Creek Don't Rise

R.S. Williams and Son Autoharp
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Author:  paulrace [ Sun Sep 02, 2018 5:07 pm ]
Post subject:  R.S. Williams and Son Autoharp

A reader writes:

I have a R.S.Williams and Son autoharp. It is old but in very good condition I think. Would you know who I can send a picture to in order to find out the value if any for this instrument.

Thank you for your help


Thanks for getting in touch. While I would love to compare photos of your instrument to photos I already have of a "Rex" model from the same company, I don't know how to assign a value to it. To the best of my knowledge, these were made in Canada, and very few found their way across the border to the US. And relatively few have survived (versus hundreds of thousands of Chromaharps and Oscar Schmidts).

The instrument would be more interesting to a collector than someone wanting to play it. Unfortunately there are very few autoharp collectors, and I don't know any personally.

Here's an article about the company that might help: ... -sons-emc/

Hope this helps. If you can reply to this e-mail and attach a few clear photos, I might be able to be a little more specific.

- Paul

Author:  paulrace [ Sun Sep 02, 2018 5:08 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: R.S. Williams and Son Autoharp

The Reader replied:
Here are a few photos of the autoharp.
Thank you
[Unfortunately, I lost the photos of this reader's autoharp. I have included two photos of R.S. Williams and Son Autoharps, sometimes called REX because that was the model name on the label.

The beautiful part of this autoharp was the arrangement of the buttons so it was easy to find the chords in any of the keys it played in. In addition, the chord bar cover listed all the notes in the chord, which is a nicety that the early Zimmerman messed up by numbering the notes oddly instead of just naming them, and which no USA or Asian autoharps since have even attempted.

One photo is of a restored autoharp. One photo is of the chord bar cover of an old one I saw some time back. Sorry again about losing this reader's photos. Long story. ]
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Your autoharp is in much better condition than the last Williams and Sons autoharp I saw.

Sadly, the only other Williams and Sons autoharp I saw sold for about $11 on auction, but it was in bad shape, and I'm sure nobody knew what it was.

If yours can be tuned and played, it might be worth $100 or so (US) to an autoharp player looking for something "different." To a real autoharp fan or collector, it might be worth more. It's a part of Canadian History that doesn't show up very often. R.S. Williams and Son(s) sold many kinds of musical instruments, including mandolins and pianos, but this may be the most unique instrument they sold. NOBODY else made autoharps with the buttons arranged this way. It might belong in a museum. Maybe the Royal Ontario Museum: ... nstruments

Again, so few of them have survived and so few of them change hands, I can't say specifically what yours is worth. It's a collector's item but unfortunately there aren't many autoharp collectors, so you may have trouble finding a buyer who's willing to pay you what it's worth on a collectibles scale.

Hope this makes sense. Thanks again for the photos.

Have a great day,

- Paul

Author:  paulrace [ Sun Sep 02, 2018 5:26 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: R.S. Williams and Son Autoharp

Ooops - just found the reader's photos.

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Author:  paulrace [ Mon Sep 03, 2018 8:03 am ]
Post subject:  Re: R.S. Williams and Son Autoharp

Okay, it may be time to explain the goofy numbering system on the R.S. Williams and Sons autoharps, which is slightly different from the numbering system on the Zimmerman and early Oscar Schmidt autoharps.

The number in a circle or square is meaningless, except for C, D, F, and G7, which are indicated by 1, 2, 4, and 5, respectively. You think you've got it figured out, then you realize that A7 is indicated by a 3 which makes no sense. G is indicated by #7, D7 is indicated by #8, and there is a second C chord at the opposite point of #1, labeled #9. To add to the confusion for people not used to Bb being called A#, the #6 chord is actually a Bb chord.

A circle indicates a major chord. A square indicates a seventh chord (what a music theorist would call a "flatted seventh"). Adjacent to the chord number is a list of notes in the chord; adjacent to the list of notes is a list of the NUMBERS of those notes. Why is this important? Because natural and flat notes in the note list look the same, but in the list of note numbers the sharps are shown in a bold, but grayer, font.

(1) = C. Notes: C, E, G. Note Numbers 1, 3 5.
[1] = C7. Notes: C, E, G, A#. Note Numbers, 1, 3, 5, 6.
(2) = D. Notes: D, F#, A. Note Numbers 2, 4, 6.
[2] = D7. Notes: D, F#, A, C. Note Numbers 2, 4, 6, 1.
And so on.

Zimmerman's autoharps used a similar, though slightly less confusing, numbering system. But Zimmerman's autoharps were to some extent an afterthought, a way to promote what he considered a radical new approach to notation that wouldn't require anyone to read music. He even commissioned composers to write songs he could publish using his numbers-based system.

Since the Williams and Sons Autoharps used a different - and even more confusing - numbering system, I can't help but wonder if they had their own notation system. At any rate, this autoharp and the rare Zimmerman Model 6 1/2 were the only consumer-oriented autoharps that could play three-chord songs in the key of D before about 1967. So if they'd come to light during the Folk Revival (which relied heavily on songs in the key of D) they may have found some use.

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