Sunday, April 13, 2008

Case study - best chords to install?


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You won't be making any truly meaningful change with it until ready to spend real money on it. You need a new chord set.

The autoharp needs to be front and center, not another musical toy vying for your respect, attention and investment priority. It matters, because most suggestions are wasted until there is money available to allow implementing them. Any suggestion to stick with the stock 15 bar is misguidance in my opinion.

A "real autoharp", as reinvented and introduced in 1975 in the form of the Appalachian 21 chord OS45C, more what people typically play today, has three rows of chord buttons. It is configured with a complete commitment to being played while held upright. The others should be burned, upgraded if structurally worthy, or put in a glass case. The exceptions could be for those who still want to play lap style, but the train has moved way down the tracks from the autoharp that many think they know.

The 12 bar chord sets that work best for lap style have in fact been long since discontinued. The 15 bar was always too crowded to allow enough room to pick on either side of the bar set. The 12 bar never used the D# strings, however. The current 21 bar Attache left hander works quite well for lap style but is a very different design compared to the old lap style instruments.

Note that the chord selection (customized) you now have doesn't use the G# or D# strings. You could tune those strings down to double G and D and open up the felt on the bars that use G or D (Gm, Dm, Em, Bm, Bb, C, G, D, C7, G7, D7, A7) .

That would provide some of the tonal benefits of the "diatonic autoharp". I use quotes, because few autoharps are truly diatonic, and the motive for having one is often to make a chromatic sound better or favor a different key, not to play diatonic music necessarily.

I deduce that your current chord set is BbFCGD Majors, CGDA 7ths, gdaebf# minors. That is two sharps and two flats plus C. The EbBb as D# and A# strings are employed. The F# and C# strings are likewise employed. The G# and D# strings are not employed. By virtue of the key of C being central, we already know that all the naturals are in use in some chord.

The other reaction could be that you would want to appreciate that this is a chromatic instrument. There are tunes that do indeed require all those chords and all those notes. We each know our repertoire interests, but I am just challenging being so sure that one doesn't need either chords or chromatic notes. Before retuning the strings to have some doubled notes, consider that changing to a 21 bar set will provide plenty of chord possibilities while allowing a fully chromatic instrument. You may not think you need certain chords or progressions, but you don't yet have an autoharp repertoire. There will be new tunes that come with the instrument. It is not just something on which to play tunes you already know or have already found to fit one of your other instruments.

I am just saying that, despite your experience, it is early to be so sure what chords you "don't need". There will be priorities for what to include in limited space. Right now you have made minors so important at the expense of the instrument being fully chromatic. All that would be fixed by just dropping a 21 chord bar set on the instrument. Actually you would have to refelt a few bars to get all those minors.

Bob Lewis

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Hello, and thanks to all for their ideas about how to rejig my autoharp. Having taken all in (there were some divergent opinions!), I decided not to take the extreme plunge to pure diatonic at this point, and simply changed some of the bars. The (to me) useless E7 E flat and F7 were changed to E minor, F sharp minor and B minor, allowing fuller playing in the stated keys (at least in the upper end of the FCGD range). I am now trying to learn to play without making it sound like I'm grating metal across strings and learning how to pick out single notes without whacking away at strings that don't sound (or worse, that ring out harmonics). Today I think I'll buy some plastic finger picks and see if they sound better. If not, maybe I'll buy new strings.

With all four keys I can play along with many songs at my Celtic group and learn more from the autoharpist there. I'm looking forward to the first session this Thursday.

I'm thinking I may wait until the second autoharp turns up to turn it into a diatonic. I like the idea of having major seventh chords, suspended fourths and other nice colour chords to draw on, but the 15 bars in FCGD sure doesn't allow that!


I play violin (35 years), fiddle (2 years), diatonic button accordion (club system and two-row Vienna; 6 years), piano (30 years), appalachian dulcimer (four months) and autoharp (two weeks and counting). I like music, and prefer traditional folk music played by myself or live.

