diatonic vs. chromatic

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diatonic vs. chromatic

Postby Bob Lewis » Sun Jul 20, 2008 1:35 pm

A subscriber wrote on Cyberpluckers, Jul 2008

Hi there. I know there has been a lot of discussion about diatonic setups, but I must admit that I am not knowledgeable enough to even know what chords I could do without. I plan on purchasing a diatonic harp and just want to be able to play most songs. I don't play with a group or go to jams. I just play for myself for enjoyment and my for students (elementary kids). Any advice of how to set up a diatonic where it could be most usable for this kind of player would be appreciated. I figure if I change my mind later I could have it changed at that time. Help please??????
Thanks a bunch! After attending MLAG I got turned on to this instrument again. <signed>


Your request for advice presents a lot to consider, yet the responses that were public, for all to read, did not really address the subject adequately, in my opinion. I have some comments.

(note that the advice offered was the usual that a beginner is best served by obtaining a chromatic, which can be quite debatable. It depends.)


I am not knowledgeable enough to even know what chords I could do without.


When you express a concern about being without chords or admit you don't know what you need, your interest in a diatonic is called into question. The control is whether you will have only one autoharp. It has been pointed out that versatility is an issue, but I think it has been over dramatized in the context of music for elementary students. While the music might call for a number of keys, I am skeptical about how many chords would actually be needed within one song...how chromatic is it? Some diatonic classics are well known to be elementary school material, and there is a lot of it. I suggest you review your music books for songs you might want to use and make a list of keys and which chords are used in those keys.


I plan on purchasing a diatonic harp


How firmly decided are you? You formed an impression at MLAG. Tell us about it. What does diatonic mean to you? Did you like the sound in particular?

Others have immediately dismissed your plan, and while making some good points, wound up being rather condescending, seems to me, good intentions notwithstanding. They attacked the question as much as they answered it, given very little information. You did ask for advice, but I think they blew right past your premise or didn't patiently address it first. While their bottom line advice is certainly conventional, no consideration has been given to the fact that you thought the diatonics sounded better, almost as if wanting to sound like that was forbidden to the new player.

Granted, there aren't many practical alternatives. Well done, multi-key diatonics as a one instrument solution can be stunningly expensive, beyond what any ordinary newcomer would consider. The desirable instruments are not commercially available but rather are made in someone's "garage".

Being interested in diatonics is completely valid. Many have been wowed by the likes of Bryan Bowers, him in particular, decided to take up the autoharp, been advised to get a chromatic or found one of those most affordable, and then wondered why they can't sound like Bryan does.


and just want to be able to play most songs.


There is the kicker, especially when in the same sentence as the word "diatonic", which connotes a lack of versatility...never mind that the versatility of a chromatic is over dramatized. For many people a chromatic is just a four key diatonic with a capo on it, i.e. people play diatonic melodies in four different keys, rarely actually playing anything truly chromatic...too difficult...too many chord changes...reaches around too much...give me something easy...we don't do that kind of stuff in the slow jam (not the fast one either actually).

The controlling issue is how chromatic the scope of "most songs" in your context will be. To get a full array of chords suitable to perhaps most, but certainly not all, music of the commercial songbook variety, and definitely not all keys, ruling out the need to transpose, I believe one would need an autoharp that supports at least 4 key signatures. There is only room for that many chords in any case. Other chords beyond that wind up over very unfavorable areas of the strings and are methodically avoided, along with the music that would call for them. For example, many play no minor keys at all because they are "too hard". That is a bit different but the point is that repertoire doesn't rule. First it has to be fun to play, i.e. not difficult.

A standard autoharp well supports the four keys of F, C, G, and D. If it were only those keys, only the key of F would have pretty complete chromatic capability. For example, it would be the only one of the four that had a III7 chord (A7). That chord (III7) sets the limit of the chromatic range for most things, a rag being an example of something that would use all the chords. The diatonic range is I, ii, iii, IV, V, V7, vi, while the chromatic often uses II7, VI7, and III7. In F that would amount to F, g, a, Bb, C, C7, d for diatonic plus G7, D7, and A7 to make it chromatic, respectively. It would take four key signatures to do that. Note that the last chord, A7, is borrowed from the key of D (to get C#), so you have gone all the way from F across to D.

I have not included I7 for F, which would require the key of Bb. So we can say a full suite of chords spans at least five keys. However, not all five have to be peers in how fully supported they might be. For example, one might have Eb notes solely to enable a I7 for F without having any other provision for the key of Bb. Since the whole chromatic scale is there, you can use it as you wish, keeping in mind that the bass supports only FCGD for nice sounding and more or less complete major chords, your prime keys.

