Autoharp Factory TuningsEach 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).
Why Song Keys Don't Tell the Whole StoryMany, 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.
Oscar Schmidt and Chromaharp haven't been entirely deaf to the pleas of Folk-based artists.
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.
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 LayoutsThough 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.
12-ChordA "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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
ConclusionJust 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:
I've also had several interesting conversations with Bob Lewis of AutoharpWorks.com, 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!
And please stay in touch!
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