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Washburn Bluegrass Instruments => Post your thoughts on Banjos & Mandolins => Topic started by: Tony Raven on September 24, 2016, 10:10:00 PM

Title: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on September 24, 2016, 10:10:00 PM
...because it's not like OS (much less Lyon) has their own site.  >:(

Though it's become a generic term, Autoharp is a company trademark (though only the cursive-lettered word is still protected).

I find myself with two 12-bars & a little 6-bar. There's not a whole lot of discussion, & I've yet to find any site that collects the history or lists known models.

But, maybe next week...  ;)
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: WEBgUy on September 26, 2016, 10:12:15 AM
Actually, Oscar Schmidt does have it's own site and there is an info area: (
There's also a Facebook page: (
What type of info were you looking for?
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: YerDugliness on September 26, 2016, 11:03:11 AM
My only experience with OS's autoharps came after one of the Winfield Bluegrass Festivals back in the late 1970's.  I thought my wife might be able to join me in making music if I made it easier and thought an autoharp was a good idea.


She never played it, but did manage to break one of the hinges on it.

I doubt if I ever saw it after New Years'...

I tried it out a bit...was quite taken with the virtuosity of Bryan Bowers on his autoharps. It's much more difficult than HE makes it look, that's for sure!

I found that the 12 chord model wasn't enough for me...if I were to take the instrument up in earnest I think I'd prefer the 15 chord model...just a feeling, though...had no idea there was a 6-chord model!

There's a luthier out of Kansas who makes custom autoharps out of a very unusual wood...Osage Orange (also called hedge apples). His products are quite popular among the bluegrassers.

Overall, I think the OS line is highly under-rated. Pike use to buy OS 3/4 guitars and do a set-up on them, he really liked them for a child-size instrument!


Dugly 8)
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on September 28, 2016, 10:00:35 PM
Oscar Schmidt does have it's own site and there is an info area

Well, about that... ;) there's no discussion area, so no way to share actual information that does manage to struggle into the light.

But to their credit, OS Online does make it easy to find the current catalogue PDF, with pricelist -- maybe Washburn Online could take a few notes?? And the Accessories tab at the top gets you a small but GREAT listing of common autoharp parts.

There's also a Facebook page

I'm one of those troglodytes still convinced that Facebook is somewhat less useful than teats on a boar. 8)  Anyway, the page is 90% ukulele-centric.

What type of info were you looking for?

Heck, for starters,For starters.  :o
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on September 28, 2016, 11:10:06 PM
I think I'd prefer the 15 chord model.

Oh, I totally agree -- the 12 is certainly limiting... but the darned things show up so CHEAP that it's almost worth having two or three around, tuned to a particular style or set.

HOWEVER (you knew that was coming, right? :)) it should first be noted that there's some GREAT players out there who prefer fewer bars -- again, suited to the songs.

Some years ago, I went to the Open Stage night at Cedar Cultural Center (Minneapolis). I bought my ticket & got a snack, all the while enchanted by the sound of the string band wafting from the auditorium. I turned the corner & about dropped my teeth -- it's ONE PERSON. That's why ANYONE with ANY interest in autoharp really needs to burn the words KAREN MUELLER into their brain. I'd never before imagined even the possibility of picking out a discernible melody while holding down a bass AND using the midrange to establish rhythm -- she is amazing with using double-bar stops to open up individual notes. (

She was host that night, & teaches two blocks from the Cedar, at the West Bank School of Music. One of her harps had only seven bars.

had no idea there was a 6-chord model!

I think the six-bar was meant as a toy, only 15" x 8", but it's solid, & has that classic waist-cut shape. I judge it a toy because the felts are one-piece & notched out -- apparently by an angry person with a machete -- rather than separate pieces. And I may need to shim the tops of the bar holders, because tightening the screws dampens all the strings. ::)

I used to have a little book (bought from Lark in the Morning) that was maybe two dozen Irish songs, all of which could be played with just four chords. When you think of how many songs are built around first-position guitar chords (E A D C G), why not limit the palette?

(I've seen two entirely different chorded zithers that were strung chromatically, & had mechanisms that allowed you to shift the levers, thus effectively "capo up" to any key you needed. Sure, they were a little heavy & bulky...)

I've seen photos of chorded zithers from C.F. Zimmerman that had five & four bars, & I've heard there was a three-bar model (but that may have been an earlier horizontal-damper design). At first glance, they look very familiar, but then you spot the "capo" levers.

