Vintage 1953 Oscar Schmidt Autoharp

2010 June 15

Autoharp Song Book!I’ve been looking for a vintage Oscar Schmidt Autoharp for a while now.  But I’ve been fussy about the condition and concerned about not buying it in person.

But, the day has come, and I now await my little 1953 Oscar Schmidt 12-Chord Autoharp (pictured below)

She needs a little cleaning and, no doubt, a lot of tuning, but I have my fingers crossed that she will sing in time for our August 19th & 21st showcases at the IndieGrrl Music Conference in Knoxville.

Vintage 1953 Oscar Schmidt 12-Chord Autoharp!And for those of you that can keep a secret, I’ve located an 1890 Zimmerman Chorded Zither called, of all things, The Favorite too…

Do you think I can sneak it in when Jon isn’t looking?

For those of you unfamiliar with the autoharp, here’s a little lesson from

The autoharp is a musical stringed instrument having a series of chord bars attached to dampers which, when depressed, mute all the strings other than those that form the desired chord. Despite its name, the autoharp is not a harp at all, but a chorded zither.

There is debate over the origin of the autoharp. A German immigrant in Philadelphia by the name of Charles F. Zimmermann was awarded US patent 257808  in 1882 for a design for a musical instrument that included mechanisms for muting certain strings during play.

Autoharp Instruction Book!He named his invention the “autoharp.”

Unlike later autoharps, the shape of the instrument was symmetrical, and the felt-bearing bars moved horizontally against the strings instead of vertically.

It is not known if Zimmermann ever commercially produced any instruments of this early design. Karl August Gütter of Markneukirchen, Germany, had built a model that he called a “Volkszither” which most resembles the autoharp played today.

The Carter Family!Gütter obtained a British patent for his instrument circa 1883-1884.  Zimmermann, after returning from a visit to Germany, began production of the Gütter design in 1885…but with his own design patent number and catchy name.

Gütter’s instrument design became very popular and Zimmermann has often been mistaken as the inventor.

Autoharps have been used in the United States as bluegrass and folk instruments, perhaps most famously by Maybelle Carter and Sara Carter of The Carter Family (Click on the picture at left to learn more about The Carter Family).

They are relatively easy to learn to play as a rhythm instrument, but offer great rewards to the more committed player as a melody instrument.

Dolly Parton playing a white bedazzled autoharp!Grand Ole Opry star Cecil Null was the first to develop the upright style for playing the autoharp that was in turn used by the Carter Family.

I still envision Dolly Parton playing that white bedazzled autoharp (pictured right) that you can see for yourself at the Dolly Parton museum inside Dollywood.

Outside of bluegrass and country music, both acoustic and electric autoharp were occasionally used in the folk-influenced parts of late 1960s/1970s progressive rock, psychedelia and related genres by e.g. Genesis, Renaissance and Led ZeppelinJanis Joplin also played the autoharp, which can be heard in her early, unreleased recording “So Sad to Be Alone”.

I’ll post better pictures when she arrives!

12 Responses
  1. cliff permalink
    October 29, 2011

    Thanks for a little history lesson .

    Here is a little story … when I was around 9 years old, I loved to play the autoharp in my 4th grade class. It was shinny black and I just loved to strum it as we sang from the song book. Well, that was back in 1950’s … Now our son in Seattle loves to shop at the Goodwill store near his house. As an indi-folk song writer/musician, he uses all kinds of instruments on his “albums”. And he knows I like old instruments too. Well, for Father’s Day he gave me a beautiful auto harp that was dated on the case 1958 and was used in an elementary school. What a nice surprise! Just needs a little work on some of the pads and a tuneup and I will be “back at school” playing again! Blessings!

  2. Shirley Goins permalink
    March 6, 2012

    I just purchased a 12 chord Oscar Schmidt. Needs some tlc but am curious as to its value. Can you give me an idea? Am looking forward to its melody as my first strums across the strings produced a fairly well tuned sound.

  3. March 6, 2012

    Shirley, I don’t have any idea what the value might be, but enjoy your new autoharp! –Rachel

  4. Shirley Goins permalink
    March 7, 2012

    Thanks for your time!

  5. doug garrett permalink
    March 9, 2012

    i have this autoharp with the book and catalog…its for sale. any offers?
    its in great condition

  6. Justin Burk permalink
    August 10, 2013

    I have this Auto Harp for sale in very good condition if interested call me at 1-217-663-2272 or email me it does have a little scratch on it but thats on the bottom side

  7. April 6, 2014

    I have one I bought at a roadside sale while driving through Missouri several years ago. It looks just like the one you have pictured. It has a number stamped into the wood on the back of it. # 5912 Any information you can give me. My daughter wants it and I would like to give it to her for her birthday. Would like to include some information for her.

  8. Joshua Hazel permalink
    July 10, 2016

    Where can I find a white autoharp? I have looked everywhere ans there are also no stores that I can find in Houston Texas. Huge dolly fan FYI

  9. July 14, 2016

    Joshua, Dolly’s white autoharp is the only one I’ve seen. We love Dolly too! <3

  10. Florence Barbee permalink
    August 18, 2016

    I have an Oscar Schmidt OS45c Appalachain Autoharp. The serial number is 7083. I am trying to find out when and where it was made. Can you help me with this? Is there a book or manual I can purchase in order to obtain more information? Any help is appreciated. Thank you.

    P.S. I bookmarked this site for even more questions

  11. August 21, 2016

    Just fell in love with thist site. Love dolly. Have a very blessed day

  12. K. Smith permalink
    August 21, 2016

    I have this exact autoharp with the original case original chromatic pitch pipe and turning to all the original paperwork catalogs Comma Song folio catalog and instruction booklet I would be willing to sell it is in very nice condition

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