A RADICAL NEW APPROACH TO CHROMATIC AUTOHARP

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating” – 14th Century proverb

WillSmith_Album_deleter1.jpg

I have been playing autoharp since 1970. Because my first instrument came from the Oscar Schmidt factory, de facto it made me a chromatic player, although standard arrangements still only covered 4 to 5 keys, and the 12 bar model in its design never even used one of the strings. Within just a few years, I was altering felts and re-tuning strings, even though my grasp of music theory was tenuous at best. Being a guitar player as well, I at least realized there was music that could not be adequately transferred to autoharp without some modification. But mostly when there was something that did not fit on the autoharp, rhythmically or harmonically, I just played it on guitar. By the late 1970s I had added diatonic ‘harps and re-cut chords for the chromatic. I have continued to experiment for the last forty years.

While I am not claiming my current contraption is the be-all and end-all, or even the most advantageous possible way to configure even this type of chromatic autoharp, it is the set up that has been working best for me.

The rest of this article may not interest you, so if you just want the fingering of chords for the key of C:     CLICK HERE

SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW (Arlen/Harburg) on the deleter 'harp

A not so brief history

In 2005 at the Mount Laurel Autoharp Gathering, I had brought with me a Mountain Harp which was set up as a single key C diatonic, except for one of the mid-octave strings tuned to an f# note. That note was there so I could play the bridge in Somewhere Over The Rainbow and retain the musical/lyrical lift that the chromatic step gives to that song. In order to play the autoharp the rest of the time as a conventional diatonic, I had fashioned a lock-out bar which could be engaged to mute, or delete, that one f# note and leave the seven note C scale.

On my record ACROSS THE SEVEN SEAS released in 1984, I had used the effect of damping notes out of a C6|9 chord (or pentatonic scale) to resolve to a plain C chord at the end of the last cut, Santa Lucia, for which I used a lot of organic tremelo, rocking the 'harp against my chest, trying to create the effect of moonlight on the waters as a gondola poled down a Venetian canal. I probably went a little overboard (sorry).

So I thought of that, and a light bulb went on connecting it to the deleting button on my diatonic Mt Harp.

Over several decades, I had had people show me various systems they had worked on – including friends Marty Schuman, Bud Lyman, Karla Armstrong, Todd Crowley, etc. and while there were some interesting results, none of the “systems” seemed practical to me in terms of playing a variety of musical styles in a technique that was easier to execute than a standard chromatic with custom-cut altered chords.

The evolution

So I pretty much started from scratch working outward from a diatonic scale from which I could add or subtract altering notes. At first I just added a flat seven note (a# in C) which opened the possibilities of that bluesy I7 chord and created a second major scale (F) to make chords from. Over the period of several years, I kept wanting to play other songs which required more sophisticated progressions and little by little gave up doubled strings in favor of broader harmonic reach. Down the slippery slope of chromaticism I went, until ultimately there were all 12 notes and a lot of possible combined intervals.

The 3 row, 21 button systems had never been something with which I was particularly comfortable, partly because playing entailed long awkward jumps and/or scrunched-up button pushing. I had done a lot of experimenting cutting chords and making arrangements for the SEVEN SEAS (1984) album, but any given song on that record ended up requiring an individual set up, so eventually some songs just got dropped from the repertoire.

The original prototype was created from a standard OS 21 Button Centurion. By design, the deleter ‘harp began by taking the middle row out of a OS 21 Button assembly, so that my hand could stretch in a relaxed way, often using the thumb as a pivot playing the scale chords (6|9, dominant 9ths, and a few odd dominant sevenths with a flatted ninth) and the fingers to depress the delete buttons. Since there was limited real estate to work with (a one chord button middle row at first) each delete bar was designed to take 2 or 3 notes out of the chromatic scale.

Here is an example of the deleter 'harp playing standard major/minor/seventh chords the first time through, and then substituting altered chords the second time:

I just put most the chords in the treble row, a couple more in the bass row with 5 deleter buttons toward the anchor side. I had enough of the sliding buttons, left over from past projects, to use white ones for the chords and black ones for the deleters. The middle row was just blanks except for one chord. It was essentially a 2-Key diatonic with notes f-g-a-a#-b-c-d-e

Will Smith autoharp Centurion - early conversion
Will Smith autoharp Centurion - early conversion

Strings were pretty dead on that one, and I was still thinking that I needed my standard chromatic buttons back for teaching, so I got a set of Buck Lumbert chord bars and moved the contraption over to an old Appalachian once owned by Bryan Bowers. Buck had some dark button tops, and included non-felted “spacer” bars for where the holes were on the first prototype. The action was so much better. However, eventually I wanted to play songs that cried out for Maj7ths, which could not be concocted from the buttons I had, so I started filling in the blank spaces and using felts as half-height buttons for the middle row since I was spanning over them most of the time, and that kept them out of the way.

Appalachian with Buck Lumbert bars
Appalachian with Buck Lumbert bars
Chord bar close-up with a few middle row half-height buttons added
Chord bar close-up with a few middle row half-height buttons added

There were still a number of doubled strings because I wanted the fuller, sweeter, louder sound of the diatonic.

