The Best Autoharp: Comprehensive Guide

7 Best Autoharps: Comprehensive Guide

Okay, I know, it doesn’t quite ring a bell, does it? “Autoharp” may be as alien a word to you as if I’ve spoken in Deutsche or Mandarin.

That is a typical reaction I get when I mention autoharps to anyone, especially those who are not familiar with musical instruments or have no background in folk or traditional music.

I often describe them as small versions of the old harp, as most people know what a harp is!

But the autoharp is one of my favorite instruments currently, it’s unique in that it can promptly play any chord you wish, is compact enough to carry around, and at the same time, allows you to play masterfully in no time.

Autoharps in the musical instrument realm can be placed somewhere in between the two popular folk instruments, a banjo, and a dulcimer. A banjo is more challenging to learn and master, whereas a dulcimer is so simple that people say it’s not even an instrument.

Either the way, the autoharp is becoming an increasingly popular instrument, and it’s not hard to see why!

So, if you are eager to get your first autoharp or looking to make an upgrade, here are the best autoharps currently available…

7 Best Autoharps 2020

At the end of the day, you want to pick the best autoharp that’s right for you. To do that, you have to understand the different features and aspects that make a particular autoharp a good choice. That’s why I created this guide!

Oh, and a heads up! There may be some products which I recommend for which I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. All recommendations are genuine and/or verified by myself!

1. Oscar Schmidt OS21C

Oscar Scmidt OSC autoharp.

Key Features

  • Rock maple pin block
  • 21 chords
  • Maple back and top wood
  • Shiny gloss finish
  • 5-year warranty

Oscar Schmidt is the largest autoharp manufacturer in the world, which will soon become quite evident in the list I’ve prepared!

The OS21C is an autoharp model with 21 chords (as its name implies), is the most versatile model in the Oscar Schmidt line, and is currently the most popular.

This particular model has the following features:

  • It’s one of the most affordable autoharps in the market.
  • It has an excellent sound.
  • The model comes with different exquisite finishes.
  • It has a mechanism that stops the instrument from getting off-tune too easily and frequently. That mechanism is called the rock maple pin block.

The OS21C comes highly recommended by myself, but also its users and the significant number of positive reviews they share.

Also, this autoharp comes in two versions, the OS21C being the ordinary acoustic model and an OS21CE, the acoustic/electric counterpart.

Depending on your preference for acoustic or electric, the Oscar Schmidt OS21C is truly the best autoharp overall in my opinion!

2. Oscar Schmidt Appalachian Autoharp (OS45CE)

Oscar Schmidt Appalachian Autoharp

Key Features

  • Laminated rock maple pin block
  • 21 chords
  • Select spruce top
  • Maple body
  • Satin finish
  • Unique flower shaped soundhole
  • Passive Electronic Pickup

Oscar Schmidt calls this model their “ultimate bluegrass autoharp.” The Appalachian autoharp is especially ideal for bluegrass or folk musical players.

Its main feature is its completely visual flower soundhole. It also comes in a satin finish, which you may or may not think looks better than the usual glossed finish. The satin finish, however, does allow the autoharp to have a lower sound.

And as its name implies, it comes in acoustic (OS45C) and electric (OS45CE) versions. The advantage of the electric variant is that it utilizes a passive pickup, meaning that the pickup works without having to bother about batteries.

Overall, the OS45C or OS45CE is the ideal bluegrass autoharp, and sounds superb through an amp!

3. Oscar Schmidt ‘The Berkshire’

Oscar Schmidt 'The Berkshire' Autoharp

Key Features

  • Rock maple pin block
  • 15 chords
  • Maple top and body
  • Gloss finish

According to Oscar Schmidt, this particular model is the “standard for learning autoharp.”

This model is a 15-chord autoharp and is considerably easier because it has fewer chords to play and also it features bigger buttons that are more convenient to reach and press.

One thing to mention though is that if you are already experienced in playing a scaled instrument like the piano, the 15 chords may be a bit restricting for you and your musical ability.

If you’re looking for an easy entry into the world of autoharps, The Berkshire is the best autoharp for beginners!

