Autoharp Factory Tunings

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Autoharp Factory Tunings

Each of the four most popular factory autoharp configurations has historically been set up to play in a certain number of keys (based on a simple 3-chord song). Unfortunately for fans of traditional Folk, Old-Timey, and Fiddle music, the earliest autoharps were invented when brass bands were still in vogue, and as they expanded the number of keys they would support, they added more trumpet-friendly keys (with flats) than they added guitar-friendly keys (with sharps).

  • 12-chord autoharps (no longer made) could play songs in F, C, and G.

  • Standard 15-chord autoharps add the ability to play songs in Bb, F, C, G, and D.

  • Standard 21-chord autoharps can play songs in Eb, Bb, F, C, G, D, and A.

Why Song Keys Don't Tell the Whole Story

Many, many songs, especially Folk and Country songs can get by with just three chords, say G, C, and D7 or D, G, and A7. But there are many other songs that need extra chords. And that's where those extra chord bars come in. A song in the key of F, for example, will almost always use Bb and C (or C7). But it may also need Am, Dm, G, Gm, and G7, especially if it's a Tin-Pan Alley song, Jazz standard, "Pop" song, "Worship" song, and many Country songs. You might consider those chords "supplementary" in the key of F. If you're playing a standard OS or Chromaharp autoharp, you'll almost always have all the "supplementary" chords you need to play in F (or in Bb and Eb, if you have a 21-key harp).

Now, say you're moving from your Ragtime Banjo Society gig to a Folk, Bluegrass, Celtic, or Country gig, and your new bandmates want to do the same song in A that you're used to playing in F. You'll discover in a heartbeat that you don't have the chords you need, which may include, not only D and E7 but also A, Em, and B7 (present on a 21-chorder, but not on a 15-chorder) as well as E, Bm, F#m and maybe even C#m.

So it's easy to say that you can play songs in the key of A on a 21-chord autoharp, but that isn't the same as saying that the instrument is SUITED for playing in the key of A, unless you're committed to playing only the simplest possible tunes.

Sharp-Friendly Variants

Oscar Schmidt and Chromaharp haven't been entirely deaf to the pleas of Folk-based artists.

  • In the 1970s, two variations on the 15-chord autoharp were built that made it possible to play three-chord songs in A, though they still left out F#m and Bm in favor of Bb and C7, two chords that are far less useful in Folk-based genres. (More information on these variants is provided below.)

  • A current 21-chord Oscar Schmidt model, the Americana (#OS110 21AE), adds chords like F#m and Bm that make playing complex songs in D possible (more below). But the Americana isn't cheap, and a lot of folks with older harps would like to be able to play in folk keys. For that reason, there's quite a market in aftermarket felts and even chord bars for folks wanting to tweak which chords they can play on instruments they already own or have access to.

Again, autoharps (especially 21-chord Oscar Schmidts) can be reconfigured to play in sharp keys or for other reasons, but before you buy the next used autoharp you see, take some time to determine what model will best serve your purpose.

Starting With the Basics

I started to write another article before I wrote this one, about reconfiguring autoharps to play your favorite keys. Then I realized that much of what I "knew" about autoharps was misguided, to say the least, by only being really exposed to a handful of instruments. I also figured that telling folks what they could change their autoharps TO without being clear what they were changing them FROM would be less than helpful for folks who are wondering if, say, that $100 autoharp on Craigs List would be a good starting point.

Type 'A' Oscar Schmidt autoharp, also known as 'Model 73.'  See how much room there is 'south' of the chord bars for strumming?  It's made for playing in your lap, not in an upright position like later autoharps.  Click for bigger photo.Note: If you don't already own an autoharp, and are looking to buy one, consider bypassing the old "A" style - they were made for playing on the lap, not held across the chest as is the modern usage. Bob Lewis has a useful explanation here The "A Reissue" is okay, though - its chord bars are placed for upright playing.

Standard Factory Layouts

Though there have been some custom instruments, and there are other brands that don't necessarily conform, the factory layouts you'll see most often on most Oscar Schmidt and Chromaharp autoharps are described below. Factory key layout for a 12-button autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.


A "store-bought" 12-button autoharp (an early model not made today) typically includes buttons for Bb, F, C, C7, G, G7, Gm, D7, Dm, A7, Am, and E7 (chords are listed in circle-of-fiths order). So you see that, as equipped, a 12-button autoharp can play typical songs in F, C, and G. If you have a guitar-playing friend who plays Folk or Country songs in D, A, or E, buy him a capo.

You probably won't be playing or reconfiguring a 12-chord autoharp anyway. Most of them were made for laptop playing (not upright as autoharps are typically played today). But they're worth discussing, since the original 12 chords were retained in the same sequence on the 15-chord version.