Anyway, if you find yourself a nice-looking old autoharp in great condition & don't have to spend much on it, then all ya gots to do is buy yourself a conversion kit. :o Per the OS site, you get all the parts you need to upgrade to 15 bars (($105.90) or leap right up to 21 bars ($115.90)... but don't let the MSRP put you off as street prices are low as (respectively) $50 & $70. ( (

Buy for price & looks, & don't bother counting the buttons. ;) (Shopping hint: if it comes with a nice hardcase, that's a BIG bonus. Most chipboard cases are garbage, & a gigbag does nothing to prevent squashing so the felts tends to age prematurely.)

One reason to go for a 21 is that the keys are laid out in three rows: major, minor, 7th. Very easy to remember!

On the downside, the modern autoharp is really only strong in four keys, C D F G, but everything else is weak in the bass; if you're not trying to carry the whole show yourself, it does okay in Bb, Eb, & A.

NOTE -- one quirk of the autoharp is that it's VERY obvious that "perfect" even temperament doesn't always work best. IMO, the other common instrument where this is true is the harmonica, & serious players will have harps with some of the reeds tweaked ever-so-slightly sharp or flat, otherwise the note would sound "off" at a critical point in a song. So too with the autoharp, especially in fiddle tunes (particularly when actually playing against a fiddle). Again, it might make more sense to have more than one 'harp, though OS does sell an add-on fine-tuning system ($199.90 SRP) that's already incorporated into some models like the Adirondak ($400+).
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on September 28, 2016, 11:23:07 PM
Schmidt (and later, his successors) had affiliations with an army of "companies". Some were generic company names like "Manufacturers Advertising Company". Some were partnerships, one of the more notable being "Menzenhauer and Schmidt". (Menzenhauer was the holder of the original 1894 patent for the chord-zither. This relationship apparently originated around the turn of the 20th century.)

There were also business activities outside the realm of pin-tuned instruments; Schmidt's company produced guitars, and probably other instruments as well. It appears that sometime in the 1920s, all the manufacturing firms producing zithers, ukelins, and the like (with the exception of the Marx company) folded into Oscar Schmidt companies.

Sometime in the 1930s, International Musical Corporation was swallowed by Schmidt. That company's name was retained in part, and the company names that resulted were "OS-International Corp." and later "OS-International, Inc.". The company continued to produce ukelins until the 1960s, chord-zithers into the 1970s, and ... autoharps which at least bear the OS name are still being manufactured to this day. (

(The ukelin was a bowed fretless zither, essentially a fiddle set flat on the table. While I've known at least one person who could make credible music with one, it amazes me that these awkward devices managed to remain in production for so long.)
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on September 29, 2016, 12:02:11 AM
Before I forget -- the autoharp was originally meant to be played laying flat on a table or maybe your lap. Among others, Mother Maybelle Carter wanted to play the darn thing while standing up. As a result, design changes needed to be made.

But one sidelight of playing "underhand" as opposed to the older "overhand" style is that some rather common chord progressions became a pain -- literally!! --  to accomplish.

That's when players figured out they could just move the darned BARS around any whichway they desired. :o Remember what I said about having multiple 'harps? Here's another reason.

The "proper" arrangement is often a topic of heated debate on autoharp sites, & the idea of "autoharp discussion sites on the Internet" just gave me a headache. :( Anyway, I found the following with three really good 21-bar layouts as well as some 15-bar variants, put together by Bob Lewis. (

Elsewhere, Lewis says
I believe the ultimate answer is always owning and carrying more than one instrument
which I swear I've never seen until moments ago, but it's nice to get confirmation for one's prejudices.  ;)

If anyone wants to join the fun: (
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: WEBgUy on September 29, 2016, 10:15:47 AM
This is probably the best book on Autoharps. We used to sell it ourselves. (
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: YerDugliness on September 29, 2016, 12:10:18 PM

Elsewhere, Lewis says
I believe the ultimate answer is always owning and carrying more than one instrument
which I swear I've never seen until moments ago, but it's nice to get confirmation for one's prejudices.