Basically it is best to use the chromatic scale to add more 7th chords, not more keys, and simply stop when you have enough for a full suite in at least one key. You will be lucky to find room for even that much. So what I propose is settling for having a I7 in C,G, and D, never mind F. We have to stop somewhere unless playing a piano. A BbFCGD would indeed allow F to have a full suite of chords, but we need to compromise a little to serve some other objective, in your case providing some of the diatonic sound and perhaps some ability to play just a diatonic scale with some open notes.

Rather than think of needing five keys, the fifth merely to accommodate a I7, it could be noted that three other keys (of the four FCGD) do have a I7 chord. They just don't have a range all the way to a III7...at least not yet. Four keys is only 10 notes per octave, not 12. Songs that call for a I7 might very well fit in those other keys, C being the most complete after F.

So far, for FCGD, we have majors, minors, and 7ths as follows:

Major - BbFCGDA
Minor - gdaebf#
Dominant 7ths - CGDA

While F is fully served by that range of 7th chords, all the way out to a III7 of A7, three more 7th chords are needed to fully extend the other three keys out to a III7. That would add E7, B7, and F#7. We can note here that F#7 is uncommon, which means that D is not ordinarily fully chromatic. That is because chord bar space is dedicated to some flat keys on the other end of the chord set. Thus D is compromised. The autoharp is not a piano. There is a finite amount of space available for chord bars, and less space than it might appear because of the need to avoid harmonics.

Once having added the range of 7th chords, never mind more major or minor chords for the keys involved, all 12 notes per octave are employed. You still only play in F, C, G, and D Majors. That's what your bass octave will support.

I think you will find you have 18-19 chords and could settle for 18 plus three diminished 7th chords (to make 21). Provided you could transpose to keys you have (FCGD), there wouldn't be much ordinary music left that you couldn't play for lack of chords or reasonably suitable ways to play around them.

To use an autoharp with commercial song books, one must learn how to transpose to keys the instrument can play and to keys ones voice can handle. An autoharp is not a piano. On one autoharp, the number of chords and then keys is finite. Being a slave to exactly what is printed on the page is not going to work without a number of autoharps in various configurations. More than a few players do actually have a stable of specialized autoharps, but it takes some time to afford and accumulate all that capability. One has to keep all of them in tune and working order as well. Transposing is so much simpler and certainly cheaper.

So, all that only addresses the question of what chords you might need and what could or should be expected of a chromatic autoharp. What we haven't yet addressed is how to have some of the diatonic sound or even open note playing capability (lockbars).

Cindy Harris has said that in her opinion, a three-key instrument is too close to fully-chromatic to be called "diatonic". True enough but so what? It serves its purpose well and sounds so much better than a full chromatic. Why that would be true is another discourse. My problem with three key is that it <isn't close enough> to being chromatic. None of the three keys has or can have a III7 chord, giving at least one key to which common chromatic music, even rags and such that are played by string bands, can be transposed. With a GDA, I am forced to keep a full chromatic instrument around just in case I need one chord, a III7.

It turns out that like our FCGD chromatic, it takes four directly related key signatures and 10 notes per octave to have only one key with a III7 chord range of 7ths. In order to play some tunes on the Portland Collection recordings, some of which are either rags or call for major in the A part and harmonic minor in the B part, I have devised a four key chromatic that still sounds diatonic or certainly bolder than a full chromatic.

The trick with having a number of key signatures but only a few chord bars is to work only a few keys but have a full range of 7th chords. Use the bar positions for 7th chords, not majors to cover more keys. The keys to truly be supported are already selected by virtue of how the bass octave is tuned. The rest is simply how far the 7ths will range.

Okay, so I had a GDA that lacked a B7 chord, which would be the III7 out of G, and which would otherwise stop me from playing in E harmonic minor, needing Em, Am, and B7. To have just that one key that included a III7, I would need to add another note to at least one octave. While I believe only one octave would satisfy the player, I don't believe it would satisfy the listener. I would add the note to the two higher octaves. The note in question is D#, since a B7 would be BD#F#A. I had all but D# already.

