The autoharp, a unique stringed instrument, has been a mainstay in the world of music since the late 19th century. As someone deeply entrenched in the realm of electric guitars, I find the autoharp’s mechanics and sound to be a fascinating departure from the typical stringed instruments most are familiar with. This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview for potential buyers.
The autoharp is indeed a musical enigma. Contrary to what its name might suggest, it’s not a musical device you can travel on. Nor is it a self-playing instrument like a player piano. And while one might logically assume it to be a “younger sibling” of the harp, that’s not entirely accurate either. The intrigue of the autoharp begins with its very name.
What is Autoharp?
The autoharp is not a modern, automated version of the traditional harp. Instead, it’s a distinct instrument with a rich history. Characterized by its button mechanism, the autoharp allows players to form chords by pressing specific buttons, which in turn mute all unrelated strings. This mechanism simplifies the chord-playing process, making it accessible for both novices and experienced musicians.
A Bit of History
The instrument is believed to have been created by Charles Zimmerman, a German immigrant in Philadelphia, in 1882. Although its design closely resembled that of a zither, he named it the autoharp. Zimmerman equipped his creation with a keyboard of preset chords, which is likely why this “instrument for the laid-back” was prefixed with “auto.” Another convenient feature of the autoharp is that when a key is pressed, a special bar with a damper mutes all the strings (which can number up to 36) that aren’t part of the selected chord.
Originally symmetrical, the autoharp later evolved into an irregularly shaped rectangle with one corner truncated. Musicians play it either by laying it flat or holding it vertically. Sounds are produced by plucking the strings, with more vigorous plucks needed to produce melodies. Due to its “relaxed” design, the autoharp has garnered a reputation primarily as an accompaniment instrument, setting rhythm. However, skilled players can even perform solo compositions on it.
What is the Autoharp Used for?
The autoharp serves as an excellent choice for vocalists seeking an instrument for self-accompaniment. While its range has certain constraints, it’s an ideal pick for rendering folk tunes and popular tracks that typically feature a strummed guitar backdrop.
Trading the gentleness and fluidity of the harp for playfulness and audacity, the autoharp is particularly suited for the country genre. It was frequently used by artists like Maybelle Carter, who devised a unique playing technique that produced a slightly blurred sound. The instrument can also be heard in the music of the band Prairie Empire, in recordings by rocker John Sebastian, and soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae. A true virtuoso of the autoharp is the American Brian Bowers, who was among the first to add a strap to the instrument and began playing it using all five fingers.
So, not everything that’s labeled “auto” is simple. Sometimes, it demands far more ingenuity.
5 Key Autoharp Models: An Overview
When considering an autoharp purchase, it’s crucial to be aware of the primary models available in the market. Now, if you’re thinking of buying an autoharp, it’s essential to know your options. There are a few major models out there, each with its own quirks and qualities.
- Oscar Schmidt: This is the autoharp’s equivalent to the Fender Stratocaster in the guitar world. It’s a classic. With 21 chords, it’s versatile enough for beginners and pros alike. The sound is rich and full, but some might argue it’s a tad on the heavier side. If you’re planning on serenading someone under their window, make sure you’ve been hitting the gym.
- Chromaharp: The name sounds like a superhero from a musical universe, and it kind of is. The Chromaharp is the main competitor to Oscar Schmidt. It’s a bit more budget-friendly, making it great for beginners. However, some purists argue that its sound isn’t as refined. But hey, if you’re transitioning from electric guitar, you’re probably used to a bit of distortion, right?
- Electric Autoharp: Yes, they exist! For those who can’t quite let go of the electric world, this model lets you plug in and amplify your sound. It’s like the rebellious teenager of the autoharp family. The downside? It’s a bit pricier, and purists might say you’re missing the point of an acoustic instrument. But we say, to each their own!
Oscar Schmidt 15 Chord Autoharp OS15B – by Washburn The “Berkshire” Maple Body with Rock Maple Pin Block, 15 Chord, Hand Crafted Quality, Tuning Wrench, Picks & So Much MORE!!! Includes: Matching Oscar Schmidt AC445 Padded Gig Bag The OS15B h
The Oscar Schmidt brand has long been associated with quality stringed instruments, and their 15 Chord Autoharp is no exception. The OS15B model, with its sunburst finish and maple body, is both a visual and auditory delight. The maple body not only ensures durability but also offers a rich, resonant sound that’s characteristic of high-quality autoharps. With 15 chords, it’s less complex than its 21-chord counterparts, making it more approachable for beginners. But some advanced players might find it limiting, especially if they wish to explore more complex songs or genres. The inclusion of a gig bag is a significant advantage for those who plan to travel with their instrument or need protection from dust and potential damage. Compared to some other models and brands, the OS15B offers a good balance of quality and cost, making it a value-for-money option.
