship in construction, materials...) along with a good deal of magic. Magic isn't cheap. They gotta go all over the place to find magic. But you can immediately detect it when you play one -- the sound is great, the action is great, and, best of all, they glow in the dark.

(OK -- I made up that part)

That said, you don't hafta go into crushing debt to get a good harp -- you just hafta be careful what you buy. I'd like to say that Oscar puts out great harps, but generally, I'm learning here, they put out harps that can be *made* good. I bought mine down to Cooter's Stuff For Cheap Store, and ol' Cooter sent it out to a technician to be set up before he'd sell it to me 'cause he knows I know where he lives.

That cost extra, but it was well worth it. If I was you, what I'd do is buy one from one of the technicians here on the list, pay a little more, get a harp that will please you for a long time.

That's what I'd do.
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<subscriber>

The quality of the O.S. 45 CE is reflected in it's price. There are many better choices. . . a sound, luthier refurbished 21 bar O.S., a D'aigle Desert Rose or Desert Eagle, Buck Lumbert harps as previously mentioned, and others as well (having a "senior moment" here, can't think of the name of the guy in AK that makes the wonderful dulcimers and also has a line of very nice autoharps. . . . . ). . . So, resist the urge for a bright shiny new 45 CE, and put your $$ into something that will be more satisfactory in the long run. (just my humble opinion)
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<subscriber>

quote: > Hi All, I have a chance to get a new one for $389.00. I want to buy a harp th> > I have only been playing for about 3 weeks, but have always loved the autoharp. I seem to be making pretty good progress, but have a lot to learn, of course. > I prefer the oldtime mountain music, as well as jigs, reels and bluegrass style>

Here's my advice: 1. Get a 21-bar 'harp with keys in 3 rows. This is going to be MUCH easier to play for a beginner.
2. Consider investing in a "vintage" Oscar Schmidt 'harp (usually around $500-600) that has been re-worked by one of the great autoharp techs on the list. (Pete Daigle, Chuck Daniels, and<> come to mind)
3. Or if you want to a significant step up in quality with a smaller step up in cost, consider either a Desert Rose by Pete (http://www.daigleharp.com) or an Arkansas Autoharp by Chuck Daniels (http://www.autoharprx.com). With these 'harps, you'll get beautiful action, very nice sound, fine tuners (a must in my opinion) and an instrument that will only increase in value, for about half the price of an Orthey 'harp (which you will probably eventually have, if you stick with this craziness).

The off-the-shelf plugged in Oscar that you get will probably stay in tune adequately, and will give you an OK sound plugged in, but you'll find it quite behind in unplugged sound, and also in ease of playing. It's an OK place to start, but it's kind of the difference between getting a cheap Yamaha guitar and a midrange Martin. You often get what you play for, but yes, you can strum and sing Wildwood Flower on both.
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<subscriber>

I guess I should post that my only autoharp is an OS45CE and I like it. It is a beauty to look at and plays like I think it should. I bought the semi-hard body case with it and have had several compliments on the case from other harpers who had soft body cases. I think the case is a bit bulky compared to softbody cases but it sure protects the harp.

I've taken lessons for a week from Charles Whitmer in the Ozarks in 2007 and from Karen Mueller and Cheryl Belanger over a weekend at White Springs FL in 2008. My harp did fine (and so did I). :>) I now have a grasp on playing melody notes as well as chords and rhythm.

I'm sure I'd like the luthier harps also and look forward to the day when I can see in person and play one of the luthier harps so I can make my own judgements about them. They are hard to find around NW Florida. I'll probably see some at Mt Dora FL in February but can't make the next White Springs dulcimer/autoharp weekend in November. :>(

Meanwhile I'm enjoying my OS45CE, 21 chord, re-arranged by Charles Whitmer, and playing in several keys. I need to replace three bars I won't use much with F#m, Bm, etc to complete the key of D or maybe one more bar toward the key of A. Charles had recommendations that I wrote down somewhere around here.

I think my next harp will be a diatonic with the keys of D, G, and A and will be a luthier harp. The pros discussed on cyberpluckers about 21 chords chromatic is you can play in a lot of keys and that is a good thing. The con is that there are too many dead strings in every key so the sound is a bit dull in comparison to a harp in 2-3 keys that has lots of strings ringing and few dudded in each key. Ergo a better sound.

