‘Nudder Autoharp Article – What Do the Numbers on Vintage 3, 4, and 5-Chord Autoharps Mean?

I was recently explaining to a visitor why my really old autoharps have numbers instead of chord names on the chord bars, when they asked why the note numbers on these diatonic harps go 1,2,3,4,5,6,6,7? And why is the second 6 in a strange, dotted font?The Chord and String labels for an early 4-chord autoharp.

Well, Charles F. Zimmerman, who popularized the autoharp in the late 19th century, and fixed the overall designs that dominate the instruments to this day, wanted to do more than sell musical instruments – he wanted to make music more accessible to people who didn’t read music at all. So he invented a note numbering system, based around the C scale (the white notes of the piano).

But Zimmerman also included Bb in his scale. (He was of German descent, so he had to – Germans consider Bb as a sort of bastard child of the C scale.) So the second 6 actually means A#. Go figure.

He also numbered the chords on his autoharp in relationship to the C chord. So C was 1, F was 4, and G was 5.

The chord bar labels of a vintage 5-chord autoharp.

Which worked great until he wanted to add a Bb chord bar. The seventh note of the C scale is B natural, not Bb (I realize that Blues musicians will have trouble with that sentence). So, sticking with his note numbering system, he called the Bb chord “6,” but put it in a funny typeface so you would know he meant “6#.”

Confused? So were builders of competing brands, one of which accidentally labeled the Bb chord both 6# and 7# (which is technically C).

The system broke down when autoharps began getting even more chords. But if you’ve ever come across one of those old instruments, such as the popular “Favorite,” and you wondered how to tune it, the article we wrote to explain all of this should help you figure it out. Click here for more information.


About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

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