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How Much is My Autoharp/Chromaharp Worth?

If you tracked down this article down, it's likely that an autoharp has come into your possession, and you're wondering about its value. I don't want to discourage you from the get-go, but there are many 12- or 15- chord autoharps in bad condition out there, bringing down the value of autoharps overall. Playable, good-condition 15-chord autoharps can still bring in some revenue - I have seen some change hands locally in the $125 range, although $75 is closer to the average. Playable, good-condition 21-chord autoharps bring in more, and upgrade, new-condition 21-chord autoharps can do even better.

But in the end, any given autoharp is worth only what a buyer is willing to pay for it at the point of purchase. When I started researching articles about autoharps, I bought several different models in wildly differing conditions. If memory serves, the cheapest one I bought cost about $12 plus shipping (a century-old Type A), and the most expensive one I bought (a Samick-built 21-chord Chromaharp in almost perfect condition) ran me about $125. One that should have cost at least the same amount, a cherry-stained base-model Oscar Schmidt 21-chorder in excellent condition cost me only ~$50 because the owner couldn't keep it tuned and thought it must be a problem with the instrument. It was, in a sense, autoharps can be hard to tune, period. But that instrument is the most playable autoharp I own. I'll point out, though, that I did not purchase any high-end autoharps, which would have cost me more, in part because they're so much rarer on the used market.

To figure the potential price range for your autoharp, you need to figure out what kind and condition of autoharp you have and then determine what similar autoharps are going for used. Fortunately, that's not hard, and this article gives you the basic tools and examples you need.

Something you should know at the outset: designs of the first generation autoharps stayed virtually static from 1900 to 1968. With a few relatively bizarre exceptions, designs of the second-generation instruments have stayed pretty static since the 1960s. So at any given time, there are quite a number of nearly identical instruments on the used market.

The "historical information" below is to help you get a context and maybe get closer to figuring out what kind of autoharp you own.

About Pre-Autoharps

All Oscar Schmidt and Chromaharp autoharps work by pushing down bars that force felt against the strings that don't belong in the chord you're trying to play. Before that technology was developed, there were a bunch of other attempts to make similar instruments you could chord without, frankly, reading music. A very few of these precursors became collectors' items and are sitting in museums or collections today. The vast majority, however, are useless as musical instruments, and there is essentially no collector's market for them.

Frequently the less-effective precursors to the autoharp show up on used markets, advertised as "autoharps," in part because there's no other name people would recognize. In most cases, to restore them to playable condition would cost substantially more than they would be worth to anybody, since nobody actually plays them, period. You might sell one to a music lover who would be interested in hanging it on the wall as a decoration or just owning it as a novelty, but those uses don't tend to attract "real money."

In addition, you'll occasionally see instruments shaped like autoharps without chord bars described as autoharps in product listings. Most of them are built by companies like Rhythm Band that make inexpensive music instruments for school children. Some are built by toy companies. A few are actually antique "lap psalteries" or "zithers" or other legitimate musical instruments. But they're are not autoharps. In fact, an instrument that started out as an autoharp but is missing its chord bars is not an autoharp in any meaningful sense of the word. It's those long bars with the felt under them that makes autoharps, er, autoharps.

Early Autoharps

The term "autoharp" was around before the devices we currently call "autoharps" were invented. There were a handful of pushbutton instruments that proved there was a market, to be sure. But the first successful mass-produced Autoharps were made by Oscar Schmidt.

Schmidt applied the term "autoharp" to the button-operated devices he invented, and soon the term was synonomous with his products. The company registered the trademark "autoharp," and controlled it for decades. But eventually that was challenged, and what the Oscar Schmidt company owns today is actually the Autoharp logo in the little box.

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.For decades, Oscar Schmidt had no real competition and, consequently, no reason to improve their instruments. Frankly, there are very few significant differences between autoharps they produced in 1900 and autoharps they produced in 1967. Almost all pre-1968 autoharps are classified as "Type A" because they share the same general construction. Most of the Type A autoharps people ask me about have no particular collectors' value, because they are so common. Even if they are in excellent condition, chances are they need new strings and felts - and that's not trivial. If you can change the strings and replace the felts yourself, you can probably get by with $80- $100 worth of supplies. If you are going to pay someone else to do it, $150 is a fair rate for all the work it will take - on top of the cost of strings and felts.

