Making Your Autoharp Folk-Friendly

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Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't RiseTM
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Editor's Note: As of this writing (Feb. 21, 2017), I have not done any of the conversions discussed in this article, although I've made plans and even bought some parts. But as soon as I published anything about autoharps, I started getting questions, and I wanted to make the information that is available to me available to our readers. At the moment, I have four autoharps that I plan to migrate toward more folk-friendly keys eventually, and there will be photos and details. But in the meantime, this article should hopefully fill in some of the gaps in my other articles. - Paul

Making Your Autoharp Folk-Friendly

Like banjo, autoharps get little respect. Unlike banjo, they play in a limited number of keys, depending on the way they are set up. (Yes, many banjo players can only play in G but that's their fault, not the banjo's.)

Every autoharp has buttons that control felted bars that dampen notes that aren't in the chord you want to play. Because they orginated while brass bands were popular, they tend to include chords for trumpet-friendly keys like Eb and Bb, while neglecting guitar-friendly keys like D and A. (For more about the history of the autoharp, check out the Riverboat Music page here.)

An illustration of the circle of fifths with beginning guitar chords.  Click for a full-page pdf.Remember that most songs primarily use three chords that are adjacent on the Circle of Fifths (shown to the right with basic guitar chords - click on it for a full-page poster). So:

  • A song in G, the most popular Bluegrass key and a popular Blues key primarily uses G, C, and D (or D7, the same as D with an added note).

  • A song in D, the most popular Folk and Country key primarily uses D, G, and A (or A7).

  • A song in A, a popular fiddle tune key, primarily uses A, D, and E (or E7).

  • A song in E, a popular Blues and Folk key, primarily uses E, A, and B (or B7).

That said, many songs use other chords. A song in F might use Gm, Am, Dm, and G7 in addition to Bb and C7. Music teachers have names for these "supplementary chords" like "relative minor," and "secondary dominant," but the main point is tha a high percentage of songs written for Jazz, Folk, Country, Worship, and Pop use these supplementary chords. Let's say you're used to playing a song in F that uses the Gm, Dm, Am, and G7. If you have standard tuning, you're home free. Then someone requests that you do the same song in A. Now you need Bm, C#m, F#m, and B7. Except for B7 (which appears on 21-chorders, you are out of luck. Trying to play the same song in G or D would be almost as bad.

In other words, if you want to play in guitar-friendly keys like D, A, and E, most autoharps lack chords you need and have chords you don't.

Why not replace some of those trumpet-friendly chords like Ab, Eb, and Bb7 with guitar-friendly chords? The answer is that many people have already done just that. In fact Oscar Schmidt has produced a version of their 21-chord Americana autoharp that comes with E, Bm, and F#m already installed.

If you already have an autoharp, don't despair - especially if it's a 21-key Oscar Schmidt - they're very easy to update. Chromaharps and 15-key Oscar Schmidts are a little more complicated, but still very doable, as long as you are careful.

The first part of this article contains suggestions for making 21-chorders more folk-friendly. Further down, we have some suggestions for reconfiguring 15-chorders, but many folks who attempt that also consider making their autoharps "diatonic." That is, they retune some of the strings they'll never use in Folk, Bluegrass, or Country to double other strings that they WILL use. This means that instead of - technically - playing in five or more keys, they can only play in 1-3, but they support those keys very well, while sounding fuller than they did before. For more information on diatonic autoharps, check out our article "What is a Diatonic Autoharp?."

For more information about the chords that come standard on new Autoharps, check out our article Autoharp Factory Tunings.

Easy-Peasey 21-Chord Oscar Schmidt Reconfiguration

We'll start with the easiest conversion at all, as long as you have a 21-chord Oscar Schmidt. (If you have a 21-chord Chromaharp, don't despair, the conversion is almost the same, as we discuss further down.

Oscar Schmidt's "Americana" Gives You a Head Start

After literally decades of musicians from Folk and related genres begging Oscar Schmidt for autoharps they didn't have to reconfigure manually to get the chords they needed, OS finally issued an autoharp called the Americana, which leaves off Ab, Bb7, and Cm and adds E, Bm, and F#m. The Americana also switched to a chord layout method recommended by Bryan Bowers, putting the root chords in the middle row and moving the seventh chords to the top row.

Note - Now that I've been playing autoharp a bit more, I see the advantages of this setup. If you are playing in F, C, G, D, or A, the chords related to each song key are in the same relative position. So if you are used to playing a song in D, say, and someone wants to play it it C, you can simply move your left hand two buttons over, and everything else is the same. (By the way, custom autoharp manufacturer d’Aigle Autoharps uses this setup on their 21-chorders, unless you request a different one.)

To show the difference between the standard 21-button autoharp and the Oscar Schmidt's Americana, we have two little charts.

The standard chord/button layout of 21-Button autoharps.  Click for bigger picture. The chord/button layout of the Oscar Schmidt Americana.  Click for bigger picture.