The last time I saw Bryan Bowers at the Winfield Bluegrass Festival (Now called the Walnut Valley Festival...but us old timers just call it "Winfield") was 2014. He was packing four autoharps with him between 4 stages. He's getting up in the years, I bet he's in his 70's, and he's looking and moving like an older person, but he's a MONSTER on the autoharp, has been since the first time I saw him in the 1970's. I think the 4 harps differed in the number of bars/strings and were probably tuned to different keys.

Bryan was at Winfield supporting what he described as the greatest honor in his life...he was asked to participate in the recording of a 3-CD set of "Masters of the Autoharp" (I'm not near the CDs right now, if that's the wrong title I'll return and edit it so it is correct). All the masters of the autoharp played and many of the songs are ones I have never heard.

One of my friends from Houston has won Winfield's Autoharp contest...he plays the William Tell Overture on his Oscar Schmidt autoharp (although I suspect he now probably uses his Osage Orange solid-wood autoharp he won in the Autoharp contest at Winfield).

I do remember the surprise the first time I saw anyone play an autoharp any way other than on their lap...that was Bryan Bowers, too...back in the late 70's. Now I've seen many more play them held against their chest.

It's one of my favorite instruments...along with the hammered Dulcimer.

Cheers !

Dugly 8)

Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on September 29, 2016, 10:45:00 PM
a 3-CD set of "Masters of the Autoharp"
Nah, no need to edit. I'm guessing it's probably Autoharp Legends -- can't read a 'harp page without seeing a rave review, so I just put it on my Amazon list. :)

Thinking about it, a big problem with autoharp is to cram all those control surfaces -- the felts -- into a very finite amount of space, yet somehow still have room to pick. :o

Worse: any guitarist knows instinctively how to mute strings. On autoharp, most of your performance is muting! (It's like a classic analog synth, where you start out with white noise & then have to reduce & shape & trim & filter until you get something like a tone.) So if you were to put a bar in the wrong place, properly damping those big bass strings might get undesirable responses. Like when I hit the huge F, the result is vastly different for the G & Gm (at opposite ends of standard layout), & G7 is something else again. Sure, if the point is JUST to mute, then double-bar, but this slows performance.

And of course pressed felt is not a perfect damper -- there's an odd Chromaharp I'm looking at that uses cork strips but I don't think it'd be significantly better. (Given the changes in material science since the current "standard" hit the market, I'm considering a set of bars with neoprene foam or something.) Hold down a bar & strike a good chord, & you can hear a few of the "damped" strings ring because the felt is right at a major inflection point. Hardly catastrophic, & certainly adds to the 'harp's "character," but nevertheless took me a bit to get used to. ;D
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on October 01, 2016, 10:40:25 AM
Things people say... :o
It's a great alternative to the harp. Perfect to figure out if interested in investing in a large harp.
And if you are interested in getting a pipe organ, you should first learn to play the harmonica.

Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on October 02, 2016, 12:20:20 PM
Digging around online, I gotta say that the "autoharps are EASY to play" attitude is NOT helpful. I've heard guitarists say that about piano, & pianists say that about guitar, & EVERYONE says that about percussion. ::)

Here's a really long blog post about the nuances of diatonic vs. chromatic autoharp: (
Sadly, I cannot locate any of the diagrams/photos originally associated with this post.

Here's a photo of an OS Guitaro cut down to four bars for ease of play -- (
Originally a 15-bar layout, with those LONG strings giving more pick access... but where the heck would you get a new set nowadays?

I was bidding on one a couple of months ago & had to drop out when it went over $200. In great condition, & in white, these can go for $500 or so.

Speaking of: if you're shopping for a good used autoharp, keep an eye open for SHINY STRINGS, especially the big basses -- as in new, near-new, or well-cared-for. Replacing one or two strings is no huge issue -- only $2.50-$4.50 from -- but it'll take days (if not weeks) before they settle in & don't need frequent uptuning. And if you have to replace ONE bass, then it's going to sound significantly brighter than the rest, & one thing leads to another & next thing you know you're putting a $70 string set on a 'harp you paid $40 for.  :o

However, remember that that's all relative. A new "serious amateur" OS autoharp will set you back $400. That's something that cannot be said about (say) flutes or violins or saxophones or even acoustic guitars.

And look at the cost of HAND-BUILT, custom-spec 'harps.Most guitar builders I know wouldn't sell you an instrument made by their newest apprentice for so little!! :o
Title: the six-bar autoharp
Post by: Tony Raven on October 02, 2016, 12:58:53 PM
Though info on OS autoharps is scarce & scattered, I now don't feel quite so badly after trying to get ANY coherent data about OTHER pin-tuned instruments --  like the ukelin or pianolin or banjolin -- is practically nonexistent!!