The only problems I've had with my current harp are that it arrived with one broken string (high G#... maybe A#) and I broke another myself (low F#) after several hours of playing and jamming. Judging by comments made on this list, I think running it by a luthier/tech would have been a good idea to spiffy it up a bit and look for any jagged edges. I still may do that, but I hate to part with it even for a week or two as I'm on a steep learning curve and enjoying every minute of it.
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<subscriber>

Here's the thing. If you listen to Drew or Harvey or Karen Mueller or the many others who play "standard" instruments, what you have to realize is that you're not really hearing the instrument. What you're hearing is the touch of an expert on that instrument. Those who have been playing for many years and know exactly how to touch an instrument to make it sound its best can make beautiful, satisfying music on just about anything. So if you handed them a $300 'harp, they'd sound great.

But when you're just getting started, a higher-quality instrument will definitely sound better because it is more forgiving. It's easier to get a good sound out of a Fladmark than it is out of Drew's beat-up OS. I'm not saying that every beginner ought to go out and buy a Fladmark -- that would be overkill until they're SURE they're going to stick with it. But I think that a beginner is much more likely to stick with it long enough to get good enough to play an old beater beautifully if they start with an instrument that is easier to get a good sound out of.

My advice: plan to spend $400-$600 on an expertly set up mid-range instrument. Either luthier or OS makes no difference as long as YOU find it easy to get a satisfying sound out of it and a qualified technician assures you that it is properly set up. With an instrument that works properly and that is easy to get a good sound out of you'll be more likely to play long enough that you'll start to appreciate the difference that a diatonic or a luthier 'harp can make.
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<subscriber>

Cindy's probably correct about the price point. One other way of looking at the decision is resale value. When ready to upgrade, a used low-end harp is probably only going to be readily saleable at a considerable discount of around 40 or 50%, say, $350 for a $600 investment, because there are so many available in that range.
On the other hand, Top luthier harps quickly sell on the list for no more than a modest "teaser" discount 10% or so, $200 off an $1800 harp. Two reasons: properly cared for (condition matters with any sale) their sound normally improves with use; second, no months or years are spent on a waiting list. Re-sales of this caliber instrument are fairly infrequent because most are happy with what they've ordered. So, money invested in a premium harp of conventional layout is fairly easily convertible back to cash if minds change.
This is not to say such a tactic would be an easy choice for a beginner who doesn't know what to order or from whom, but I can think of four highly-regarded luthiers with whom you can't go wrong, and a 21-chord chromatic is a versatile learning tool and always in demand.
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Bob Lewis gtuneit at gmail.com
Fri Aug 22 20:31:45 CDT 2008

$500-600 is the right number, if one intends to recommend fine tuners.

Perhaps the real debate is the importance of fine tuners.

I agree that $300-400 is the right number without fine tuners, whether in a new instrument or used. I don't actually get close to $400 in a used instrument, because the nicer ones are saved for equipping with fine tuners at over $500. The one over $600 is the choice Appalachian that often costs quite a bit more to acquire and is considered a premium choice.
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<subscriber>

I've enjoyed reading the opinions of those with far more experience than I as to the best harp purchase for a beginner. I here recount my own limited experience hoping that it might add some worthwhile information to the mix.

I was living in Tucson with my 1970s black, 12 or 15 bar OS harp, and a newly purchased digital tuner. Tucson is blessed with not one but two world class purveyors of folk instruments. I took my business to the Folk Shop. (I use that term loosely since I mostly hung out and played with their autoharps and banjos.) My harp had decades old felts. They sold me a new set of bars which I attached. I still couldn't get the harp to stay in tune since, I realized, it had a number of warps on the face. So I bought a new, used OS 15 bar harp for $200. If you're in the market for a new harp, your quest is simplified if you live within driving distance of a shop that has many used harps to try and a staff with experience. I did look at offerings on e-bay. Good for price information, but you couldn't play them to test the sound and feel.

I don't know models, but I think my new OS was made in the 1980s. I started to play with more experience harpers in Tucson and realized that I couldn't play in some popular keys (e.g., A with the fiddlers). So I bought a 21 bar kit from Drew Smith and installed it. I think it cost $100 so my 21 bar OS now cost $300. The folks I played with had a range of luthier made harps and various OS and other factory made. I liked the sound and volume of mine. However, I would play at home without picks and found that if I tried rapid chord changes I would hear the bars pounding on their case. Plus, the action didn't allow as fast a change as I thought (hoped) I was capable of.