If you want to age me I started on the violin when I was three and a half.


I am new to the autoharp. My mother bought me an Oscar Schmidt 15-bar chromatic autoharp at a garage sale that was missing most of the springs, the top piece that holds in all the bars, and most of the felts. Luckily the body was sound and a small investment turned it into a playable, if un-inspiring, autoharp. There it has sat for the last ten years, hauled out once in a while to accompany some folk songs around the campfire with the standard three-chord harmonies.

I also play fiddle, and have recently joined a "celtic" fiddle group, where I met a real autoharp player. Her's is a diatonic, playable in D and G, and has extra bars to aid single-note playing. It was a revelation to me. I also play appalachian (plucked) dulcimer, a modal / diatonic instrument, along with diatonic accordions so I knew that sometimes a diatonic instrument is preferable to a chromatic one, especially if you knew you'd be playing in one or only a few keys.

Anyways, she loaned me the Mel Bay Autoharp Owner's Manual, and I have decided I'd like to change my autoharp to a diatonic one, playable at the celtic group so that once in a while I can change over instruments and have some extra fun.

So my question: what do you recommend? Most pieces are in D, G and A -- if it's in another key I can always switch to violin. Any recommendations on the best chords to install? How often do you really need those diminished sevenths in celtic music?

Cheers, and thanks! My mother would be glad I'm finally playing the thing for real.


Rosie said...

Hi, I am considering buying an autoharp, I play keyboard currently, playing i know that a lot of songs have many more chords than an auto harp you know if there are autoharps with more than 21 chords? and also, if there are any available with different chords.....aka, im not that fussed about 7th chords, but would need Bbminor F# minor etc etc...... sorry to ask but I dont really know where im coming from when it comes to this..... thanks Rosie Ladkin xx

Bob Lewis said...

Custom chords involve about $5 per bar, hand felted. Pre-embossed buttons are not available but nice looking labels are available. Those would need to be on the side s of the buttons because of wear, but an entire set of labeled, blank face buttons is nice to consider. I favor that, because the chord names are easily viewed when glancing down at the buttons. The chord names on the button faces are really more oriented to playing lap style, which is not the intended playing style for the 21 chord bar set.

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GingerInk said...

I play my Autoharp on my lap. I have to, because my songs need such a wide variety of chords--and I have to watch what I'm doing to keep track of what button to push!

Not content with major and minor and 7th chords, I make my own custom bars--cutting out plugs where I want a string to sound, and gluing those plugs back in to "damp" a string I don't want. So I have chords like D min. diminished w/ dim. 7, and G min. diminished w/ maj. 7, and C6--to name only a few. I've made at least 20 "extra-curricular" chords over the last 15 years, as they were needed for one song or another. I started with buying "blanks" and cutting them into the chords I wanted, but they're not readily available anymore. So now I just buy a whole set of 21 bars and retrofit them. All I need is an Xacto knife and a glue-stick...and a Sharpy marker. Works for me!

GingerInk said...

I play my Autoharp on my lap. I have to, because the songs I sing need so many extra-curricular chords--and I need to watch what I'm doing in order to push the right buttons! I've customized at least 20 chords as I've needed them--first, buying a few blank bars and cutting out plugs where I needed a string to sound, and finally just buying a whole 21-chord set of bars and cutting out plugs where I wanted sound, and gluing plugs back into spaces where I wanted to damp a string.

So now I've got fancy chords like D min. dim. w/ dim. 7, and G min. dim. w/ maj. 7, and some 6ths and augmented 7ths, and it's all just too much fun. My daughter majored in music and said, "Mom, get a *real* instrument, like a guitar! Then you wouldn't have to mess with cutting bars to get the chords you want!" But I enjoy beating the limitations of the Autoharp and getting out of it the music I want. Besides, I love its sweep of strings--so many more than just the 6 strings of a guitar. :)