4. Oscar Schmidt Fine Tuning Autoharp (OS11021FN/E)

Oscar Schmidt OS110 Fine Tuning Autoharp

Key Features

  • Rock maple pin block
  • 21 chords
  • Flame maple top wood
  • Gloss finish
  • FT600 fine-tuning system
  • Passive electronic pickup

Oscar Schmidt’s finest autoharp model, best suited for professional musicians. The acoustic and electric variants of this model have two distinct and unique features.

Firstly, a flame maple top that provides an exquisite aesthetic for professional autoharp players. But also, a fine-tuning system that provides an alternative method of tuning that adjusts your autoharp in a more precise manner, very similar to a cello or violin.

This fine-tuning system has been essential to professional musicians who tend to tune their instruments more often than others. Imagine the tedium of using the standard peg tuners very often.

As a bonus, the pegs in this autoharp will be preserved more from excessive wear due to less use compared to a regular autoharp.

Overall, the fine tuning system makes this the best autoharp for professionals!

5. Oscar Schmidt 1930s Reissue (OS73)

Oscar Schmidt 1930s Reissue Autoharps

Key Features

  • 21 chords
  • Solid spruce top
  • Mahogany back
  • Black satin finish

A single glimpse of the OS73 and you can already tell its uniqueness from the other Oscar Schmidt models.

This particular model is a tribute to the first vintage autoharps introduced in the 1930s. The model series has the following features.

Firstly, a mat black finish. This is very much in contrast to the glossy finish of other models. An advantage of a mat finish is its tendency to produce a louder sound.

Secondly, type A strings. Most modern autoharps use type B strings, but since this model recreates the original vintage versions, it also has most of their features, right down to the strings.

What I like about these models is that they have the classic look of the original Oscar Schmidt Autoharp, yet have integrated modern quality improvements to create a more reliable and better sounding instrument!

This 1930s reissue model comes in three variants:

6. ChromaHarp 21

Chromaharp 21

Key Features

  • Torsion-tight tuning pins
  • 21 chords
  • Maple top and back
  • Gloss finish

The Chromaharp 21 is the only autoharp model on my list that isn’t produced by Oscar Schmidt!

Originally made in 1968 by a highly reputable Japanese musical instrument manufacturer Tokai Guitars, the Chromaharp is not very far from Oscar Schmidt harps in terms of quality and features.

The Chromaharp was mainly regarded as the only competition for Oscar Schmidt. Both companies were the only two dependable sources of quality autoharps. Back then, it was a choice between US-made (Oscar Schmidt) and Japanese-made (Chromaharp).

Well, today, like many other manufacturing concerns, both companies produce their instruments in China. The only considerable difference between the two brands is that Chromaharps are made only of maple wood, while Oscar Schmidt tends to use a mix of spruce and maple.

7. Oscar Schmidt OS11021AE Americana

Oscar Schmidt Americana Autoharp

Key Features

  • Special chords for bluegrass/folk music
  • 21 chords
  • Ovangkol top
  • Solid spruce body
  • Satin finish
  • FT600 fine-tuning system
  • Passive electronic pickup

Probably the most unique model on this list, the OS11021AE Americana autoharp is somewhat similar to the Appalachian in that it is also specific to traditional American or bluegrass music.

However, the difference to the Appalachian is this model’s entirely reordered chord arrangement that allows the player to play in every key and even has three distinct chords precisely for bluegrass, folk, old-timey, and traditional music.

Specifically, the adjustment made was removing three chords that folk musicians did not use: Ab or A flat, Bb7 or B flat augmented 7th, and Cm or C minor.

In their place, three chords the musicians found lacking in other models were added: E major, B minor (Bm), and F sharp minor (F#m).

Aside from those changes, the Americana also features the fine-tuning system.

Finally, they used a unique wood material called Ovangkol, which is an exotic dense African wood of the Bubinga family. That particular type of wood provides rich and deep bass.

All in all, the Americana is the best autoharp for bluegrass, folk, and country musicians!

Autoharp Tuning

Next of importance to instrument selection is learning about tuning. The autoharp is very different from say a piano, which doesn’t go out of tune very often, but requires a technician to facilitate its tuning when it does.