Reconfiguring a 21-key Oscar Schmidt autoharp with OS-supplied E, Bm, and F#m chord bars.  Click to see a one-page printable. The good news is that if you are used to the standard key layout, and you just want to add E, Bm, and F#m to your 21-button Oscar Schmidt autoharp at the expense of the Eb, Ab, and Bb7 chords, you can simply order the new chord bars that Oscar Schmidt made to support the Americana without changing the basic chord relationships.

Note: In my example to the right, I am sacrificing the Eb to add the folk-friendly chords. The Americana actually sacrifices the Cm. This is all your choice, really, as all of these are just suggestions. In fact, I don't think I would do this again without converting to Bryan Bowers/America settings. But if you are really used to conventional 21-chorders, and don't want to relearn your favorite songs, the instructions below will give you the easiest conversion.

As the drawing to the right shows, you can carefully remove the chord bar cover then remove the Eb, F7, and Ab chord bars (leave the Bb7 where it is for now). Then scootch the chord bars for all three rows up so that the rows start with Bb, C7, and Bb7 respectively.

Put the new E chord bar at the right end of the top row.

Put the F7 chord bar at the right end of the middle row. No, the F7 chord bar won't be any more useful there than it was at the other end of the row, but this way, the root chord buttons (Bb, F, C, G, D, and A) will have the same relative position to the seventh chords C7, G7, D7, A7, E7, and B7 that they did before.

Put the Bm chord bar at the right end of the bottom row.

Doublecheck your work so far. When you're certain that you haven't got anything too far out of whack, remove the Bb7 chord bar, and move the bottom row over. This will entail "jumping over" bars for the other chords, but if you're careful, you won't have any problems.

Finally, your updated Oscar Schmidt 21-chorder should have the key layout shown below.

The result of using 'store-bought' E, Bm, and F#m chord bars to add folk-friendly chords to a 21-chord OS autoharp.  Click for bigger drawing.

Note: The distance between strings on autoharps wavers a little, since they have to rebuild their jigs ever so often, so you will want to check your new chord bars to make certain the gaps in the felt are really exactly where they need to be. One alert reader also told me that he noticed that the factory cord bars muted some strings that should have been muted. Mostly the cuts in the felts were just slightly "off," causing a string that should have been ringing to be muffled. But on his autoharp, the bass notes for Dm and Em weren't cut out at all. I've encountered this on one of my 15-chorders, too. So, before you fasten everything back together, you might want to check out all of the chords to make certain they are playing the notes they should be.

Now you can play guitar-friendly songs like "City of New Orleans" in guitar-friendly keys like D to your heart's content.

But maybe that F7 bugs you. It's a chord you can't really use in most of the songs you play, and it's taking up room that could be used for something more useful, like F#7. Well you have three chord bars you're not using now. What about ordering some felt and recutting the F7 chord bar to an F#7? We show you where the gaps in the felt go in a chart below. Mark where the old felt came to on both ends before you pull it off, because it needs to be the same overall length it was before. Now you can play songs in A and E that you couldn't play before. You can stop right there if you want.

But speaking of A and E, some of your favorite songs in those keys require C#m, which you still don't have. But you still have three unused chord bars. Reconfigure one of those for C#m using the gaps from the chart below, pull out the Cm, skootch the minor chords over one more time, and put the C#m on the right end of the bottom row.

Chord bar configurations for adding E, Bm, F#m, F#7, and C#m to a 21-chord autoharp.  Click to download the spreadsheet.The illustration to the right shows the way you would cut the felts for all of these add-on chords. If you just order new felts and do it yourself, that will save you money over buying the prefelted bars.

If you click on the picture to the right, you'll get a spreadsheet that you can download and print. If you keep your printer from shrinking the printout, each of the little squares should be 1/4" high. Check against one of the chord bars you removed, to make certain the printout is "in scale."

If you're just refelting, and not using "store-bought" E, Bm, and F#m chord bars, use the instruction sheet for the Chromaharp 21 (below).

What about Chromaharp 21s? If you have a Chromaharp 21, you can't order pre-felted chord bars for your conversion. Neither can you slide the chord name buttons around on the chord bars like you can on an OS21. So going to a complete Bryan Bowers arrangement would mean a lot more work than it would on an Oscar Schmidt. I don't know if I would recommend you going there. But if you are good with sacrificing Polka-friendly chords for the sake of adding Folk-friendly chords, that can be done.

The string spacing on the Chromaharp is just a bit narrower than the string spacing on the Oscar Schmidt. So my spreadsheets may be a little "off." You'll need to actually hold the bar over the string to be entirely sure where to cut.

But lots of folks have ordered the felt for these and reconfigured the Ab, Eb, Bb7, F7 and Cm chord bars for E, Bm, F#m, F#7 and C#m. Yes, you lose the ability to play in Bb, but you gain the ability to play more songs in A. If you want to see an "instruction sheet" for doing all five chord bars at once, click here.

Note: Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions, and if you decide later you shouldn't have made these adjustments, we're not responsible for changing it back. Nor are we responsible if you toast your Chromaharp because you lose all the springs or something.