2. Oscar Schmidt 15 Chord Autoharp, OS73B
Oscar Schmidt OS73B Autoharp – Spruce Wood, Black matte finish, A style string anchor
Oscar Schmidt has a longstanding reputation for producing quality stringed instruments, and the 15 Chord OS73B Autoharp is a testament to this legacy. This particular model stands out for several reasons. The OS73B is often recognized for its unique design, reminiscent of autoharps from the early 20th century, giving it a vintage appeal. Its construction ensures a clear, resonant sound that’s ideal for a variety of musical genres. With its 15 chords, the OS73B is straightforward and less intimidating for those new to the autoharp, making the learning process smoother.
Some users might find the instrument a bit heavy, especially during prolonged playing sessions. The Oscar Schmidt OS73B 15 Chord Autoharp is an excellent instrument for both beginners and intermediate players. Those looking to play intricate pieces or a broader range of genres might find the 15-chord range limiting.
This model comes 3 versions: 15 chords acoustic, 21 chords acoustic, 21 chords acoustic-electric.
3. Oscar Schmidt 21 Chord “Americana” Autoharp, OS11021AE
Oscar Schmidt OS11021AE “Americana” 21 Chord Autoharp – Acoustic/Electric Autoharp with Fine Tuning System
The Oscar Schmidt 21Chord OS11021AE “Americana” Autoharp is a musical instrument known for its unique and charming sound. Special Chords added for bluegrass, folk, old-timey, and traditional music, including E major, F# minor and B minor. This autoharp features 21 chord bars, allowing you to play a wide range of chords easily. These chords cover both major and minor keys, providing versatility in your music. The OS11021AE is typically built with a solid spruce top and a mahogany back, producing a warm and resonant tone. This model often comes equipped with a built-in passive pickup system, making it suitable for amplification and live performances.
Autoharps are relatively easy to learn for beginners, as you only need to press down on chord bars to create chords, eliminating the need for complex finger placements. While easier to learn than some other string instruments, mastering the autoharp and playing it proficiently can still take time and practice.
4. Oscar Schmidt 21 Chord Electric Autoharp, OS150FCE
Oscar Schmidt 21 Chord Electric Autoharp OS150FCE – by Washburn Flame Top Electric Includes: Matching Oscar Schmidt AC445 Padded Gig Bag The OS150FCE features a rock maple pin block to assure you will always be in tune.
The Oscar Schmidt 21Chord Electric OS150FCE Autoharp is a unique musical instrument designed to provide both the traditional autoharp sound and the convenience of electric amplification. The addition of an electric pickup system and other features can make the OS150FCE more expensive than traditional acoustic autoharps. Here’s an overview of its features:
- 21 Chords: Similar to the acoustic autoharps, the OS150FCE features 21 chord bars, covering a wide range of major and minor chords.
- Electric Pickup System: The standout feature of this autoharp is its electric pickup system. It is equipped with a built-in pickup that allows you to plug the instrument into an amplifier or sound system for amplified performances.
- Solid Construction: Oscar Schmidt typically crafts their autoharps with quality materials like spruce tops and mahogany backs, ensuring durability and good sound projection.
- Fine Tuning System: As with other Oscar Schmidt autoharps, the OS150FCE includes a fine-tuning system to help you achieve precise pitch control.
- Versatility: With the combination of acoustic and electric capabilities, this autoharp is versatile and suitable for various musical genres, including folk, country, and contemporary styles.
5. ChromaHarp 15 Chord
The ChromaHarp 15 Chord Autoharp is a popular and relatively straightforward autoharp model known for its ease of use and affordability. The ChromaHarp is designed with a diatonic scale, which means it’s well-suited for playing folk and traditional music in specific keys. It often features a maple body, which contributes to its durability and resonant sound. The following chords are included – Eb, D, F7, Gm, Bb, A7, C7, Dm, F, E7, G7, Am, C, D7, G. The ChromaHarp is considered one of the easiest autoharp models for beginners to learn. It doesn’t require complex chord changes or fine-tuning, making it accessible to those new to the instrument. Compared to some other autoharp models with more chords and features, the ChromaHarp is often more budget-friendly, making it a good choice for those looking to get started without a significant investment. Unlike some higher-end autoharps, the ChromaHarp may lack a fine-tuning system, making it less suitable for precise pitch control. Due to its diatonic scale and limited chords, the ChromaHarp may not be the best choice for players who want to explore more complex or diverse musical styles.
