Modern autoharps with laminated pinblocks are easier to tune and keep in tune. They are not perfect but their multiple laminations resist wear, fracture, and wood movement better than the solid, softer wood construction of the older models. Precise tuning with metal friction pins and a wrench requires a high degree of skill, finesse, and perserverance. Strings drift out of tune too soon, sometimes before a complete tuning pass is made. Even when we have achieved tuning Nirvana, we are soon reminded that nothing is permanent and even tiny changes can add up to disappointment.
Coaxing thirty-six or more strings into perfect harmony is daunting at first but it gets easier. We all learn little tricks, shortcuts, and procedures to a pleasing result but diatonic autoharps bring an extra challenge to the task. Many of the strings in the center octave are paired and tuned to the same note. The paired notes are tuned as precisely in unison as possible or they create audible “beats” that, simply put, sound sour. These paired notes require a degree of tuning percision that is sometimes difficult to achieve with friction pins.
Many players can achieve good tuning results with only a wrench. The rest of us can’t so that’s where fine tuners are mighty useful. They are a rather expensive option ($100 to $300 depending on brand and installation) but in most cases worth the cost. Most kinds work basically the same. A small allen screw at each string anchor is turned to fine tune the string in the tiny increments that cannot be easily achieved with the friction pins. The instrument must still be tuned with the pins but the fine tuners are great for touchups and bringing string pairs into perfect unison.
For this autoharp conversion I will be installing Pete Daigle‘s patented “Flat Line Tuners”. They are made for new installations and “A” style autoharps but in a later post I will show how I modified this “C” style to fit. I could have just swapped out the old aluminium anchor bar for an Oscar Schmidt brand fine tuning system but I don’t like them. They are made of very heavy brass, they have too many small moving parts, and it’s difficult to keep the strings level.
Here’s a weight comparasion:
The original alumunium anchor bar is 3.4 ounces.
An Oscar Schmidt brand fine tuning system is a full 1.0 pound.
Daigle Flat Line tuners with a bridge is only 6.1 ounces.
At each string on the Oscar Schmidt tuners is a cam, a screw, and a lock washer. Turning the screw raises and lowers the cam (which is also the string’s bridge) to change the pitch. By and by, many of the strings end up higher than others causing damping issues. To install or change a string, all three parts must be removed from the anchor bar to thread the string through the cam.
The Daigle fine tuners have only one moving part at each string, a set screw that presses against the string to change tension. Changing a string involves removing the screw, laying the string in the slot, and replacing the screw.
Because all the strings cross the same flat bridge, it’s never necessary to level them.
The many shortfalls of the Oscar Schmidt fine tuners have motivated autoharp luthiers such as George Orthey, Bob Lewis, and Greg Schreiber to develop similar systems with many improvements in quality and function. I like the Daigle tuners because they are lightweight and simple to use and install.