Strumming the Autoharp

by happynutritionist

The autoharp is a folk instrument that almost anyone can learn to play at any age. This page will teach you many things about the Autoharp.

The name Autoharp would lead you to believe that the instrument is in the harp family, but it's actually a folk instrument related to the Zither. Most likely the many strings and the shape of the instrument helped to form it's name.

I own and play and Autoharp. It's a fine folk instrument with enough strings to keep those that play it happy tuning and strumming to their hearts content for hours. It's not a hard instrument to learn. Tuning is where you'll do most of your work if you tune your own, but a good Autoharp will hold it's tune for quite a long time.

Let me show you the different ways the Autoharp is held while playing by some very talented, well-known and loved musicians. I'll share more about the instrument, and how the Autoharp came to be a special part of my life.

by Claudia Meydrech aka happynutritionist
New on Wizzley - August 2011 ~ Updated 5/11/18

How My Autoharp and I Got Together

I'm thinkin' she was about 30 years old when I found her

This is my 21 chord Autoharp.

As I shared on my "Who is happynutritionist..." bio page, I learned to play the Violin to some degree as a younger girl, but the school I attended didn't have a place for violin, so I was discouraged. I put aside the instrument even though I loved it.  In recent years I sold the violin, and purchased my first Autoharp.  Since I didn't know much about the Autoharp at the time, and didn't know that more chords was better, at least for me, I sold the 15 chord Autoharp for more than I purchased it and purchased this one with 21 chords.

The Oscar Schmidt label inside says across the top "1879-1979" and then goes on to give the CR-21 model info., so am assuming that my Autoharp was manufactured in 1979.

It was in perfect condition, not a scratch or mark anywhere, when I received it, and still is in excellent condition.

This is the same model that I have

Oscar Schmidt OS21C 21 Chord Model Autoharp
Only $399.95

Learning to Play the Autoharp Isn't Hard

I taught myself with the help of some books

I learned a lot about playing the autoharp by watching others play, both "in person" and on video. If you can find songs with chord notes written above the music, it's a great start.  The next thing is to see whether those chords match the chords you have on your autoharp...for me this is one reason why having 21 chords as opposed to 15 was an advantage, you can just as easily push buttons on one as the other, so why not have as many as possible?

It's even better if you can get music books written especially for the Autoharp.  Some of the books I own are pictured here and below.  I particularly like "You Can Teach Yourself the Autoharp" - it's very helpful and includes a CD in a pocket in the back so you can visually see how the instrument is played.  

I love all of the Mel Bay books for the Autoharp.

Autoharp Music Books

I included the Praise book because the songs have chords written over them
Mel Bay You Can Teach Yourself Autoharp
$8.01  $12.99
Mel Bay Hymns for Autoharp
Only $19.99
Mel Bay Songs of Christmas for Autoharp
$14.99  $12.19
Autoharp Owner's Manual
$24.18  $22.31
Mel Bay's Celtic Authoharp: 35 Celtic...
Only $14.79
Maranatha Praise Music Chorus Book, 3...
Only $10.69

Tuning an Autoharp takes patience, but can be done

Just sit back, relax, and give it a try

How many strings are on an Autoharp, you might ask. There are about 47 strings, and it takes a bit of patience tuning the instrument. I have a friend who takes her Autoharp to a music shop to have it tuned professionally, that's probably the easiest thing to do if you have the money and don't want to bother tuning it yourself, but you can do a pretty good job yourself if you have a good ear, tuner and autoharp tuning wrench.  You need a sturdy wrench to do the job.

I have the Korg CA-30 Chromatic Tuner, there may be more advanced models now, but it works for me.  I set it on the autoharp, and it "hears" the chord and shows you on the display whether you're playing the right note or chord.  You have to get used to how to work with it. 

I use an electric keyboard to help as well, as the autoharp has a template I guess you'd call it, under the strings at the wide end that looks like the black and white keys of a piano.  So I play the note on the keyboard, tune as close as possible to the note by ear, then refine with the Korg tuner and by strumming a few chords to hear how all the strings sound together.

When you think you've finished tuning your Autoharp, push each chord button and strum through the strings...believe me, you'll know if it's off key, it's painful to listen to!

This instrument comes with extra tuners for fine tuning the Autoharp

Oscar Schmidt OS110-21FNE 21 Chord Flame Maple Autoharp with Fine Tuning System and Pickup - Natural

Spectacular in design and workmanship, the OS110 features Oscar Schmidt's exclusive FT600 Fine Tuning System combined with a rock maple pin block to assure you will always be in...

