What is the so called Bryan Bowers chord layout?

Chord buttons don't need to stay where they are. Check out some other ideas. What notes are in a chord. Nonstandard chords.

What is the so called Bryan Bowers chord layout?

Postby Bob Lewis » Thu Feb 14, 2008 7:57 am

The chord layout chart shown at the following link address should be useful.


The so called Bowers layout, or the general idea, is illustrated by the second and third layouts (from the top). The same principle in a custom 3 button row, 15 bar is illustrated by the last three (at the bottom). The "system" is majors in the middle row, V7 directly under the ring finger (in the treble row), and relative minor in the bass side row, just below its relative Major.

The second one uses all standard buttons and chords. The third one is a very common change used by people who play in keys up to four sharps instead of three, then only two flats. The "Bluegrass" covers BbFCGDAE instead of EbBbFCGDA.

It's not true for everyone, but essentially, the autoharp is not made for how people actually use it. At least a one size fits all model is not sufficient. Changing things around then is kind of par for the course, and the design is smart enough to make that pretty easy to do.

The reason many shy from the Chromaharp 21 bar is that rearranging the chord layout is quite problematic with the buttons attached to the bars. It is certainly possible but involves labor and additional cost. I actually encourage it, because these days the Chromaharp is the better instrument in its price range, actually lower priced than any other. A refelted version wouldn't cost much, if any, more than an Oscar Schmidt.

There is an important caveat for rearranging chord bars. The factory arrangement does consider where harmonics occur and places chords strategically. Moving things around requires testing for harmonics and the flexibility to change your plan accordingly. Chord layouts are not done entirely on paper. They might work and they might not. This is referred to as "mapping harmonics", my own awareness of which I will credit to George Orthey. This is another subject with further explanation. Just take it that when you "fix" something, you might break something else. Test every change before you button up again.

A good rule of thumb is that only 10-12 chords are really worth much, so they need to be kept on the "sweet" part of the strings. The Bluegrass layout is a perfect illustration where three chords on the right and 6 chords on the left are just nice to have, not as good sounding as "the core". The heart of the layout or core and the essential instrument are the 12 chords for C, G, and D. That would be the four button tiers containing the F, C, G, and D Major chords.

This is only in reference to "what is the Bryan Bowers layout". There are other useful layouts and other logical approaches to chord layouts. I happen to favor this BB system but do not say it is the only good one. For example, Ivan Stiles places majors in the treble row, a layout not far removed from factory standard. John Hollandsworth places Majors in the bass row. I think we can say they do rather well with their approaches.

The most compelling feature of any of the systems though is how minor keys are treated. It is usually true that when a relative minor is directly beside its Major, the player has opted to favor natural minor over harmonic minor, another subject requiring explanation. Basically, the factory layout is a good one for harmonic minor chord progressions. Traditional tunes, as in common jamming, are more likely natural minor, so people wind up thinking of minor chords as hard to reach, out of place, "what were they thinking?", etc. They are in the "right place" depending upon who you ask. It's just that it is difficult to impossible to support easy fingering of chord progressions for both natural and harmonic minor on the same instrument. The BB layout is in turn a rather poor choice for playing harmonic minor, principally the blues as well as Baltic and Israeli music.

In the end, you may find a need for two instruments. One plays natural minor and the other plays harmonic (and melodic) minor. Harmonic minor must support the i-iv-V7 progression while natural minor needs to easily allow I-vi-iii as Aeolian mode and a ii-vi-I grouping as Dorian mode. The BB layout is well suited to this latter natural minor so commonly encountered and required.
Bob Lewis
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