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Autoharp Buying Advice ?

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JimW 04 Aug 02 - 03:38 PM
Susan of DT 04 Aug 02 - 04:53 PM
harpgirl 04 Aug 02 - 07:38 PM
JimW 04 Aug 02 - 07:45 PM
harpgirl 04 Aug 02 - 07:45 PM
Bee-dubya-ell 04 Aug 02 - 07:49 PM
harpgirl 04 Aug 02 - 08:00 PM
JimW 04 Aug 02 - 08:14 PM
Nathan in Texas 05 Aug 02 - 09:41 AM
DonMeixner 05 Aug 02 - 11:31 AM
DaveJ 05 Aug 02 - 12:18 PM
GUEST,Mudjack 05 Aug 02 - 12:40 PM
GUEST,Songster Bob 05 Aug 02 - 01:10 PM
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Subject: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: JimW
Date: 04 Aug 02 - 03:38 PM

I'm thinking of buying an autoharp, but after doing a bit of preliminary on-line and catalog shopping I have two questions (so far):

1) Laminates versus solid woods: I know in guitars solid spruce tops are much preferable to laminates and solid backs and sides generally rank next in importance for delivering quality sound. When I look at the Oscar Schmidt autoharps I see models with solid backs or solid tops but not with both (Ozark solid back, Adirondack solid top). Is there a reason for this -- maybe structural strength ? If I need to choose one way or the other, my guitar instincts tell me to go for the solid top. Am I missing something here? Is there a reason I should want a laminated top and solid back instead?

2) 15 vs 21 chords: I'm looking for a rhythm-only instrument at this point so I'm not looking for a diatonic. As a practical matter the 21 chord models makes more sense to me for the purpose of playing in a greater range of keys. Is there a reason I should consider a 15 other than its having fewer strings to tune -- do they have more volume, better tone or is some other plus that should make be consider a 15 over a 21?

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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: Susan of DT
Date: 04 Aug 02 - 04:53 PM

Jim - they probably have the same number of strings/volume etc - just more chord bars on top. Gee, the choice used to be between 12 and 15 chord bars and I was happy when I traded in my 12 on a 15. Check out which chords you get - some were set up with a bunch of diminished chords, for example. You can also special order chord bars and set it up for the keys/chords you want.

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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: harpgirl
Date: 04 Aug 02 - 07:38 PM

The 15 bar Oscar Schmidt has

D Gmin A7 Dmin E7 Amin D7
Ebmaj F7 Bbmaj C7 F G7 C G

The 21 bar has:Ebmaj Bb7maj F C G D A
F7 C7 G7 D7 A7 E7 B7
Abmaj Bbmaj Cmin Gmin Dmin Amin Emin

I think those are the standard "from the factory" set ups on both models.

My almost chromatic harp is set up like this Dmin Eb7 Amin B*7 Emin F# Bmin
F G7 C D7 G A* D

The strings are gcdefgabccddeeff#ggaabbccddeeff#ggabccdd

I find this set up allows me to play most fiddle tunes in G or C or D, like Merrily Kiss the Quaker, and most folkie tunes but when you want to play a waltz like Anniversary Waltz, the Gmin chord and Cmin chord come in handy on the 21 and I am SOL.

I stay away from all laminates. Give me a poplar top (easily renewable) and something fancy on the bottom like cherry or walnut or curly maple (especially for the bars) and I am happy!

If you want to play rhythm only then diatonics really do provide a richer sound. All the chromatic players I know play melodies like mad on their harps!

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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: JimW
Date: 04 Aug 02 - 07:45 PM

Maybe I'm confused on the diatonic/chromatic thing. Doesn't diatonic limit you to essentially one key.? I'm thinking for example of a diatonic harmonica where you need to grab a different harp for each key.

My main use for this is for playing rhythm back-up to folk-blues-gospel 3 and 4 chord stuff (plus a few 7ths and minors)in the more common guitar keys C, G, D, E, A etc.

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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: harpgirl
Date: 04 Aug 02 - 07:45 PM

As for solid tops, they aren't necessary to keep the instruments from bowing in around the sound hole but alot of the old Oscar Schmidts do bow in.

It actually doesn't hurt the sound much on the old ones, but keeping the middle strings in tune is harder.

Mark Fackeldy has even put a steel rod inside one of my harps to maintain shape and another of my old Oscar Schmidts that he redid has a flat wooden truss bar on the top.

I think that's for strength, I forgot to ask Mark! It's pretty, though...hg

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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: Bee-dubya-ell
Date: 04 Aug 02 - 07:49 PM


About twenty years ago, some of the more adventurous autoharp builders started building them "backwards". They put the more resonate spruce on the back and the hardwood on the front. Supposedly it offers a number of structural and tonal advantages. The main advantage though, according to some players I've talked with, is that you mic from the back so you can place the mic closer to the harp (if you mic too close to the front you will hit the mic with your picking hand). If Arthur Schmidt is offering models with solid backs, it's proabably a bow in this direction.


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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: harpgirl
Date: 04 Aug 02 - 08:00 PM

If you set up a diatonic for just one key it would. But you can have a diatonic like this one I have:

G9 D4 D6/9 A4 A6/9
Emin D*7 Bmin C#dim F#min

G A7 D E#7 A

with the strings tuned gadef#gabc#ddeef#f#ggaabbc#c#ddeef#f#ggaabc#dd

and there you have two keys with some limitations.