A typical post-1967 Oscar Schmidt 15-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo. A typical Chromaharp 15-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.
15-chord autoharps were pioneered on the type A Oscar Schmidts (also called Model 73 series), though most 15-chord autoharps you see today are the newer style. On Oscar Schmidt instruments, you can tell by the fact that the single fat wire bridge has been replaced by 36 pegs. Also, the loop-end strings have been replaced by ball-end strings that brace against a slotted aluminum tailpiece, instead of hooking over little pegs. The Chromaharp retains the single fat wire bridge. A "store-bought" 15-button Oscar Schmidt or Chromaharp autoharp (the most popular entry-level autoharps today) includes buttons for Eb, Bb, F, F7, C, C7, G, G7, Gm, D7, D, Dm, A7, Am, and E7. So you see that, as equipped, a 15-button autoharp can play three-chord songs in Factory key layout for a 15-button autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.Bb, F, C, G, and D, which is an improvement, but still neglects A and E.

Note: That this arrangement keeps the "basic" 12 keys the same, which puts the D chord almost out of reach of the G chord that would typically be played in the key of D. Apparently Oscar Schmidt company imagined they were marketing this to their original base, who might reject a more sensible overall setup.

Moreover, as a Folk singer who plays a lot of songs in D, I'm used to having access to Em, Bm, and F#m on guitar, banjo, and mandolin. So complex folk-style songs like "City of New Orleans" are still out of the question.

A Note About 15-Chorders as First Instruments - Millions of 15-chord Oscar Schmidts and Chromaharps have been built over they years and quite a few come on the used market in something close to playable condition. The new ones are inevitably cheaper than the 21-chord versions. So both used and new 15-chorders tempt folks who don't want to spend a lot of money on an instrument that they're just trying out. You are better off starting with a 21-chord version - in fact some folks recommend the Chromaharp 21 over Oscar Schmidt entry-level versions like the OS21 (although if you can get a good condition US-built OS21, you'll enjoy that, too). Frankly, you can play more songs with a 21-chord 'harp, and the way the buttons are arranged makes a lot more sense. Ironically, 21-chord owners who later decide they want a diatonic autoharp often go with 15-chorders because going to diatonic reduces the number of chords you can use anyway, and there are just so many of the things lying around.

Trying to be Folk-Friendly During the Folk Revival, the rise of Bluegrass, and the mainstreaming of Country music, autoharp players clamored for more guitar-friendly chords on their instruments. Both Chromaharp and Oscar Schmidt heard them, sort of. They produced 15-chorders that gave you E and A chords by sacrificing the Eb and F7, two chords you almost never need in Folk, Bluegrass, or Country. But they didn't go far enough.

The Chromaharp 'Bluegrass' model, a typical 15-chorder replacing Eb and F7 with E and A.  Click for bigger photo.An Oscar Schmidt 15-chord 'Appalachian' model autoharp, replacing Eb and F7 with E and A. Not to be confused with the standard-tuning 'Appalachians' being made today. Click for bigger photo.

Factory key layout for a 15-button 'Bluegrass' Chromaharp.  Click for bigger photo.The O.S. Appalachian and Chromaharp "Bluegrass" models shown above give you E and A chords by sacrificing the Eb and F7 chords. (The instrument includes Bb, F, C, C7, G, G7, Gm, D, D7, Dm, A, A7, Am, E, and E7.) So you can play simple songs in F, C, G, D, and A.

So if you are playing with a fiddler who loves doing old-time fiddle tunes, you can play along (and trust, me, you'll never miss Eb or F7 in that environment). On the other hand, if you're playing with a guitarist who wants to do anything by Paul Simon, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot, Steve Goodman, Noel Stookey, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, or most other Folk, Folk-Rock, or Country artists, you'll probably be missing chords you need, like Bm and F#m to name a couple.

Note: Like the standard 15-button autoharp, this arrangement keeps the "basic" 12 keys the same, even though playing in D is still awkward, and the reach from A to E7 is "dicey." That said, as long as you don't disassemble your autoharp over shag carpet, there is no compelling reason you can't move the keys around to make your favorite keys easier to play.

Note about Oscar Schmidt "Appalachian": As shown above, the 15-chord Oscar Schmidt "Appalachian," made in the 1970s, looked pretty much like their other 15-chorders, but used the same layout described above (with A, D, and E in the left three buttons). Aside from looking at the buttons (which you can't read in most eBay or Craigs List ads), one way to tell is that the word Appalachian appears in a box over the Autoharp logo.

Later on, Oscar Schmidt introduced the 15-chord OS45B and the 21-chord OS45, both of which are also called the "Appalachian." They look a lot cooler, more like home-made or custom instruments, but they both use the standard 15-chord and 21-chord setting, respectively. If you like the natural look and flower-shaped soundhole of the OS45B, that's fine, just understand that you're paying for a cool-looking instrument with the same old standard autoharp chord layout.

Both the Chromaharp Bluegrass model and the early Oscar Schmidt "Appalachian" fell far short of giving Folk, Bluegrass, and Country musicians what they needed (more chords to support playing in sharps). The few that remain are more-or-less oddities, unless some inventive person has reconfigured them with useful chords. The truth is, I have a Chromaharp Bluegrass that I got cheap, but it needs new strings, and I'm not entirely sure what I want to do with it.


