“The auto-what?”, “What instrument is that?” you hear them all say…
And, to be fair, this was probably your reaction too the first time you heard about, or saw an autoharp.
Because, unless you grew up surrounded by traditional folk music, chances are you NEVER even heard about the autoharp…
Which is a pitty, really, since it’s such a unique and ressourceful instrument. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself…
What other instrument allows you to:
- Instantly play any chord you choose to play…
- While being small enough to travel with
- But also allows you to develop a high degree of masterfulness
Well the former is significantly harder to master, while the latter is sometimes not even considered a “real” instrument given its simplicity.
And so if you’re planning on getting a new autoharp, or your first one, I have compiled for today’s article a list of all the best models currently available on the market…
As well as some tips to get you started easily.
Sounds good? Then let’s begin.
Oscar Schmidt OS21C
If you’ve done some research already, you probably know that autoharps come in 15 or 21 chords.
And for the first pick of this list I chose a 21 chords model, simply because it’s the most versatile type of autoharp.
This model in particular is none other than the most popular of the whole Oscar Schmidt line…
Which is—as you’ll see with the next picks of this list—the biggest autoharp manufacturer currently existing.
This model owes its success to:
- Its very low cost – (luthier, US made autoharps may cost 10x more)
- Its great sound
- Its finishes options
- Its “rock maple pin block” – which serves to prevent the instrument from getting out of tune too quickly or too often
And the huge amount of good reviews is a testament to this autoharp’s quality.
So, if you’re a beginner and don’t know the first thing about autoharps, the Oscar Schmidt OS21C is the obvious choice. Check it out:
Oscar Schmidt Appalachian Autoharp
According to the manufacturer, this is the “ideal bluegrass autoharp”…
And, in fact, the OS45CE, or Appalachian autoharp was specifically designed for folk/bluegrass players.
Its main feature is its “flower” soundhole, which is purely visual.
But apart from that, it has a glossed finish which, contrary to satin finish produces a slightly lower sound…
And that’s pretty much it!
One BIG feature with this model though is that it’s available in both acoustic AND electric versions.
The electric version uses a passive pickup so that you can use it conveniently without having to worry about batteries.
Check them out:
Oscar Schmidt The Berkshire
Here’s the “standard for learning autoharp”, according to the manufacturer itself.
Being a 15 chord autoharp, it is considered easier to learn, because of these 2 reasons:
- It has less chords to play with
- The buttons are bigger and therefore easier to reach and press for beginners
So if you’re a total newbie to music, this is probably the perfect choice for you.
However, if you already know your way around a scale or even a piano, this 15 chords autoharp might be a little bit short for you.
- Click to compare prices – (Amazon)
Oscar Schmidt Fine Tuning Autoharp
Targeted at “professionals” autoharp players, the OS11021FN and OS11021FNE (electric version) offer 2 particular features you won’t find on cheaper models:
- flame maple top – whose aesthetic a lot of professionals like
- Fine tuning system
So let’s dig in a little more on this last point. The fine tuning system is a secondary way to tune your autoharp and allows for a much more precise tuning…
Just like what you would find on a violin or a cello.
This system has proven to be indispensable for “serious” musicians who find themselves tuning their autoharp very often…
And where normal pegs only are too tedious to use on a daily basis.
But apart from allowing for precise tuning, this system also spares the pegs from wear and tear, since you won’t be using them as much as on a regular autoharp.
Finally, this model is available in both acoustic and acoustic-electric versions. Check it out:
Oscar Schmidt 1930’s reissue
One look at the OS73 series autoharps and you can tell these are completely different from any other autoharps in the Oscar Schmidt line…
Indeed, a tribute to the very first autoharps, the OS73 series is intended to reproduce the look of the old autoharps models from the 1930’s with features such as:
- A mat finish – as opposed to gloss finish for most autoharps. Mat finish produces a louder sound
- Type A strings – all moder autoharps use type B strings, buut this model use type A strings since it’s supposed to recreate old autoharps, which used this type of strings too.
This model is available in 3 versions:
- 15 chords acoustic
- 21 chords acoustic
- 21 chords acoustic-electric
So if you dig the look of these autoharps, check them out:
- OS73C (21 chords acoustic) – (Amazon)
- OS73B (15 chords acoustic) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- OS73CE (21 chords acoustic-electric) – (Amazon)
So here it is, the ONLY model of the list that isn’t manufactured by Oscar Schmidt.