Reconfiguring 15-chorders

If you have a 15-chorder that you're happy with (except for the lack of chords like Bm and F#m), you can certainly tweak that one as well. Unfortunately, the buttons on the 15-chorders (or on the 21-chord Chromaharp) are stuck on the bars, so you don't have quite the flexibility as you do with a 21-chord Oscar Schmidt. And you won't have as many chords when you're done. If that really upsets you, you could buy a 21-Chord Conversion kit with blank bars and go to town according to the instructions above - except you'll have to cut ALL of the felts. Elderly sells such a kit here.

If you're fine with keeping 15 chords, you have the choice of keeping as many of the existing chord bars as you can, and just refelting the ones for the replacement chords. Or you could just refelt them all. You also have the option of converting your autoharp to diatonic, as described here.

The graphic below shows an example of a rechording project that seeks to save a maximum of the existing chord bars, while retaining the ability to play in F, C, G, C, and A. If you want to try this or use it as a starting point, click on the graphic and download the full-sized Excel spreadsheet.

Chromaharp Note - The strings on a Chromaharp are just a little closer together than they are on an Oscar Schmidt, so if you are refelting a Chromaharp, mark the location of the existing notches to help you gauge where you are putting the new ones.

An example of a 15-chord autoharp reconfiguration to add guitar-friendly chords.  Click to download a spreadsheet so you can make your own tweaks.

The example below trades the ability to play in F for the ability to play in E. It also assumes that you don't mind cutting a few more felts. On the bright side, its chord arrangement is a little more intuitive.

An example of a 15-chord autoharp reconfiguration to add guitar-friendly chords, including the key of E.  Click to download a spreadsheet so you can make your own tweaks.

Also, don't assume my plans are the best - I used them because they suited most of my needs, not because it was perfect. Look at Bob Lewis' suggestions and any others you can find.

Note: - The following sections will be fleshed out with photos and details as I get time to do the reconfiguration(s) I am contemplating. In the meantime, please refer to the links above, especially Wendy Grossman's account for more tips and details.

Ordering Stuff You Need

At the very least, I would need new felt. This is available many places, including from Pete D'Aigle's Autoharp Felt Page and Bob Lewis'

By the way, 15-chorders tend to use 1/4"x1/4" felts. 21-chorders use narrower felts, such as 3/16" X 7/32".

The strings seemed shot, so I figured I'd probably wind up replacing those eventually, but those would cost more than the autoharp, so I figured I'd try to get by for now.

Whether I needed springs or anything else wouldn't necessarily be obvious until I got into things.

Disassembling the Autoharp

According to Wendy Grossman, Murphy's Law of Folk Music #102 is "Never take apart a concertina or an autoharp on a shag rug." There are a mess of little springs that will disappear in a hurry if you aren't careful. Now, if your autoharp is very old, they may need replaced anyway. So you can use that excuse when you have to order more. Wendy recommends applying a tiny dab of superglue to the base of each spring, so they don't wander away while you're working.

If you make a point of not losing the springs, disassembly is pretty easy. Remove the screws that hold down the cover at each end and very carefully remove the chord bars one at a time.

In my case - applying the changes above to a classic 15-chord autoharmp - I could theoretically reuse six of the 15 bars, as long as the felt was still good. If you have a newer autoharp, this may be an option for you. But the felt on my old harp was pretty rough, so I figured I'd wind up replacing it all.

Removing the Felts

If you have a very old autoharp, they may be coming off by themselves. You may be able to cut them off using a very sharp knife. Either way, you might find it helpful to use GooGone or mineral spirits or the like to get the rest of the glue/goo off the bars.

If you have any bars that will get the felt back exactly where it was, save yourself some hassle by marking the gaps before you remove the felt. Then, to replace the felt on those bars, you can simply cut the felt segments and stick them on.

Replacing the Felts

Folks do this a few different ways. If you print the spreadsheet above full-sized, it may conform physically to the actual sizes you'll need for your autoharp (tell the printer driver not to shrink the page). If the short side of the little blocks on the page lines up exactly with your string width, you may be able to cut the felt strips with a pair of sissors and just stick them on. If not, you might consider sticking the whole felt strip on and then using a razor blade, Xacto knife, or widget to cut the gaps. Some folks don't cut the gaps out completely - they cut a diagonal divot where the gap should be leaving a row of little V shapes in the felt.

Wendy made her spreadsheet so it lined up exactly with her strings. She also made a line every quarter of an inch on the underside of each bar (making sure those lines straddled the strings when the bar was set back in place). Then she used the spreadsheet to figure out exactly how long to make each segment of felt.


Test each felt bar individually to make certain it is aligning the way it needs to, then replace them in the sequence you desire. I like putting them so that the circle of fifths is on one row as much as possible. BbFCGDAE for instance. That way it's easier for me to keep track of the basic chords without having to look at the thing all the time. But, like everything in this article, your mileage may vary.


Once again, I wrote this article before attacking the projects described in it, but I wanted to publish the results of my research as soon as possible, because I've already been getting questions about it. Hopefully, I'll be better informed eventually and provide photos and details, and - most likely - corrections to what I'm publishing today.

In the meantime, please contact us with any questions at all - reader questions are the main thing that drivers our research, so we're always happy to hear from 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.

And please stay in touch!

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