This model comes 2 versions: 15 chords acoustic, 21 chords acoustic.
15 vs 21 Chord Autoharps: What’s the Difference?
The autoharp, a beloved instrument in the world of folk and traditional music, comes in various configurations. Among the most common are the 15-chord and 21-chord versions. But what sets them apart, and which one might be right for you?
|Feature||15-Chord Autoharp||21-Chord Autoharp|
|Number of Chords||15 chords||21 chords|
|Musical Versatility||Suitable for basic songs and traditional folk tunes||Broader range suitable for complex songs and more genres|
|Complexity||Easier for beginners due to fewer chords||Slightly more challenging due to additional chords|
|Price Point||Generally more affordable||Typically more expensive due to added versatility|
|Physical Layout||Simpler layout, potentially more comfortable for some||More crowded layout due to additional chord bars|
In summary, the choice between a 15-chord and a 21-chord autoharp depends on individual needs and preferences. Both offer unique advantages, and the best choice is the one that aligns with your musical goals and comfort. For those just starting out or on a tighter budget, a 15-chord autoharp might be the ideal choice. However, for players seeking greater musical versatility and willing to invest both time and money, the 21-chord version could be the way to go.
Is an Autoharp a Guitar?
The autoharp and the guitar are both stringed instruments, but they are distinct in design, playability, and origin. It’s a misconception to consider the autoharp as a predecessor of the guitar.
While both instruments have strings and a hollow body that acts as a resonator, their mechanisms and playing techniques differ significantly. The autoharp is characterized by its chord bars, which, when pressed, mute certain strings to form specific chords. This mechanism allows players to strum all the strings while producing the sound of a single chord.
On the other hand, a guitar requires the player to press individual strings against frets to form chords, and it typically has six strings (though variations exist). The guitar’s history traces back over thousands of years, with ancestors like the lute and oud, while the autoharp’s origins are more recent, dating back to the late 19th century.
Furthermore, the autoharp shares more similarities with instruments like the zither or the dulcimer than with the guitar. The dulcimer, for instance, also has strings stretched over a resonating body, and its playability is more akin to the autoharp than the guitar.
That You Can Play on the Autoharp?
The autoharp is a versatile instrument that can be used to play a variety of musical styles. Here are some of the genres and styles where the autoharp has found its place:
- Folk: This is perhaps the most common genre associated with the autoharp. Its rich, resonant sound complements traditional folk melodies and ballads.
- Country: The autoharp has been used by several country musicians over the years, adding a unique texture to country tunes.
- Gospel: The autoharp’s ability to provide a rhythmic chordal accompaniment makes it suitable for gospel music, especially in smaller ensemble settings or solo performances.
- Bluegrass: While not as common as instruments like the banjo or fiddle in bluegrass, the autoharp can still be used to add a different sonic layer to bluegrass compositions.
- Pop: Some contemporary musicians have incorporated the autoharp into pop music, using its distinctive sound to add a touch of nostalgia or uniqueness.
- Rock: While less conventional, there are instances of rock musicians using the autoharp to add a different texture to their music.
- Blues: The autoharp can be tuned and played in a manner that brings out the soulful tones suitable for blues.
- Children’s Music: Given its playful sound and the ease with which basic chords can be played, the autoharp is often used in children’s music settings.
- Educational Settings: The autoharp is frequently used in schools and educational settings for music instruction due to its straightforward playability.
So, there you have it, my fellow string aficionados. The autoharp, in all its glory, is a fantastic instrument that offers a unique playing experience. Whether you’re a seasoned electric guitar player looking for a new challenge or a newbie wanting to dive into the world of stringed instruments, the autoharp is a worthy contender.
Remember, it’s not about how many strings you have, but how you strum them. And if anyone ever tells you that an autoharp isn’t as cool as an electric guitar, just remind them that it’s all about the vibe, not the voltage. Rock on! 🎸🎶
Remember, the best instrument is the one that aligns with your musical goals and feels right in your hands. Whether you opt for 15 or 21 chords, the autoharp is sure to provide a rewarding musical experience. The autoharp, with its rich history and unique sound, is a valuable addition to any musician’s repertoire. Whether you’re an electric guitar expert seeking to diversify your skills or a beginner eager to explore the world of stringed instruments, the autoharp offers a distinct playing experience. As with any instrument, thorough research and consideration are essential before making a purchase.