Where I would differ with Cindy in an assessment of a three key autoharp is that the middle key would sound very much like a two key instrument with almost the same number of doubled strings. Given the same general approach to both string schedules and chord voicings, it would be a real challenge to tell the difference between the key of D from a GDA and the D from a GD configuration. On a three key, GDA for example, it is the outer keys that lack the count of doubled strings. A point not to be missed, however, is that a three key still sounds unmistakably better than a chromatic, so what is it we are trying to achieve? Do we slam a three key for being a poor man's diatonic, or do we praise it for being such a superior tool in a very common context, ordinary jamming repertoire specifically? The first objective is to be louder (than a chromatic) and to then be able to hear oneself play. The GDA serves that objective. Then one starts to discover other benefits, like enough strings open in a chord to avoid sounding so scratchy. Moving on to a two key instrument is pursuing additional objectives but brings with it a need for another autoharp to cover the key or keys lost in the process.

For common jamming, I don't believe the refinement of a two key is easily appreciated in among what often amounts to more noise than music. What I think the two key serves is more of a solo or recording assignment, wherein the refinements can be appreciated, and when carrying multiple instruments is not a controlling factor.

It turns out that, in spite of now having 10 notes per octave in a GDA + D# strings, I still have the same number of doubled strings on the D chord as I would have on a two key, let alone a three key. I lost one double E on the A chord. I have double D and double A. Fair to say that D would remain the strongest key. While the key of D certainly sounds like a "diatonic" autoharp, the keys of G and A definitely sound better than a chromatic would. Each chord has at least one double string, which aside from tuning effects allows the chords to have more strings open for less scratch sound.

A diatonic naturally allows the number of chord bars to be limited, which then cuts down on the harmonics that one would need to tolerate on a typical chromatic. To preserve that diatonic attribute on a note array that is essentially GDAE (GDA + B7), I have the majors and minors for GDA and only the 7ths for E.

A diatonic in two or three keys includes lockbars, so that one can play open notes as if playing a single key instrument with then a single diatonic scale. Given chord bar space, lockbars can be used on a four key instrument also, provided one is not trying to play open notes in all the keys. My GDA setup, which is BOTH DIATONIC AND CHROMATIC in every sense, is as follows:

G Lk--------D Lk--------D7-------A7---------E7
---------Am----------Em------Bm-------F#m-------A Lk

What it lacks is a capo. It is dedicated to GDA and is "chromatic" only in G, having the full range of 7th chords for G.

Observe that I can play Em (harmonic), which any other GDA could not. Observe that I have a III7 out of G, the B7, now able to transpose most anything to that key. No ordinary 3 key can play the chromatic range, to include a III7.

To me, this is the ideal hybrid instrument, building on skills I already have. It has doubled strings on D and A notes, so D is its strength, and it definitely sounds "diatonic".

Getting a chord set like this, installed and running well, would cost as much as some entire instruments, so you can see that it becomes a discouraging proposition for an entry level player, who wasn't prepared for or is not sure about a big budget. The ready alternative is simply using a 21 bar chord set without filling all the positions. That would still allow lockbars, but get back to me on that point.

G and D lockbars are playable with my thumb, so that I can play open notes and still range beyond the key on demand. They do not require any locking mechanism. They are done using normal chord bars and regular felt. The A lockbar can be fully engaged and is not "playable", because there are no out-of-key chords beyond that key except B7. I have chosen not to have the key of E by changing E7 to E Major. E7 is what I really want. For -E-, which is a prime vocal key for me, I switch to a specialty instrument, a two key EB.

I just try to do as much as I can within 15 bars, because anything beyond that is going to be spoiled by harmonics. A few bars within 15 are already a problem as-is. I don't force music onto the autoharp to the point of sounding bad. It is a question of what music is well suited to the instrument. There is a limit to what can be accommodated, even by engineering and custom work, especially when most music was written for some other instrument. If I needed a piano, a fiddle, a mandolin, or a guitar, I would get one. I already know that I don't want to be a bad guitar player. An autoharp is a deliberate choice, not a secondary interest, a novelty, or a compromise. It is bad enough that we want to play the autoharp socially, for which it was never well suited. It is a parlor or solo instrument at its best. There are those who refuse or cannot stand to play it in any other context. In any case, I think we know that more than two autoharps in the same room is too many. With only one, there are possibilities.

Is the foregoing useful? Only if you can afford it. My GDA+ instrument is highly customized and would present a jaw dropping price tag in entry level terms. What you can do for very little additional expense is work with a 21 chord assembly and the stock FCGD tuning. Thinking FCGD now, tune down the G# notes to double G and the D# notes to double D. Open up the felting wherever G or D is open and a double could be included. No refelting required. Rearrange the chord bars something like the following:

F Lk--------C Lk--------C7------G7-------D7
---------Gm---------Dm-------Am------Em-------G Lk

Leave six (of 21) leftmost positions unused (open). The orientation is with the [G Lk] closest to the anchor end and the bass side.