The f#7 and the E7 are [partial chords with no third. the 9th are added- no 7ths. 4 means suspended 4th

The D maj scale would be def#gabc#d

The key chords (triads) are D Emin F#min G A Bmin C#dim D

The D6/9+ chord =D major pentatonic scale= d, e, f#, a, b

and by pressing two chord buttons you get the following drones:
D drone g9 +d or D4+ D
E drone Emin + E7 or Emin +D6/9

F# drone F#7 + Fmin
A drone D69 + A or A4 + A
B drone Bmin + A6/9

hope I haven't confused you...hg

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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: JimW
Date: 04 Aug 02 - 08:14 PM

Harpgirl -- far out.

And Bee-dubya and Susan thanks for the instant help getting up the Autoharp learning cliff.

I can see this is going to be an adventure.

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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: Nathan in Texas
Date: 05 Aug 02 - 09:41 AM

There is absolutely no reason to choose a 15-chord over a 21-chord for a chromatic harp. The 21-chord lets you play in more keys and has the added benefit that you use the chord-bar buttons are arranged the same for all keys, so you can quickly learn to play in any key without having to look at the buttons.

Also, don't limit yourself by looking only at Oscar Schmidt harps. If possible, try to play as many different harps as possible (including the various Oscar Schmidt models--they vary considerably in sound). There are luthier harps that are not much more expensive and which you might be more satisfied with. I've been very pleased with my Lumbert harp (

If you aren't familiar with the Cyberpluckers, an online autoharp "community" full of advice of all sorts, go to to subscribe. Ask your question there and you'll get lots more responses. They'll also be able to tell you where you might get to try out some of the various harps, possibly near your area.

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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: DonMeixner
Date: 05 Aug 02 - 11:31 AM

My preference is to the 15 Bar harps. Diatonic with majors in the front row, minors only in the back row. My fingers and hands are too big for comfort on the 21's. Also due to physical limitations my fingers won't bend well enought for a button rank of three rows. I also like the additional playing area in the 15 bar harps. But these are personal prefences, not God,s law.

Nathan is very correct about trying MANY different chorded harps. I like George Orthey's, Kieth Young's and the older Autorino harps.


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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: DaveJ
Date: 05 Aug 02 - 12:18 PM

Oh great! Another chance for HTML practice:

Autoharp® is the trademark of Oscar Schmidt, & Co.


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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: GUEST,Mudjack
Date: 05 Aug 02 - 12:40 PM

I saw a Harmony hand built AH two weeks ago and the favorable feature I liked was that you could play in any key with the same fingering positions moving up or down the chord bars. Nice but probably very expensive.

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Subject: RE: Autoharp Buying Advice ?
From: GUEST,Songster Bob
Date: 05 Aug 02 - 01:10 PM

The preference for solid woods over laminates isn't as important in an autoharp as in a guitar, but avoiding the sound-hole models is probably a good idea. As for 21- vs. 15-chord models, I note that 21-chord autoharps have narrower chord bars than 12- or 15-chord models, and a too-narrow bar may mean you get a harmonic on some strings with some bars, instead of the damped string you want. That is, a narrow bar, if the felt hits the string at a harmonic node, could, particularly on a harp that's been used a bit, so the felt is getting "dimpled," give you an octave of a note that's supposed to be eliminated from the chord involved. To avoid same, you have to press harder, and this can be annoying and (because it further creases the felt) eventually self-defeating. So if you don't need the extra chords, don't get the 21-bar model.

I'm not sure how the factory setups are on the new models, but I always try to set up my chords so that the I/IV/V chord patterns are the same from key to key.

I once set up a 12-bar harp to play in F, C, G, D, A, and E, by eliminating the -7th chord bars (no G7, no A7, etc.). My chords ran as you see them, with a few relative minors interposed. I think it went Bb, F, Dm, C, Am, G, Em, D, F#m, A, B7, E -- every other chord is in the "other" row, so that the major keys were in the bottom row and the minors in the top, plus the odd major chords (Bb & B7 -- my only 7th chord).

The result is that it was alway IV/I/V, whichever key I was in, except for E, which had the V chord in the other row. Middle finger the I chord, index finger the IV, and ring finger the V. Now, I think some 15-bar harps use this arrangement (without the loss of the 7th chords), but the older 15-bar harps just took a 12-bar and added three diminished chords(!). Not so useful, that.

Now that I think about it, I bet the 21-bar harps use this pattern much better than the 15-bar harps, because they can relegate the relative minors to the top row, the V7ths to the middle, and the majors (I & IV) to the bottom. Am I right? If so, then, despite the problems with harmonics, the 21's are the way to go.

Now I'll have to look over the harps I have. I got one off of Ebay a while back, and it now has the felt falling off the alunimung bars, thanks to a basement flood that also mildewed the cases. I need to get either replacement felts OR replacement bars. I'm not sure which I will go with. Trying to replace the exact short section of felt in exactly the right places is a non-starter, for sure.
Well, back to the drawing board.

Songbob Clayton

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