Autoharp Technique Changes

Though autoharps were changing very little, the way people played autoharps changed in the early to mid-20th century. Autoharps were designed to be laid in the lap or on a table. You would push the buttons with your left hand and strum with the right. consequently, there was a wide-open place to the right of the chord bars for strumming, or even picking. But musicians like "Mother" Maybelle Carter and Cecil Null began playing it across the chest instead of in the lap. Unfortunately, Type A autoharps were hard to play that way.

  • Reaching around the edge of the instrument to push the buttons with your left hand could be painful to the wrist.

  • It was inconvenient to strum in the big gap between the chord bars and the bottom of the instrument, but there wasn't enough room above the chord bars to strum all the strings.

In the 1960s, a competing company started making similar instruments called "Chromaharps" that solved both of those problems. They skootched the chord bars down to provide more room to strum above them, and they made the shape of the thing more ergonomic for playing upright.

Oscar Schmidt's Autoharps adopted similar upgrades in 1968. In addition, they made other changes, such as getting rid of the long wire bridge and changing the way the strings fastened on. Most of the Oscar Schmidt autoharps made since 1968 are called "Type B." So if you want to buy replacement strings, you need to know whether you need "Type A" or "Type B" strings.

Note: If you have an Oscar Schmidt Autoharp, and you need more information to determine whether you have a "Type A" or "Type B" autoharp, please check out our article "Is My Autoharp a Type A or B?".

Except for some goofy-shaped or kid-oriented Autoharps, the vast majority of Oscar Schmidt Autoharps made since 1968 are made to the same basic plan and have the same number of strings. Chromaharp made some goofy instruments, too, but the vast majority of Chromaharps are made to the same basic plan and have the same number of strings. (For information about some of the goofy and unusual Autoharps and Chromaharps that were made over the years, check out our article "Autoharps for People With Short Arms".)

A typical post-1967 Oscar Schmidt 15-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo. A typical Chromaharp 15-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.

Button, Button, Who's Got the Button?

Most of the earliest Autoharps had 12 buttons, like the early black Type A shown a few photos up. Pushing down on the button caused the felt to dampen all the strings that were not in the chord you were trying to play.

The twelve chords those early harps produced let you play most songs in F, and many songs in C or G. Later, 15 buttons became the standard. The additional chords let you play in Bb as well, and they provide some chords that allow you to play more songs in C and G.

Autoharp players who wanted to play in more keys eventually got 21-button instruments, which allowed them to play in Bb and Eb as well. However, the 21-chord versions cost more than the 15-chord versions, so many more of the 15-chord versions have been purchased over the years. This is especially true of Chromaharps, which were long marketed into school systems through their affiliation with Rhythm Band instruments.

A typical post-1967 Oscar Schmidt 21-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo. Chromaharp's 21-chord autoharp.  Click for bigger photo.
As you can see, the Oscar Schmidt instrument (on the left) adopted a cover to protect all those chord bars, while the Chromaharp looks more like the older instruments. I have one of each of these, by the way, and they are both fine instruments. I'm not sure I would prefer one over the other for playability or tone, but I like the Chromaharp's more old-timey look.

Oscar Schmidt has many upgraded 21-chord versions now, and several of those are preferable to the Chromaharp 21-chord version. But at the entry level, choosing one or the other is pretty much just a matter of personal preference.

Alternate Configurations

During the Folk era, both Oscar Schmidt and Chromaharp built instruments that added the ability to play most three-chord songs in D and A, at the expense of being able to play in Bb. That said, the only thing besides the nameplate that separated the 15-chord "Appalacian" and "Bluegrass" instruments (respectively) from other 15-chorders being built at the same time was the way the felt was cut on three of the chord bars. If you are a Folk or traditional performer, and you can find one of these in playable condition, they will serve you better than the standard-tuned instruments. But if you find one needing new strings and felts, it's worth no more than any other 15-chorder. If you're replacing strings and felts anyway, you can bring any 15-chorder to this tuning as easily as you can bring it to standard tuning. Or to an even more useful tuning. (See our articles "Making Your AutoHarp Folk-Friendly" or "What is a Diatonic Autoharp?"

Since 1968

Except for a spurt of ill-fated experiments (many of them described in our article "Autoharps for People With Short Arms".) Autoharp design has remained fairly static since about 1970. Oscar Schmidt has made versions with nicer wood and fine tuners, but those don't come on the used market all that often.