So I count my blessings for finding a few scraps on  another forum. (

Therein it is stated that my little red six-chord autoharp is an Easy Chord model. The OP's first is in natural maple finish. He goes on to say he bought another, a red five-chord, which reminds me that I did indeed see a maple-finish five-bar back around 1989.

He also says he obtained an OS string set for it for $36. (Remember what I said about 'harp strings costing as much or more than a used instrument...? ???) Now, that WAS 2011, so maybe they're gone now, but should anyone find a source, please post here (or send it to me).

Notes toward completeness:

Oscar Schmidt Easy Chord -- six-chord version.

length (max) -- 15"
width (max) -- 8"

chords (left to right) -- Bb F C7 C D7 G
bar length -- ~5.125"
felts -- crimson red; one-piece (notched)

# strings -- 18
wound strings -- 5 (lowest full-wound; guitar string?)
tuning -- D E F F# G A A# B  C D E F F# G A A# B C
open length: shortest string -- C ~5.875"
open length: longest string -- E ~11.25"
Title: current models (02 Oct 2016)
Post by: Tony Raven on October 02, 2016, 01:55:53 PM
In recent years, OS has generally worked the number of chord bars into the model number.... but, as with anything Washburn, this is always vulnerable to drug-induced whim. ::) Unlike Washburn, I cannot even guess at what some of the suffixes are supposed to mean -- input welcome. Some of the data (like MODEL NAMES ::)) appears only in the price list OR catalog OR website; some model numbers likewise show variation for no good clear reason.

Briefly: a new OS autoharp will have Suggested Retail Price of $460 to $810. A bit high for a toy you want to experiment on, sure, but not at all bad for an instrument you intend to study -- heck, look up top-end harmonicas on your favorite online retailer. :o

This list will at least be a step toward locking down the info for future fans.

(Because this board's software refuses to allow me more than seven consecutive bullet points, & troubleshooting buggy code ain't my game, I have removed LIST formatting.)

OS15B "Berkshire" -- basic 15-bar; sunburst only -- $460

OS21C -- basic 21-bar; sunburst only -- $490

OS21CQTBL -- same, with quilt maple veneer top & transparent blue finish -- $560

OS21CQTR -- same, transparent red -- $560

OS45C "The Appalachian" -- 21-bar, "select spruce" top (laminate?), satin natural finish, "flower" soundhole -- $560

OS45CE -- same, with pickup (passive) -- $610

OS45B -- mentioned ONLY in pricesheet -- $560

OS100C (OS10021 in pricelist) "The Centurion" -- 21-bar, spruce top, mahogany back, gloss natural finish -- $570

OS10015 -- same, 15-bar, mentioned ONLY in pricesheet -- $550

OS73B "1930s Reissue" -- 15-bar, spruce top, black gloss finish, "A"-style string ends -- $520

OS73C -- same, 21-bar, mahogany back -- $540

OS73CE -- same, with pickup (passive), mentioned ONLY in pricesheet -- $590

OS11021 "Ozark" -- 21-bar, FT600 fine-tuners, ovankol top, spruce back, satin sunburst finish -- $680

OS11021AE "Americana"/"The Americana Autoharp" -- same, with pickup (passive), three bars different (E F#m Bm) "for bluegrass, folk, old timey and traditional music" -- $710

OS11021FN "LIMITED" -- fine-tuners, flame natural finish -- $770

OS11021FHS -- same, honey sunburst finish -- $770

OS11021FHSE -- same, with pickup (passive) -- $810

OS11021FNE -- same, flame natural finish -- $810

OS120CN "Adirondack" -- 21-bar, spruce top, birdseye maple back, FT600 fine-tuners, gloss natural finish -- $720

OS120CNE -- mentioned ONLY in pricesheet, same with pickup (passive) -- $760

OS150CE (OS150FCE in pricesheet) -- 21-bar, flame maple top, no soundhole, pickup (passive), gloss sunburst finish -- $610
Title: electric autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on October 02, 2016, 02:44:34 PM
Back around 1998, I happened to walk into a Music-Go-Round & spot an autoharp... in sparkly red metallic paint... with a pickup output... & a built-in phaser.