A typical post-1967 Oscar Schmidt 21-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo. Chromaharp's 21-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.

Factory key layout for a standard 21-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.A standard 21-button" Oscar Schmidt or Chromaharp autoharp's "factory layout" chord array (given in Circle-of-Fifths) is Ab, Eb, Bb, Bb7, F, F7, C, C7, Cm, G, G7, Gm, D, D7, Dm, A, A7, Am, E7, Em, and B7. Which mean you can play basic three-chord songs in Eb, Bb, F, C, G, D, and A. If you're playing in keys like Bb, you have a lot of extra chords to use for fancy arrangements. In addition, the chord arrangement makes sense - with most of the buttons being arranged in a "circle of fifths" sequence, so when someone decides to pitch a song in C instead of D, all you have to do is move your left hand over a couple buttons.

Not "Ideal for Bluegrass" - Still, the 21-chord version isn't much more helpful to a player of Folk, Bluegrass, Celtic, or country than the "Bluegrass" 15-chord model. In fact the 21-chord "Appalachian" model has the standard 21-chord setup. The Oscar Schmidt materials say it's "Ideal for Bluegrass." But the only differences between this and their entry-level OS-21 harps are cosmetic.

the 21-chord Americana model OS110 21AE comes with E major, B minor, and F# minor chords.  This makes it pretty much a full-featured key-of-D harp with a built-in pickup, and fine tuners.Trying More Successfully to be Folk-Friendly

The "Americana" 21-chord model OS110 21AE also comes with E major, B minor, and F# minor chords. This makes it pretty much a full-featured key-of-D harp with a built-in pickup, and fine tuners. The "downside" of this setup is that it swaps the position of the major and seventh chords, so if you're used to a standard 21-chord autoharp, you'll have to retrain your left hand a little.

Note: As far as I can tell, Oscar Schmidt adopted this setup for the Americana because it is the favorite setup of autoharp player Bryan Bowers and his disciples. Custom autoharp maker d'Aigle also favors this setup. And, frankly, the more I play autoharp, I am coming to prefer it. Once you're used to it, the chords you're most likely to need for songs in the key of F, C, G, D, or A are all in the same relative position.

Factory key layout for a 21-chord 'Americana' autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.Note about Bm, F#m, and E: If you already have a 21-chord Oscar Schmidt autoharp, and you're lusting after the E, Bm, and F#m buttons on this 'harp, you might be glad to know that Elderly Music sells those chord bars separately for about $10 apiece. What's preventing you from rechording your 21-button OS? About $30 plus shipping and an hour or so of work. Or you can do some research, buy some felt, and rework 3 to 5 of the bars yourself, depending on the final configuration you're after. Our article Making Your Autoharp Folk-Friendly contains some tips.


Just about any Oscar Schmidt or Chromaharp can be reconfigured for different chords, and even different numbers of chords. So you have more flexibility than you might think. But I did think it was important to be clear about how these thing tend to be set up from the factory.

At this moment, I have five autoharps, all but one of which I got very cheap used. But remember, I'm used to fixing up old instruments, and the work they will entail will not all be easy, so please don't rush right out and buy the first used autoharp you see, then blame me if you get something that is unusable with any amount of work. Here they are, at any rate:

  • A 21-chord Chromaharp to clean up and tune. My hope is to keep it chromatic, but reconfigure 4-5 of the bars to make it more guitar-friendly. Bob Lewis, of says that the 21-chord Chromaharp has a better sound than many of the post-1980 Oscar Schmidts, so I think it will be my "keeper" chromatic, when I'm done with all my autoharp projects.

  • An ancient 12-chord Oscar Schmidt with a crack in the soundboard. I got it sight-unseen, and the vendor offered to take it back, but I just asked him to give me a discount on it instead. I figured it would make a nice display piece if nothing else. Then I tuned it up and realized that it has a delightful sound. So now I'm thinking that a conversion to diatonic might be a good project, as long as it will hold a tune.

  • A mid-to-late 1960s "Bluegrass" model Chromaharp - a 15-chorder with A, D, and E in the first three positions, making it slightly more guitar-friendly than the standard 15-chorder. It has rusty strings and the smell of mold, but the felt is good. I got it cheaply enough that I can afford to replace the strings, but - now that I think about it - I'm not sure what I'd be doing with it even if I fix it up.

  • A standard 15-chord 1970ish Oscar Schmidt with a couple bad springs, but nothing that should be too onerous to fix. I confess, I got this by accident - I thought I was bidding on a different harp, but it didn't cost much. Maybe another diatonic project?

  • A seventyish-era 21-chord Oscar Schmidt (OS21C) with a couple glitches that should be a good project for an article about buying aftermarket chord bars. It DOES sound good for what was once more-or-less an entry-level instrument.

I've also had several interesting conversations with Bob Lewis of, and any customization I do will take his suggestions into account. But at least now, I have a foundation to built on. And so do you.

Best of luck!

Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

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