But to be honest, you’d be pretty lucky to find any differences between Chromaharp’s insruments and Oscar Schmidt’s.
Because the truth is that Chromaharp’s autoharps hit the market back in 1968 as the first real competitor to Oscar Schmidt’s autoharps…
And back then, the choice lied between an American made instrument, and a Japanese made instrument (Chromaharp).
Nowadays of course both brands manufacture their instruments in China.
The big difference between the 2 companies really is that Chromaharps are entirely made of maple, whether Autoharps are usually made with a mix of spruce and maple.
- Click to compare prices – (Amazon)
Also check out the 15 chords version:
- Click to compare prices – (Amazon)
And for the final pick…
Oscar Schmidt Americana
Here is probably the most unique autoharp of this list. Just like the OS45C, the Americana was created specifically for bluegrass and traditional American music.
But unlike the former, this model has a completely rearranged chord layout, which allows the player to play in (almost) every key and features 3 “special” chords made to be used in those genres.
In specific terms, what they did was remove 3 chords folk musicians didn’t have any use for:
…And add 3 chords folk musicians were lacking on other models:
On top of that, the Americana also offers the “fine tuning” feature.
Another unique feature on this autoharp is the type of wood used for the top: Ovangkol.
Ovangkol is a very dense, exotic African wood from the bubinga family which produces deep and rich basses.
All in all, a great choice for any serious bluegrass/old timey/folk/country musician. Check it out:
How to Tune the Autoharp
Right after the instrument choice, tuning it is probably the MOST important thing to know…
Because, unlike the piano which only goes out of tune so often, and actually requires a skilled technician to tune it back up…
Autoharps will go out of tune A LOT. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot. In fact, autoharps might require as much as a WEEKLY re-tuning…
And so you better get your tuning skills on point by the time you receive your new autoharp, because you’ll most certainly need them right off the bat.
Luckily, there’s nothing really complicated about tuning an autoharp, and you’ll only need 2 things:
And before starting the tuning process, be aware that the tuning pegs on autoharps are EXTREMELY sensitive, and the slightest hand movement might result in a dramatic change in pitch…
Which is why some models come with the fine tuning feature, so that you can tune your autoharp with more precision.
Got it? Next up…
Buying an instrument with 36 strings can be quite intimidating, especially when you’re a newbie. And often times, the 3 most common questions regarding autoharps strings are:
- WHEN should I replace them?
- HOW should I replace them?
- WHAT string sets should I get?
So let’s address these questions right now, starting with…
1. When to replace your strings
Autoharps strings don’t wear off half as often as, say, guitar strings…
Which is a good thing since the replacement process is much more complicated. And so:
- If you gig regularly and practice a lot, replacing your strings once a year might be a good idea…
- And if you only play at home occasionally, you can replace them as little as once every 3 years
So that’s for the “when” part. Now for the “how” part…
2. How to replace your autoharps strings
When you decide it’s time to replace your strings, get ready and gather some tools. You’ll need:
- Needle nose pliers
- Wire cutters
- A tuning wrench
- Fine tuning wrench (like an Allen type key) – if your model is equipped with the fine tuning system
- An electronic tuner
The process is rather complex and tedious since you’ll need to repeat it as many times as you have strings on your autoharp…
Which is why many musicians choose to let a luthier, or other professional do the restringing for them.
But in the case you do want to do it yourself, instead of explaining it and writing it down, why not watch a video instead, like this one:
Alternatively you can also check out the ressources from Oscar Schmidt on replacing strings here.
3. What strings should you get?
It’s quite simple, really. All of the above models basically require the same type of strings, EXCEPT for one model: the Oscar Shmidt 1930’s reissue.
And the reason why is because it’s the only model of the list that uses type A strings, whereas all the other models require type B strings. Type A strings have a loop end while type B strings use a ball end.
One advantage of autoharps strings is that there is very little choice available, so here are all the stringsets currently available on the market:
- Oscar Schmidt Model B – (Amazon/MusicianF)
- Oscar Schmidt Model A – (Amazon)
- ChromaHarp (ball-end) – (Amazon/GuitarC)
And That’s It
So there you have it, the 7 Best Autoharps curently available on the market.
Hopefully I’ve helped you make an informed decision for your new, or next autoharp.
‘Til next time!