View on Amazon

How to Use Finger Picks on an Autoharp

It varies with what your playing, how your feeling, it's a personal thing

I have plastic thumb picks and metal finger picks, this is pretty standard for playing an Autoharp.  I also have a regular guitar type pick...did you know some people strum an Autoharp like a guitar?  It's not typical, but there are those who enjoy doing that.  The more I learn about playing the instrument, the more I see that almost anything goes as long as your music sounds like it's something worth listening to and your having fun.

But I'm pretty traditional, play by holding the instrument up against me, hugging it is what I like to call it, right hand strumming, left hand working the chords.  More often than not, I use 3 finger picks; 1 thumb, and 2 finger; and only occasionally a full hand of picks. 

Below you'll find some videos showing different positions for holding the Autoharp.

Playing the Autoharp on the lap using the narrow section of strings - also a different style of instrument

Enjoy the music - "Streets of London"

Do You Play the Autoharp?

A little poll to satisfy my curiosity :-)
  Display results
I hope this page is helpful to you

June Carter Cash Playing on the Lap

June Carter Cash, the wife of Johnny Cash, is strumming using the same method as the musician above.

Autoharp Coloring Page: Let children color while you are teaching them about the Autoharp

Click the image for printables
Autoharp Coloring Page

Playing the Autoharp Held Upright - I call it "hugging" the autoharp and use this method the most

"Amazing Grace" - Beautiful!
Updated: 05/11/2018, happynutritionist
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Do you play an Autoharp or have a question about the instrument?

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happynutritionist on 09/23/2017

@Pamela, I am not sure, but do know that they were helpful to me when I was learning, and also when tuning.

Pamela on 11/21/2016

Why do some autoharps have the keys printed at the bottom of the strings, and some don't?
Thank you!

happynutritionist on 10/27/2016

@Georgiana I'm glad you are enjoying the instrument! Have you done a search online for instructors in your area? It is nice to have a variety of ways to strum the instrument and find the one that you enjoy the most! The best of success to you.

Georgina Smith on 05/17/2016

Hi, I've been learning the autoharp and am struggling with the strumming rhythms. In particular, I'm trying to mimic June Carter Cash and how she plays a fast strum. I live on Long Island, NY and would very much like to connect to an instructor or other autoharp people. Many thanks!

happynutritionist on 12/02/2015

You are welcome, and I'm glad you've discovered the autoharp and are finding joy in music...I imagine it is a bit of "home" since you remember your grandmother playing. I have family down there in Virginia, and my Dad was born in West Virginia.

David Hammack on 11/16/2015

Hi, I am Dave, and 60 yo. for at least the last 50 years, I have been a frustrated musician. I started out trying guitar at 14, with almost no success, As time went on I spent a small fortune on keyboards I never did more than pick out a melody on. From there I tried a variety of flutes. No joy there either. Now, it seems I have come full circle more or less. You see, I am originally from the foothills of Virginia, where bluegrass rings through the hollers, and autoharp is king. My grandmother played autoharp. I never considered it for myself because because I thought it rather limited, till I was recently cruising YouTube and heard AMAZING music... on the autoharp. I immediately went to EBay and put in a bid on a couple. I will be frustrated no more, because I KNOW I can play the autoharp. I just want to thank those intrepid YouTubers (they know who they are) who wiped the scales from my eyes.
Thank you for your page. It is a great resource, which I will bookmark and return to it often.

happynutritionist on 09/01/2014

You're welcome, it's nice that you had lessons like that in school..I don't ever remember seeing an autoharp in school.

MaggiePowell on 06/26/2013

I still remember Mr.Grandy, our elementary school music teacher, teaching us the Autoharp. I loved that instrument! Thanks for bringing back the memory

happynutritionist on 08/03/2012 wrote to me months ago, and I apologize for not replying. I went into tuning more at another page linked to through this one, but I use both a keyboard and a Korg and am satisfied with the tune. Though with all of the instruments that you play, your ear for music may be even more refined than mine. I have a friend who takes hers in and pays to have it tuned, haven't done that yet.

ROY A PICKETT on 06/18/2012

I have a autoharp exactially like yours, and also asume it was made in 79. I also asume sense it said 1879-1979 that it is an aniversary edition maybe? How can you not let it make you go crazy tuning it? I have been trying to tune it for a while now on and off and just can't get it. I got a keyboard, and been using the piano to try to tune it, but been having trouble. I play guitar banjo, mandolin, autoharp, and some on the dobro. I love string. My wife is trying learn bagpipes. I am just now learning keyboard. Any ideas you can give me on tuning would be appreciated... Thanks.

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