The 5 Best Autoharps for Beginners and Pros

The Autoharp is not the most widely-known instrument, but its distinctive sound and easy method of playing make it very rewarding to play.

(Pictured above: An autoharp by Oscar Schmidt (left), and June Carter Cash playing an Autoharp).

The Autoharp was invented in the late 19th century and it’s claimed by several German inventors. An autoharp is essentially a zither that allows us to play a single chord when a certain button is pressed.

Our Pick of the 5 Best Autoharps

1. Oscar Schmidt OS45CE (Acoustic/Electric Autoharp)
A beautifully-designed autoharp that can also be plugged into an amp.
2. ChromaHarp 21 Chord Auto Harp
21 chords and 37 strings by ChromaHarp
4. Oscar Schmidt 21 Chord Autoharp OS21C
A great-sounding 21-chord autoharp from Oscar Schmidt
5. Oscar Schmidt OS73B Autoharp
A 15-chord autoharp with a beautiful, stylized finish

1. Oscar Schmidt OS45CE – Electric Autoharp

Oscar Schmidt is the best known and widespread manufacturer of autoharps in the world. They actually coined the term autoharp in the beginning, but the term has become a general term for the instrument itself.

Even though autoharps are originally (and to this day mostly produced) acoustic, in the ’50s and ’60s they were successfully amplified, pretty much on the same basis as guitars. The OS45CE is a nice example of an acoustic/electric autoharp, which can be plugged into an amp via an instrument cable.

It has passive pickups and is made out of spruce. It’s got beautiful, sparkle finish and a flower-shaped soundhole. This is a great instrument if you need to play it on the stage, as it can be easily amplified but still provide you with a gentle and quality sound.

2. ChromaHarp 21 Chord Auto Harp

ChromaHarp is a nice, beginner autoharp. It has 21 chords and 37 strings, with three rows of chord buttons. This instrument comes with a beautiful black body and is constructed with torsion-tight tuning pins and a pre-stressed maple frame and maple top, which gives it it’s authentic sound.

Sound is delicate and rather quiet, so it’s a great instrument if you’re looking for something quiet to play, whether you’re living in a small apartment or something. All in all, this is a great beginner’s instrument, which will last longer and have a nice ratio

3. Oscar Schmidt OS15B Autoharp

If you’re looking to buy a bit simpler harp with fewer chords options, that’s easier to play, then you could consider Oscar Schmidt OS15B. This 15 chords autoharp is a nice quality instrument. It’s made out of maple and has a sunburst finish. It also comes with a rock maple pin block, to help keep your strings in tune. This instrument is a classic, acoustic autoharp with beautiful sound quality.

4. Oscar Schmidt 21 Chord Autoharp OS21C

OS21C is a nice, 21 chord model. It comes, as most of the modern autoharps do, with 37 strings and chromatic chord bars in three rows of buttons. The sound quality is great and the instrument comes tuned, so you can play it straight out of the box, without the need for additional tuning.

As far as the looks go, it comes in a beautiful, sunburst finish, and is made out of maple. This is a great addition to anyone looking to buy a decent autoharp, whether you’re a beginner or a pro.

5. Oscar Schmidt OS73B Autoharp

We finish off this list with probably the most beautiful instrument on it. OS73B is a standard, 15 chord autoharp, produced by Oscar Schmidt, made out of maple and with the spruce finish. Sound-wise, it produces a handmade quality level of sound, that you’re certainly going to love. As for the looks, it comes with a beautiful, black stylized finish, with differently adjusted string pins so to have a nicer and cleaner look, even though the sound stays the same.

Autoharps – Buyer’s Guide

How does the autoharp work?

The Autoharp is essentially a zither, but with a mechanism on top that allows you to automatically play a chord you want. It’s a system where, when you push a button, it automatically mutes all the strings that don’t belong in a chord and allows those that do to play. Think of it as if somebody just pressed chords into the guitar with a push of a button.

The autoharp is most commonly used to play just strumming chords as a backup, but over the years, people have developed ways of playing melodies on it by plucking the strings when different chords are selected. 

Is Zither the same as an autoharp?

Even though they belong in the same family and the autoharp is an upgraded zither, they are not the same instrument. Most importantly, for the zither you need to pluck the strings yourself, while autoharp does that for you, allowing you to just play the chords you want.

How to tune an autoharp

Autoharps are tuned in the same fashion as the guitars are. You can tune them by ear, but we recommend that you buy an automatic tuner, as they are really cheap and available everywhere. You will also need a key, to turn the heads of pins on which strings are mounted. As you strain them, the tune goes higher, as you release them it goes lower.

Is it hard to learn to play the Autoharp?

Actually, it’s one of the easiest instruments you can learn how to play. The whole point of the instrument is that you just need to press a button to get a chord all served up and ready to go. Since you have from 15 to 21 chords on the instrument, you just need to learn where the buttons are for which chords and voila – you’re a master musician that will always get the song right.

How many strings does an autoharp have?

Autoharps these days usually come with 37 strings, but through history, that number varied. They also can come with 47 and 48 strings, depending on what the musician is going after and which scale is being used. But you can count on the traditional 37 strings to always be there for you when you’re looking to buy an autoharp.

Where the Autoharp came from

Autoharps have emerged in the late 19th century, in several different places, and by several different inventors who basically all had the same idea – making of a zither that’s easier to play. Zither is an old German instrument, going back from the ancient Greek cithara, which is also a predecessor of a guitar. When you look at an autoharp you’ll notice that it works on the same principle as a guitar, with strings and a hollow body that produces the sound working as a resonator box. Autoharps were originally played the same as zither, laid down, but at some point, people realized that it’s much easier and more versatile when played being held upwards.

Conclusion

We hope that this article has helped you inform you about autoharps and different options available on the market.

Featured images by  Alexandre Zindel / CC BY-S (the Oscar Schmidt autoharp image) and Larry D. Moore / CC BY-SAA (Image of June Carter cash playing an autoharp)

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