But compromises kept being made as I added more notes: f#-c#-g# which enabled more chords – again because I needed them to play certain songs. I could make two out of the three diminished sevenths. And I finally went fully chromatic when Tom Fladmark installed the set-up on one of his autoharps, which had a 37th string, so I had to make a decision as to what it should be. Rather than expanding the range higher or lower, I opted for a d# in the lower octave, which gave bass support to the key of Bb. I have never regretted that step because it opened up so much in the way of progression possibilities.

Currently I am experimenting with a lock bar, which makes it diatonic again but still yields unconventional chords.

Deleter set-up with lockbar
Deleter set-up with lockbar

Having played guitar, a number of styles but including jazz chord/melody, for many years when I started putting together this deleter ‘harp, I wasn’t particularly deterred by the necessity of fingering patterns that required depressing two or three (and very occasionally four) buttons at a time. Often just one button is needed.

Nor was it a priority to keep consistent configurations between keys and chords – something that all other autoharp set-ups I’m aware of have as a primary goal. When I described my concept to a friend, the late Paul Craft (member of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and a genius --- really, he was in MENSA), he remarked “That kind of takes the ‘auto’ out of it, don’t it?”

(photo: Meg Peterson)
(photo: Meg Peterson)

The upside

But the fringe benefit of the system turned out to be that often, in order to add a note – creating a different chord or a melody run – one simply lifts a finger, opening that slot, and puts it back down when not needed. That is really much simpler and ergonomic than hopping back and forth between two buttons, and quite similar to the fingering technique in playing runs or creating altered chords on a guitar. For instance, if one wants to keep a rhythm chord of G7 sounding and intersperse the note run of g-a-b, you hold down the two buttons that make the chord and lift/replace one finger for the “a” note. That is the principle that characterizes the system.

And like open-noting on a diatonic, the notes from the appropriate rhythm chord continue to ring, and are not chopped off by forcing a switch to a different chord bar whose other notes don’t always fit as well with the flow of the melody. It is what is known as the “legato effect”.

Also, like a diatonic, one can tweak the tuning to favor the keys being employed. Again, my priorities and assumptions do not particularly conform to conventional autoharp wisdom. I assume that certain keys are more important than others, that certain chords within a key figure more importantly, and that also goes for certain intervals within a chord. However one wants to tune an autoharp, it always comes down to a choosing between compromises. I will post an accompanying treatise on tuning as soon as I get time. Suffice it to say that equally tempered steps create less aesthetically pleasing chords. Nor is E.T. a necessity to blend with other instruments. The autoharp may be more “in tune” than other instruments, but it does not clash or sound the worse for it. That being said, sometimes the quickest, easiest, most practical route to playing with others is to just set everything to zero. But for solo playing, it is just more satisfying to temper your scale.

As Big Nick Nicholas once told me, “Music is the spontaneous re-creation of the human spirit”. And though its subjective “quality” is affected by an infinite number of variables, there is one precept I believe in: if you play in tune and in time, more than half the battle is won.

The nitty-gritty

What follows is an elaboration of the description from an article which appeared in Autoharp Quarterly Winter 2016:

Utilizing one, two, and three button bar presses on a 21 bar grid, the Deleter Bar Chromatic I play has a completely standard body with 37 strings (from lowest f to highest c, including lower octave d#note, which fills out key of Bb, so you can actually play in 4 keys Bb/F/C/G), but completely non-standard chord bars with felts cut to accommodate various combinations of notes, including 5 deleter bars which, when pressed in conjunction with a chord/scale bar, remove certain notes, resulting in additional chords or intervals.

“My approach hoped to take some of the better features of my diatonic autoharp and apply them to the chromatic, and included these objectives:

  • to optimize the number of chord progressions and/or intervals available within one central key (as it turned out two keys, with two more peripheral, or 4 in all)
  • to have fingering based around a 2-row concept, with middle row half-height buttons
  • to apply a sweetened temperament to the tuning
  • to allow the indicated rhythm chord to keep ringing when a melody note outside that chord was sounded (like open-noting on a diatonic)

It was NOT a priority to have keys/chord bar positions in a regular pattern or relationship.

That being said, it did develop its own internal logic and is similar to a guitar in many ways. You press a combination of buttons to make the major or minor chord (as you do in following a guitar fretboard diagram in sheet music), and then simply lift a finger or two to add other parts of a scale. In practice, that is easier than jumping around the buttons. As a jazz guitarist may play a melody using just a few notes out of, say, a 13th chord, you can suggest the underlying harmonization without strumming a full 5 or 6 note combination.”

[Note: This, and my tuning system, which grew out of a workshop I prepared for Augusta Heritage class in 1988, and my autoharp tablature charts, which have evolved over the past 35 years, are all kind of interrelated. They seem complicated at first glance, but really are a simplified synthesis of many years of hands-on experience. The main thing is --- they work. I have not tried to promote or proselytize, other than maybe for the tablature as a better way to learn and remember arrangements because it helps in teaching.

But, although a work-in-progress, I am open sourcing the information. The link below opens a pdf file (so I can retain the formatting) which shows the fingering for certain chords in the key of C on the deleter 'harp. There will be subsequent charts for chords built from other roots. The system does not enable every possible progression by a long shot. There are lots of limitations, but it was built out in a pragmatic way, just to play certain songs I felt like. It is still evolving, in fact I’m pretty sure a couple of these buttons will soon be switched around for practical fingering reasons. Good luck.]

Fingering for chords built off "c" root:   CLICK HERE