One solution was to buy new felting/moleskin for the under side of the bar holder. I had already put felt/moleskin on the tops of the bars to reduce their travel distance. The other solution was to buy a luthier made harp, which I finally ordered.

Is there any lesson beyond "live near a good folk shop"? As others have suggested, find a good used harp that will deliver a good sound and play it until it limits your further progress. Than adjust it so it sounds even better. Taking your harp apart and putting it back together is always a good learning experience. Cyberpluckers and various publications and web sites have much advice and information as will those you might be lucky enough to find and play with. And finally, when you have the cash and are on the road to being an autoharpaholic, treat your self to the work of the luthier.
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<subscriber>

Thank you all for the informed opinions. I will pass on the OS45CE, and look into the suggested harps. I would rather pay 5 or 600.00 for something that I would be happy with, especially after I am able to play well enough to know the difference in the sounds and action.

I live in Fort Mill, SC, just over the line from Charlotte, and would love to find someone to learn with. I will copy the lady's idea from Texas and google "folk music" to see if I can locate some activity around here. A great idea! It's so nice that this group is a mix of very talented players, repair/builders, and we beginners, as well as all in between.

BTW, I attended the "Old Fiddler's Convention" in Galax, VA a couple of weeks ago, and went to an autoharp workshop one of the Mornings. I met some very nice people there, who were very talented and helpful. Apparently, that is the type of folks we tend to be! How nice!

Thanks again! <subscriber>
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Bob Lewis gtuneit at gmail.com
Thu Aug 21 14:46:19 CDT 2008

You are about two hours from me, mostly on I 85 until just past Greenville. John Hollandsworth in VA or Jeff Dantzler near Charleston are within reach but a bit more serious trip time, I think. John would be about an hour north of Galax, I would estimate, so you would have a sense of how much of a trip that would be. However, I think it is mistaken that he carries anything in used instruments. I have never heard or read that.

It takes a very deliberate effort, real investment, and somewhat of a pile to always have something on hand in a used instrument that is nice cosmetically. Finding beaters is not difficult. You just round up what others don't want. That is not something I have ever gotten into. Really cheap stuff is not my trade. I cater to those who respect what they do with an autoharp, usually meaning ready to pay a bit more for a better instrument. The fact is, I have my rejects that are still serviceable, so I occasionally find an opening for them at the right price, and everyone is happy.

Everything is either 21 or 12 chord, no 15.

I can show you two US vintage OS21C models ready to go at $325, new strings etc. The 21 bar assemblies are moved to the favored Appalachian location, maximizing playing room and doing a bit better job at mapping harmonics on important chords.

I also have four of the 1975-77 US vintage, red sunburst Appalachians that are widely respected. These are the ones that include fine tuners and special tuning to folk keys, CGDA instead of FCGD. They have the custom chord covers that match the red sunburst color. Given the custom, lightweight fine tuners and the high bids required to obtain nice specimens, these sell for $645 plus one of three case choices discounted by $10. I do not make them available without fine tuners unless a lower grade that I just want to move out as still serviceable at a fair price. Those are rare, since I am pretty careful about acquiring these, paying double what most models would command in similar condition.

Lastly you will see the new instruments which include the Oscar Schmidt Model A Reissue and the very respectable Chromaharp, with or without electric pickup.

You can get a preview from my website but I don't usually list miscellaneous used instruments, only the featured custom Appalachian, which is pretty constantly available.

I would be pleased to see you visit.

My niece and nephew from Charlotte proper will be visiting starting this evening.
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<subscriber>

On Thu, Aug 21, 2008 at 3:46 PM, Bob Lewis <gtuneit> wrote:

[<subscriber>]

You're right, Bob - John typically does not have a stock of used instruments - maybe one now and then but nothing worth advertising. He does, however, offer a full line of Oscar Schmidt instruments that can be browsed off of our website below - and of course he does the professional set-up before shipping them to the customer.

I met Virgil at the Galax workshop and have corresponded with him too - he requested that I sing "Evergreen (Mountain Laurel)" which I tried valiantly to fake through without John, Jim & Eddie.
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<subscriber>

-----Original Message-----
From: Bob Lewis Sent: Thursday, August 21, 2008 3:46 PM

Bob wrote: >I would be pleased to see you visit.<

I would recommend any of the names Bob listed as a resource. However, a tour through Bob's shop would be to wander through all manner of interesting and mysterious projects and work stations. Not to mention, his little dog, Rufus, is skilled (not to mention relentless) at playing fetch with anyone willing to indulge him.
Bob Lewis
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