What You Probably Have

Most used autoharps people ask me about are either:

  • Type A (pre-1968) Oscar Schmidt autoharps in various condition,

  • 15-chord Chromaharps, or

  • OS-15, Oscar Schmidt's baseline 15-chorder

There are many fine, playable instruments in all three categories. It's very likely you have one. But there are also many, many instruments that would cost almost as much to restore to playability as it would cost to buy a new instrument. So it's time to take a closer look at condition.

Note: - If you have a 21-chord autoharp, you have a less common instrument, which we talk about further down, but you still need to read the condition section.)

Common Condition Issues Affecting Autoharps

Unlike, say, a guitar or violin, most of an autoharp is actually metal, felt or plastic. If you remove the strings, chord bars, and pins, most of what you have left can be described as two blocks of wood, two thin sheets of wood (possibly plywood), and a handful of trim pieces. Like Darth Vader, they're "more machine than man." Consequently, autoharps are more prone to hardware problems than are most fretted instruments, and the mechanical problems may be far more expensive to fix than, say, hardware problems on a guitar, or even on a banjo.

True, if the wood bits deteriorate, you have a big problem. Cracks in the soundboard, or the face or back pulling away from the blocks, might get so bad that the instrument is essentially irreparable. Instruments stored in the attic often suffer from such problems. (Instruments stored in the basement may also be full of mildew, which is another issue, but that's less common).

But the more common problems are rust on the metal parts and wear on the felt parts. If the strings are rusty, that's a $65-$74 replacement right there, if you do it yourself. If the felts have lost their firmness or otherwise deteriorated, you can replace the felt fairly cheaply, but it is a very time-consuming process.

In other words, if you have an autoharp that has rusty strings and pegs, missing or worn springs, a musty smell, damage to the finish, and or cracks in the shell, you will have to deduct for those issues. An 15-chord autoharp that has more than a few of those issues may only be of interest to someone looking for an instrument to rebuild or convert to diatonic.

if you have an autoharp with good strings and felts, in otherwise good physical condition and no musty smell, it could easily be worth something to a future autoharp player. That said, unless it seems brand new, it will never be worth much more than half of what the same model would cost new online.

21-Chord Advantages

If you have a 21-chorder, you'll discover that there are far fewer 21-chord autoharps in most markets, so that gives you an advantage as a seller. In addition, very few 21-chorders were purchased as "toys" or for classroom use, so most 21-chorders have been treated far better than most 12- or 15-chorders, which tends to keep the price of the average used 21-chorders a higher than the price of the average used 15-chorder in the same condition.

The most basic and most popular 21-chorder is the OS-21 and its variations, indicated by additional letters that usually indicate colors or features that don't dramatically change the value of the instrument.

If you have an OS-21, you shouldn't have trouble figuring out what they're going for - they turn up used reasonably often. Look for listings of OS-21s in similar conditions to yours to get some idea.

Also, Oscar Schmidt has made, and is still making, some "upgrade" 21-chorders with better wood and other features, including fine tuners (you can see little Allen wrench screws near where the strings mount). So try to figure out what model you have and what features you have. You can sometimes see the model printed under the word Autoharp or on a sticker in the tone hole, but some have lost their markings or stickers over the years.

Our Autoharp Buyers' Guide shows a sample range of new 21-chorders, which might give you some idea of features to look for. (We don't show any 15-chorders, since they're not that much cheaper than new 21-chorders and, frankly, they're too easy to come by used in playable condition.)

What About Other Brands?

If you have a true custom autoharp, such as a D'Aigle, you have something. However the factories that have made Chromaharps over the years have been very happy to make autoharps with other brand names on the front. Before you get all excited because you have a "Regency" or "Archer" or something autoharp, look closely at the Chromaharp pictures above and decide whether it's really a Chromaharp with a different name on the front.

What About Age?

Many people who contact me about musical instruments think that if it's older it must be better. But that's only true if you are talking about professional instruments that are still in (or which can be easily restored to) playable condition. It doesn't apply to mass-produced "student" instruments - which most autoharps were/are. There are too many of them out there to accumulate any collector's value. And often, the older they are, the more time and materials the buyer would need to invest to make them playable.

In addition, since the basic autoharp models never tended to get much in the way of innovation, a 50-year old student instrument may be all but identical to a 5-year old instrument, except for wear and tear and/or issues like rust, warpage, splitting, and mildew arriving from storage problems.

