Somewhere between diatonic and chromatic - the best of both

Tuning the array of strings differently than standard. Diatonic and semi-chromatic configurations. Other reinventions of the autoharp involving the string and note arrays.

Somewhere between diatonic and chromatic - the best of both

Postby Bob Lewis » Sun Nov 09, 2008 10:01 am

Someday I think I would like to have an FCG harp<>


(note: If you can never have enough 7th chords, don't waste time reading this or pouring cold water on it. This is about a hybrid configuration that obviously involves some compromises. It does sound better than standard and is louder in a jam, at least YOU can hear better, so that is a basis for some consideration.

This is addressed to a universal audience. This allows me to be somewhat flippant without insulting anyone personally. It's just that autoharp people are comical or frankly ignorant in their ideas sometimes, and by now we have heard it all. I too went through the same cycle, amusing or annoying George Orthey and others, but I listened to the comments.)


Why do you want an FCG and why are you tentative? What is the expected benefit, or does the idea simply justify and employ yet another autoharp? Is it worth $2000 to you? What kind of FCG are we talking about? Should you stop dabbling in cheap autoharps that you don't really need, getting further involved in the autoharp acquisition syndrome (AAS), and get one high quality mainstay that serves most of your needs?

Take note that the three key combination of FCG is going to use exactly the same bass end tuning as standard chromatic, so any change in sound will come from doubled strings in the higher octaves. With three keys, there cannot be many. You will have 9 notes per octave instead of 12, meaning you will have three openings in two octaves. Chromatic notes not employed will be C#, G#, and D#. That implies winding up with doubles on C, G, and D as a sensible approach and standard string set. We can see that the keys of C and G will benefit equally, doubled on roots and fifths. While the G is also doubled on the fourth (C), the key of G will be far better served on a GDA instrument, perhaps a mate to this FCG. What an FCG really should be is warrior in the center key of C. Notes controlled by lockbars, i.e. not common to all three keys, will be F, F#, Bb (A#), and B. That means the fourth in C (F notes) cannot be doubled, given common convention of avoiding doubles and then wide dead spots over locked out (damped) notes.

There are some hybrid configurations, but even asking the question about 7th chords implies that you should just stick with chromatic. One cannot bring a chromatic repertoire to a diatonic instrument. I think it is always better to learn new music in a transition to diatonic. If one wants a great sounding chromatic, they should get one. Don't try to call it a diatonic when much more than a single key instrument. We call hybrids "diatonic", but that is not what they really are. I am guessing it is unlikely that lockbars or open noting techniques hold any interest and that your concerns are more for the instrument's sound than any new music it enables. That is common, with people saying they want a diatonic and not understanding what they are saying. That said, "diatonic" is indeed the common term for these instruments. Being a misnomer, it becomes a bit of work to establish exactly what configuration we are really discussing.

I would guess that you might be well served by the 10 tone tuning, which is three key in the bass and four key in the higher octaves. I understand that Pete Daigle and Todd Crowley add an extra 7th chord to a single or double key instrument with an extra note in the highest octave, while I do it in both plain string octaves. Then the extra 7th chord is a serious chord, not a faker. Either way is effective, better than a "partial 7th".

Even with two extra notes, I am left with adequate doubled notes to get the diatonic fullness, and I still have a high enough ratio of strings open in each chord to sound noticeably less scratchy and anemic than a fully chromatic setup. This is very close to the same concept that Tom Schroeder published several years ago. He called it "decitonic". While his idea was a fairly simple dumbing down of a 21 bar chromatic, I approached it from the direction of a three key with fewer chord bars (and with lockbars) trying to be both diatonic and chromatic. The pivotal chord is the III7, opening up a range of music that real diatonics (up to three keys) are not equipped to support. No conventional, 9 tone, 3 key "diatonic" can play harmonic minor, so adding a harmonic minor key is a real breakthrough as well. No chord bars are being added.

This all would mean that a 10 tone tuning would still be three (3) key but would have a range of one more 7th chord. It does not have the full chord set for the fourth key signature. What that means in practical terms is that one key can now range to a III7 and that there is one harmonic minor key. For example, an FCG that is actually an FCGD tuning in the upper octaves can provide an A7 chord for the key of F and it can play D harmonic minor, say one "blues key", as Dm, Gm, A7 (i-iv-V7).

What such a hybrid instrument gives you is enough versatility to say you can at least transpose most chromatic tunes, and that the instrument still can have as many as three lockbars to play as single key F, C, or G. In other words, you don't necessarily have to abandon chromatic repertoire, you can play open note, true diatonic style with lockbars, and you won't necessarily have to carry two or more instruments.

My own version of this concept is a 15 bar GDA with a full B7 added. I have D# notes in only the two higher octaves. I still have a doubled D and a doubled A. I lost a doubled E to one D#. I have three lockbars. I have used this instrument in a jam a couple times and been very pleased with it. As effectively GDAE, it seems no less easy (than GDA) to hear what I am playing nor noticeably lower in projected volume than before. I conceived of this instrument after finding a GDA begging a B7 chord pretty regularly. That is a III7 idiom in G that I rarely encountered in any other key. So, it was enough for only the key of G to have that range of 7th chords. It was not acceptable to simply switch to a chromatic, because the tunes were fast and notey, demanding an open noting, thumb lead technique. A chromatic would certainly work but not to the same level of participation, falling back to pretty much boom-chuck rhythm, holding one chord for long periods.