An autoharp, however, needs re-tuning quite often, similar to a guitar or another hand-held string instrument, but thankfully, it doesn’t require a technician’s skills and is fairly simple to do!

Autoharp tuning is quite straightforward, and only requires two things, a particular autoharp wrench, and a standard clip-on tuner. You essentially use the wrench to turn the tuning pegs in the direction as guided by your clip-on tuner.

Also, it’s essential to note that before proceeding with the tuning, be extra careful with the pegs. They are highly sensitive, and the slightest touch could alter the pitch and tune, so you don’t need to crank the wrench!

That is where the fine-tuning feature of some autoharps comes in handy, as you can accurately tune your instrument.

The Autoharp Strings

Purchasing a musical instrument that has 36 strings may be a daunting thought for many, but even more so if you are a beginner. But don’t fret 😉 I’m here to answer the questions that most likely popped into your mind when thinking about autoharp strings.

When should I replace my autoharp’s strings?

Autoharp strings last for much longer than guitar strings do, and since the replacement process is a bit more tedious than the guitar, that’s good news. If you practice often and have regular gigs or performances, you may want to replace the strings once a year. On the other hand, if you only play infrequently at home, replacing the strings once every three years would be more than suitable.

What kind of strings do I need?

All of the autoharps included in the list need the same type of strings: Type B. The exception is the Oscar Schmidt 1930 Reissue model, which uses a Type A string.

The main difference between the two types is that Type A strings have a loop end while Type B strings have a ball end.

In summary, the three currently available autoharp string sets are:

– Oscar Schmidt Model A
– Oscar Schmidt Model B
– Chromaharp ball-end

How do I change the strings on my autoharp?

What you’ll need for replacing autoharp strings:

– Electronic tuner
– Pair of needle (long) nose pliers
– Fine-tuning wrench (similar to an Allen key) – for models equipped with a fine-tuning system
– Tuning wrench
– Pair of wire cutters
– Ruler

First, let me warn you that the process is tedious and complicated because you need to repeat it as many times as the number of strings you have on your autoharp. That is the very reason most musicians opt to have a luthier or similar experts restring the instrument for them.

However, if you want to do it yourself, here are the steps:

1. Carefully remove the old strings using the needle-nose pliers to unwind the strings from the pegs. You may need to snip off some of the wires that don’t come off readily.
2. Loosen the pegs with the tuning wrench with three and a half counterclockwise turns.
3. Loop the new string and insert it under the brace with the help of a piece of paper.
4. Some strings come with a little ball at the end. That can be placed in the notch at the base of the frame.
5. Measure the other (free) end of the string about two and a half inches past the peg or pin and cut using the wire cutter. Careful to keep the excess length of the string, so it doesn’t cause injuries lying about.
6. Using the needle pliers, make a shepherd’s hook on the free end of the new string and attach it to the pin/peg.
7. Wind the pin/peg with the tuning wrench clockwise, while making sure the string winds down on the pin, not up.
8. Be careful to apply less winding force as the string tenses up to the desired tension.
9. Use the electronic tuner as you pluck the string to find the right pitch.
10. Repeat steps for all the remaining strings.

Choosing The Best Autoharp For You

I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of the best autoharps available!

If you’re still struggling to decide which autoharp is right for you, let’s break it down simply.

If you are a complete beginner and have no experience playing any other stringed instrument, then I’d suggest the Oscar Schmidt Berkshire. Not only is it the most affordable, but it’s much simpler to play with only 15 chords.

If you’re passionate about bluegrass, folk, and traditional music, and that’s what style you want to play, then the Oscar Schmidt Americana, with its three specialist folk chords, is a no brainer!

For fanatics and professionals that are willing to spend a little bit more for the added benefit of a fine-tuning system, the Oscar Schmidt OS11021FNE is a beautiful instrument.

But overall, the best autoharp, in my opinion, is the Oscar Schmidt 21, as it offers the most versatility and best price to value ratio!

Now with one of my favorite autoharp players and one of the pioneers of the instrument, Mother Maybelle Carter, showing us all how it’s done!

Mother Maybelle Carter autoharp solo (live 1970).

Happy strumming! – Will