What about the really old ones? Because they're generally harder to return to playability, many autoharp repair people consider most Type A autoharps as less desirable than most post-1968 harps. There were a few models with fancy colors or such that may bring a premium, especially to folks who want a a specific "Old-Timey" look. But a 1915 black Type A is not going to be worth any more than a 1955 black Type A to most people. In fact, it will generally be worth less.

What About Unique Models?

As I mentioned earlier, for a while there was some bizarre experimentation with sizes and shapes of autoharps, mostly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I discuss most of those in my article Autoharps for People with Short Arms. But there were others, including the Chromaharp Caroler, which is much larger and has more strings and chords, and is almost useless for most kinds of music people buy autoharps to play. (I have one I hope to restore and report on later.) And the Oscar Schmidt Educator or Chromaharp Portaharp, both of which are 15-chorders built into brief-case-like cases to make them easy to drag to classrooms, but impossible to play in upright position.

Here you might get a little more traction, because people who already play autoharp sometimes seek experimental or goofy instruments out just to satisfy their curiousity. The Oscar Schmidt Guitaro is probably the most desirable, but few of them are more than a novelty even to serious autoharp players. Obviously, good, playable condition will increase value, but only by so much.

The "hard part" about these is that so few of them come onto the market and actually change hands that it's hard to determine what intrinsic value they may have, if any. At any rate, you won't be putting your kid through college on any of them.

Making Your Own Evaluation

Once you've determined what kind of autoharp you have, and examined its condition, start looking for similar items on places like Craigs' List and eBay. I have an RSS feed of used autoharps on eBay on the right side of the page to give you some ideas. Pay attention to details to see which autoharps are closest to yours in age, condition, and features.

Don't get carried away and start buying stuff. Also, don't be discouraged if an autoharp like yours goes on the market with a $20 bid or get overly excited if one gets listed with a $400 bid. The only price that counts is what the things actually sell for.

If an autoharp similar to yours goes on the market on Craigs' list or as a "buy it now" on eBay and sells right away, they may have priced it too low. If an autoharp similar to yours goes on the market and stays there for months, they probably priced it too high.

If you want to do price comparisons on eBay, do NOT look at what folks are asking. Look at what they actually sell for. Some folks list things way over their value in hope of finding a sucker. Others, who have no idea what they have, start with a low price in hope that there's a demand for what they have that will drive the price up. Actual sales transactions are the only worthwhile comparison.

eBay Specifics - The best way to keep track is to add items that seem to be comparable to your autoharp to your eBay "watch" list. If an item never sells, or keeps getting relisted, they want too much. If a "buy it now" item sold quickly, they may have either asked too little or found the one buyer interested in such a thing. But after you've watched the auctions a while, you'll get a pretty good idea of how you're likely to do if you list yours there.

Obviously, the longer you do this and the more examples you see, the closer you'll get to determining the potential value of your own instrument.

Pros and Cons of ShopGoodWill.com - One place where "goofy" autoharps occasionally show up is ShopGoodWill.com. It's easy to go there and just search for "autoharp." If you register, you can even put them on "watches" that are similar to the "watch" function on eBay. The down side is that most of the instruments they put up for sale are in really bad condition, so the prices will seem very low.

How do I know such things? When I was researching my first set of autoharp articles, I actually bought four different autoharps from ShopGoodWill.com because I wanted to examine some unique pieces and to verify whether certain "old wives tales" about certain models were true. While I got them very cheap, every one I bought would require serious work to make playable (including new strings on at least three of them). In most cases, the shop owners specify that they know nothing about these instruments, and all sales are "as-is," so you can't say I wasn't warned. And, because they were useful to my research, I did get what I needed out of them. But this is a reminder that these instrument were all "donated," which is to say that many, if not most of their owners saw no value in them to speak of.

In other words, ShopGoodWill.com is a good place to find broken-down autoharps to rebuild or convert to diatonic or some such, but it's a bad place to figure out the value of a playable instrument. "Buyer beware" applies, but so does "Seller beware."

Conclusion

If nothing else, this article, may help you compare "apples to apples" when you are trying to figure out the potential cash value of an autoharp or related instrument that has come into your possession.

If your autoharp came to you from a beloved family member, it is certainly worth a lot more to you than the dollar value it will probably get if listed for sale.

But when it comes to commercial transactions, other considerations enter the equation. I hope this article will help you to figure out what you need to know about the value of your instrument, even if you're just curious about a family heirloom you'd never dream of selling off.

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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