Of course I plugged it into the nearest amp, cranked up the gain, & produced some awesome powerchords that made heads swivel. I got the impression nobody on staff had given it a second glance!!

But, that was back in the days before bank ATM cards doubled as credit cards, & I didn't have my checkbook along, so I went off in search of the $150 they were asking.

Naturally, when I got back, it'd just sold.  :-[ Like an idiot, I hadn't even thought to ask them to hold it for me!!

FWIW, I don't recall it having a soundhole, & it may in fact have been a solid-body. And I do recall seeing a similar device in metallic blue.

Rather than a contact mic, Harry DeArmond created this, a proper magnetic pickup, possibly at the behest of John Sebastian --


The bar sits beneath the strings, roughly diagonal so as to pick up a loud overall string output.

A few years later, OS came out with their own.

I recall at least one reference saying they'd seen an electric (possibly OS) with two factory-installed pickup bars, a shorter one (under the bars) beneath just the wound strings. This makes sense because though those strings are darned thick -- more piano than guitar! -- they are after all wound with bronze, which doesn't much excite a magnetic pickup though it CAN muddy the tone. (Rather than emphasizing the bass tones, this output should push the treble because that's what's deficient. If the long pickup goes beneath all the strings, the big strings would have no trouble giving bass.) But other than that one stray comment, from like 2008 & now unfindable, I've no other source.

And those few scraps now form one of the definitive Internet caches of info about electric autoharps.

Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: YerDugliness on October 04, 2016, 01:50:01 PM
WOW, Tony!

Great info!!!

Thanks for posting all of must have been a daunting undertaking. At least now there will be SOMETHING that ought to index due to an online search for OS Autoharps.

CHEERS to you for all your hard work  ;)

Dugly 8)
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on October 06, 2016, 02:39:21 AM
Not a big effort -- a couple hours spread over a weekend, usually as I'm waiting for dinner to cook. :)

Before I forget AGAIN: I was told that on the OS 21-bar 'harps, the buttons are separate from the bars, allowing you to move a bar readily to any of the three rows, no matter whether it's major or minor or seventh. Anyone know about this??

Though I really like the "open" look of the ChromAharP 21 system, being able to more freely arrange my bars seems like a HUGE plus....

Though I love the cachet of Oscar Schmidt autoharps, I managed to talk myself into a ChromAharP -- looks like this one: (
A boatload of skinny aluminum bars, cork dampers, & more buttons than a calculator. ;D

FWIW -- Yer D'ness, here's a half-decent OS 21-bar, a mere $145 delivered: (
...only half because it needs a new string set & some re-felting, but felt is cheeeep  -- $2/bar from, or has official US Music Corp strips at $2.90/foot. Opinions differ as to whether it's best to use little bits (as factory original) or just lay down a whole strip &  notch it.

A crafter friend tells me there might be a source for suitable pressed felt in all sorts of groovy colors. My older OS has a couple of bad bars (looks like a Pepsi-related accident :o) so I maybe oughta field-test the stuff, right?
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on October 12, 2016, 11:19:34 PM
Another interesting collection of alternate tuning structures for autoharp, even the little five-bar. (

The first time I've seen reference to "half-height" felting at some positions -- so that a string (or two) can be allowed to ring if you don't shove the bar all the way down.

Some very interesting comments on equal temperament vs. just temperament... something us fret-jockeys rarely encounter. :o Also fun brain-hurting bits such as
I have another 21 chord Schmidt that is set up to be tuned in a just intonation based on F ... a 5-limit just scale built on 3/2 (perfect fifth) and 5/4 (major third) and their inversions 4/3 (perfect fourth) and 8/5 (minor third).
Title: Re: any info on Oscar Schmidt Autoharps
Post by: Tony Raven on April 02, 2017, 09:02:04 AM
Here's a side trip to show a two-piece 'harp pickup system. This is a 1967 Cutlass by Summit. But you may also notice the little "®" thingie, so I can only wonder whether they licensed something from OS, or if this is an OS spinoff so as not to upset their Appalachian base with all that hippie electrical stuff.


Each pickup has its own output -- which is kinda cool for someone with a heavy thumb to send the bass for its own mix -- or you can put the switch in the center to run both together. May also be a solid-body, or at least no soundholes. Incidentally, it sold last year for $449.

While it's there, I thought I'd note how the previous owner had the bars laid out --