I got asked a few weeks ago if I could tune my mother’s autoharp and replace a couple of damaged strings. I’m not a luthier and haven’t ever tuned an autoharp, but decided it couldn’t be too hard, so I said I’d have a go when I was next around, but I might not be able to replace the strings. The payoff was going to be that if I could get it sounding nice, I’d be able to record some autoharp samples to use later on in my own music, potentially.
An autoharp is like the harp out of a miniature piano, with a set of wooden bars across it that you press to dampen some strings so they won’t sound, leaving the strings that still ring to make a chord. There are different designs with different numbers of chords built in. The more chords you can make, the more different songs you can play.
I forgot to take a picture of the autoharp before I gave it back to my Mum, but it looks a bit like this one, just a different maker and design and rather older. The one here is a re-make of a vintage design: https://www.thomann.de/gb/oscar_schmidt_os73b_1930_reissue_autoharp.htm.
I thought I might have to work out the pitches the notes were meant to be from the pitches that make up the chords on the bars before I tuned them, but it turned out that the strings were labelled with the letters of the note they should be. As all the strings were also within a tone or so of the correct pitch, the
tuning part of the task turned out to be pretty easy, using my guitar tuner. (Phew!)
Sorting out the two broken strings was trickier. There was a complete set of replacement strings, and you first of all need to work out which one is which, because they come in varying thicknesses, some are bronze-wound like the lowest guitar strings, and some plain steel, like the top strings of a guitar.
Never having strung an autoharp before, there was some trial and error involved. I’d got the first replacement string on before I realised that it wasn’t 100% designed for this particular autoharp. It was a bronze wound string that should have been modified before I started, so that the wound part of the string was in exactly the right position. It still works, though, and I was able to get it up to the correct pitch, so I decided to leave it rather than risk damaging the string beyond use trying to modify it.
The other string that needed sorting out was the broken top string, which was still attached to the instrument. I couldn’t get it off, because the string was stuck between the wood and the metal tuning peg. Thankfully my Dad is very clever with all things mechanical, so with an extra pair of hands, the string came free so I could work on it. Mum had suggested that string was long enough to be repaired rather than replaced, so I had a look at that, and it was possible to reuse it by fashioning a new loop at the other end from the tuning peg. The string did take more tuning though because there was a preformed coil of wire at the tuning head which took a while to settle back down because it kept slackening off.
Once I’d finished tuning the top string, I set up for recording some samples, with a condenser microphone hovering on a boom, straight over the autoharp’s body. I didn’t sample the sound of every string, as that would have taken considerably more hours, which I didn’t have. You don’t really need to, unless you’re a purist: you can create several pitches from the same sample.
I’ve also recorded a few chord sequences, as the mechanical sound when you press the chord bars adds something extra, and I wasn’t sure how I’d build that into an electronic, sampled version of the autoharp. It’s a wood scraping on wood sound, and the strings being dampened gives a different ending to the notes. You can hear this in the attached file – the clunks are the wooden bars being moved as the chords change.