My own FCG is a US Festival model OS200. It still has the original chord set (10 chords and three lockbars, two button rows). At one time, I had the chording only complete for a key in F and C. I opted to have a G7 and a D7, no D or G. The key of G is well enough covered on other more specialized instruments. So, it was chorded as FC but tuned as FCG, retaining that F# note (two strings/octaves) from the key of G to support the D7 chord.

The 10 tone FCG note array, the parallel to what I did on a GDA, is as follows, starting with the lowest pitched, longest bass string:


It is the two C# notes that add the full extra A7 chord. In this case, one of the two notes added is actually in the wound string section (13C#). Other key combinations, like adding B7 to a GDA, would have two D# notes in the plain wires. This might well be effective with just the upper C# note. That would certainly be better than just a partial 7th and no C# note at all.

Notice that all three of the lockbars would block out the C# strings. The notes would have no meaning unless lockbars were disengaged.

BTW, the tuning version for the GDA + B7 is as follows:

GABDEF#GG#ABCC#DDD#EEF#GG#AABCC#DDD#EF#GG#ABCC# adding a top D on a 37 stringer. This one requires a custom string set.

The 15 bar chord set (for FCG+A7) is as follows, tuning pins to the left:

High strings
R1 FL-----CL---C7----G7-----D7
R2 --Bb-----F----C-----G------A7
R3 ----Gm----Dm---Am-----Em------GL
Low strings

Note that, with any more bars than this, one gets into unacceptable issues with harmonics. The F lock position might be a problem as it is. Actually the overriding control for me is that the bar set is 15 regardless (custom, three button row). I or another owner might want it to be a different setup later, so the generic 15 bar set is a permanent, versatile asset. I use all 15 on my single key instruments and can make a full chromatic from 15, so there really is no inescapable demand for a smaller set with fewer bars. Philosophically, the critical component that OS does not provide and diatonic autoharp people have to do themselves is a three button row chord set that is enough less than 21 to provide significantly more room to play. It is not actually critical that the bars be nice looking or function to absolute perfection. Many would be happy to solve the problem spending far less money with simply a 15 bar chord cover, factory bars underneath. Availability of such a cover at a price we like is not going to happen, so hacking up bars or spending quite a lot on custom bars will continue. Diatonics are strictly a folk or back street garage instrument, as no mass production company makes anything but chromatics. There are people like Buck (and Lois) Lumbert who do virtually nothing but make and sell special bar sets.

Having said all this, I would never rely on this configuration for my "G 'harp". You could as easily ditch the G lock and add a Bm. Then you would use a GDA instrument, if serious about playing in G. Then you will have the D7-A7-E7-B7 range for G. Between those two instruments, I don't think one would really need to haul or tolerate a fully chromatic instrument unless intent upon having diminished 7th chords. Those chords are not usually needed in or even compatible with typical jamming or band situations.

These 10 tone hybrids are not solo instruments for the serious diatonic proponent. I see those solo instruments as hard core, single key, maybe double key at most and free to be in custom tunings.

If one lacks appreciation for lockbars or is otherwise an old dog with no interest in new tricks, the three lockbars can become regular chords, but then that changes the whole concept of the configuration. I think I would rather leap from that position to 18 bars so I had diminished 7th chords and a full four keys supported. The reason for a 15 bar set is not really there anymore. One would really be talking more in line with Tom Schroeder's 21 bar decitonic, played strictly like a chromatic and having a III7 in more than one key. Note that such an instrument still sounds better than a fully chromatic one. The string per chord number and resulting sound is still better, at least on the chords that use the few doubled strings. I recall positively that one of the doubles was D but would be guessing beyond that. If ones world was pretty much GDA, certainly as a priority, then the other double would be A. The instrument would have no D# nor A#; no key of F, Bb, Eb, or E. The keys would be CGDA. Only C and G would have the full range of 7ths. They would have a III7, but (the key of) D would stop at having a II7 (E7) beyond the mandatory V7 (A7). The key of A would have only its V7 (E7). All the keys but C could have their I7 chord. If that's a deal breaker for anyone, then they need to keep doing what they are doing and forget this whole deal. I understand the role and appeal of I7 chords but rarely use them and think some people make too much of their role and certainly their priority. Some key on one end or the other of a chord set is going to be missing some element. Remember that my fundamental concept here was to have at least one key with a III7 chord, while retaining some of the "non-chromatic" (diatonic or doubled string) sound quality. Fretting over one key having a deficiency would be silly in that context.
Bob Lewis
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Re: Somewhere between diatonic and chromatic - the best of both

Postby Bob Lewis » Sat Jan 23, 2010 6:26 pm

A document developed to address the same topic of diatonic/chromatic hybrids is at

The keys addressed are CGD+E7 and GDA+B7
Bob Lewis
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Posts: 259
Joined: Wed Jul 04, 2007 7:11 pm
Location: South Carolina

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