Autoharp (Chromaharp) buying guide

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Buying Autoharps

We came across an excellent post titled ‘Autoharps 101: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide’ on the E-Home Recording Studio’s website that could prove very helpful for those looking to purchase autoharps. If you’re in the market for an autoharp, we highly recommend reading this post.

Opting for the Oscar Schmidt brand is the wisest choice. As a music store owner, I exclusively sold this brand and encountered no quality issues. Avoid purchasing cheap brands found online, as the instrument needs to withstand significant tension from the strings. Poorly manufactured instruments, especially those made of wood, may deform under pressure. Additionally, sourcing replacement parts could be challenging for lesser-known brands. It’s advisable to purchase original strings directly from the manufacturer to ensure optimal performance.

Oscar Schmidt Autoharp Models

Model # of chords Wood Spices Fine Tuner Electric Pick Up Color Number Of Keys
OS10021 21 Solid Spruce Top – Mahogany Back No No Natural 11
OS11021AE 21 Top finish Ovangkol-Solid Spruce back Yes No Natural 11
OS11021FNE 21 Flame Maple top-Solid Spruce back Yes Yes Natural 11
OS150FCE 21 Flame Maple top-Solid Spruce back No Yes Sunburst 11
OS15B 15 Maple Body No No Sunburst 7
OS21C 21 Maple Body No No Sunburst 11
OS21CQTB 21 Maple Body No No Blue 11
OS21CQTR 21 Maple Body No No Red 11
OS73B 15 Solid Spruce Top – Mahogany Back No No Black Matte 7
OS73C 21 Solid Spruce Top – Mahogany Back No No Black Matte 11

About Autoharp or Chromaharp

The instrument known as the Autoharp or Chromaharp is a type of string instrument, particularly popular in American folk music. It is played in a distinctive manner, and its unique sound and easy learning process are well-known.

The Autoharp typically consists of a wooden body with attached metal strings. Each string is adjusted to a different pitch on the body. Buttons or chord bars corresponding to each note are pressed to easily produce the desired sound.

This instrument is notable for automatically sounding the corresponding notes when a chord is pressed. This feature simplifies playing music compared to other string instruments. As a result, it is considered suitable for beginners or those experiencing difficulty with finger placement on the strings.

The Chromaharp is a trademark name of Oscar Schmidt for a type of Autoharp, often indicating an improved design, particularly associated with Zimmermann. This instrument offers rich tones and a variety of timbres, making it versatile for different musical styles using simple chord patterns.

The Autoharp has found primary use in folk, bluegrass, and other country music genres, especially playing a significant role in traditional music from the Southern United States. It is valued for its ease of learning and handling, and its distinctive sound has garnered a substantial following among music enthusiasts.

Autoharp History

In 1875, It was the 10th year since the end of the Civil War in the United States, and the country was gradually solidifying its position as the United States.

After the Civil War in the United States, many immigrants moved to the western United States in search of freedom and a new life, and like a flood, they immigrated to Philadelphia.

Among them was Charles F. Zimmermann, a German, who settled in Philadelphia. Already experienced in instrument development and new sheet music creation, he had a dedication to the design and development of instruments from an early age. Wondering how to make music more accessible and enjoyable for everyone, easy to learn and play, he conducted  research.  At the end of his research he devised a new system of drawing sheet music using numbers hoping to convince musicians to use it, but his efforts were in vain.

In despair, he devoted himself to making instruments that could be played using his system combining his new ideas with folk instruments from southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, such as the Zither and inspired by a more convenient tablature.

In 1881, he got hints from the Zither and initially started with three chords creating the Chromaharp with 26 strings and 5 chords according to his new notation system. This invention became the precursor to today’s Chromaharp which eventually led to the birth of the Autoharp. Initially named Autoharp, it was later recognized as its academic name while the term Chromaharp was registered by a marketing company in the United States.

Thus, Charles F. Zimmermann’s dream of a new sheet music creation method failed but his instrument, the Autoharp, representing that idea was eventually manufactured and gained worldwide fame. Four years later, in 1885, he started the production of Autoharps in Philadelphia becoming the foundation of the “C.F. Zimmermann Autoharp Company,” which immediately achieved success. However, in 1892, the company was sold to Alfred Dolge, a piano parts manufacturer and moved to Dolgeville, New York. Dolge, thinking mistakenly due to the immense popularity of the Autoharp attempted to transition the instrument stores to a different market system.

As opposition grew, Dolge went bankrupt as the 20th century approached but by the 1900s, the Autoharp began to be used again as a common instrument. In 1910, the Phonoharp Company in Boston acquired the patent rights and resumed Autoharp production. However, by then, tastes and preferences had already changed. Nevertheless, during that time enthusiastic Autoharp fans, largely in the southern Appalachian region continued to enjoy the instrument’s expression in jazz, blues, swing, and more.

In 1924, artists like Ernest V. Pop Stoneman made the first records using the Autoharp for Okeh maintaining the unique musical characteristics of the instrument.

In 1926, when Oscar Schmidt acquired the Phonoharp Company only around 1,000 standard Model 73 Autoharps were in production. (Oscar Schmidt International, led by Victor Herbert, used large concert-style Autoharps during this period.) The Oscar Schmidt International Company, the manufacturer of Autoharps, expanded continuously to meet the demand and developed the instrument to produce new, beautiful, and diverse melodies in all aspects.

In the United States, the Autoharp became a significant instrument in bluegrass music comprising the primary instruments alongside guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, double bass, not only for fast and lively music but also as a solo instrument. Until then, Chromaharp enthusiasts were mostly people from the Appalachian region but when many became interested in jazz, blues, swing, and the like instruments like the Autoharp, the mountain piano of the folk preachers were easily used and enjoyed. Despite not having a long history compared to other instruments the Autoharp developed and thrived through these circumstances. Many people played the Autoharp during this time and among the numerous players, the most outstanding were the Carter family.

Born in the remote hills of the Clinch Mountains in Virginia Alvin Pleasant Carter (1891–1960), along with his wife Sarah Carter and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter, laid the foundation for country music by forming the Carter Family group, playing the banjo, guitar, fiddle (today’s violin), mandolin, and double bass popularizing the Autoharp.

Later, enthusiasts of this small but remarkable instrument aiming to introduce its enjoyable and beautiful melodies to the world formed the “Auto Harp Oscar Schmidt International” in the Western United States leading to a steady increase in the population of Chromaharp players until today.

Currently, in the United States, there are many professional entertainers and musicians who play the Autoharp. It is challenging to enumerate the numerous people during this time,

including folk singers, pop music singers, rock and roll musicians and many other remarkable, unknown musicians. Once limited to the southern mountains of the United States,

a small number of people who passionately loved the Autoharp are no longer a minority.

As the number of new enthusiasts around the world increases through the joy provided by the Autoharp and the beauty of the music it represents the Autoharp population has consistently grown. The Chromaharp is an instrument that is easy to learn compared to other instruments allowing people to understand and learn music without any prior knowledge of music theory.

In the United States, the Chromaharp is used as a fundamental instrument in elementary school music education providing a basis for learning harmony and gaining experience in solo and ensemble playing from progression to harmony. It has gained steady popularity in churches and workplace groups nationwide being widely used in church hymns, gospel songs, and, in the southern regions of the United States becoming an essential instrument for playing black spirituals.


Buying Autoharps online?

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