Your key with a range to III7 is F. Your harmonic minor is Dm (Dm-Gm-A7). Transpose any music to a key you can play, and hopefully sing as well. This will give you at least one key that is essentially chromatic, plus you will have open noting capability, plus you will be able to combine the two in a single tune, playing lockbars on the fly with your thumb, easier than one might expect.

The key with the real diatonic sound will be G, because both the doubled G and doubled D are prominent notes in that key. The key of C would noticeably benefit from the doubled G as well. Your Dm key will also be relatively powerful, with doubled notes in all three chords (Dm-Gm-A7).

When adapting a tune or song to an autoharp, if you have to stretch the instrument to the point where it sounds bad, you should pick different music or buy a piano. One of the criteria in a contest is whether choice of music is "well suited to the instrument", also in keeping with the theme of the festival. Players and audiences can make the same judgments. Part of musicianship is selecting music that "works". Novelty value wears off quickly.

To put all this in a context for an elementary school teacher, who might also play at home, I don't think the capability to play chromatic music; that which includes lots of different chords, and complex enough to require sheet music; is going to be encountered much in music compiled for the children to enjoy. The only question really is coverage of keys but within mostly diatonic music. Transposing is the solution there. A diatonic of some sort, call it a semi-chromatic if you will, could serve perfectly. What people play in jamming or in church, etc. is irrelevant, and they should not reframe your premise in their terms. Like you stated originally, in effect, if you found you needed something else, you would get it.

There is a great deal of mother hen behavior here, when someone indicates a desire for guidance. I think what we tend to do, based upon experience and somewhat in losing patience, watching multiple people go through very similar processes, is jump ahead to the expectation that you will ultimately discover playing music with other players, not just of autoharps. That is a very different proposition, because the readily available and affordable autoharp does not serve the keys one really needs to do that well. It was never meant for string bands. Then we have these overwhelming diatribes about how one must strip and rebuild their autoharp before they have learned to play a note. And that is assuming they have the skills or want to pay someone to do it. It would be extremely discouraging, seems to me. New players work in F, C, G, and D; period. Anything else, done well, is a much more expensive proposition than most would have in mind.

I sell autoharps and have for 10 years, and I can tell you that people are very adept at rationalizing why the cheapest solution will work best for them. An autoharp almost always costs more than people expect or will allow, so whatever they get is either a stretch or a compromise in terms of budgeting and financing. I, like many others, started at a basic level and worked my way up to the ideal autoharp. Actually I have 20, no two alike. I would say there is no such thing as a single instrument embodying the ideal. Some do serve a high percentage of music in a given niche application. Mentioning use of or a need for multiple instruments will undoubtedly queue up the tedium about the virtues of a single chromatic, but that will be from those who are not sensitive to how the instrument sounds. That would not at all serve any attraction you found to diatonics while at MLAG.

Bob Lewis
Last edited by Bob Lewis on Thu Mar 26, 2009 9:07 am, edited 2 times in total.
Bob Lewis
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Postby CrossTronic » Tue Mar 03, 2009 11:52 am

Thanks for this very interesting and detailed posting.

Among your many useful recommendations and observations, you suggested leaving off the six leftmost chord bars when doing the slight FCGD modification. My question is: if most of us agree that the 3 bars on either end sound compromised, why eliminate all six from the left end, instead of 3 from the left and 3 from the right? Are the compromises more severe on the extreme leftmost side? Would you also explain the differences in the weaknesses between chord #1 on one end and chord #21 on the other?

Also, would one achieve the same effect by leaving on all 21 chords, but just primarily using the 15 in the middle? This would keep the (harsh sounding) end chord bars there for rare use in a jam or other specialty situation.

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Postby Bob Lewis » Tue Mar 03, 2009 12:37 pm

CrossTronic wrote:Thanks for this very interesting and detailed posting.

Among your many useful recommendations and observations, you suggested leaving off the six leftmost chord bars when doing the slight FCGD modification. My question is: if most of us agree that the 3 bars on either end sound compromised, why eliminate all six from the left end, instead of 3 from the left and 3 from the right? Are the compromises more severe on the extreme leftmost side? Would you also explain the differences in the weaknesses between chord #1 on one end and chord #21 on the other?

Also, would one achieve the same effect by leaving on all 21 chords, but just primarily using the 15 in the middle? This would keep the (harsh sounding) end chord bars there for rare use in a jam or other specialty situation.


The point is that the 1/3 node harmonic occurs in a line across the bass strings, immediately after bar 15, counting from the anchor end, and then only when the bar set is in the Appalachian position, all the way toward the anchor end. To your point, it is another matter exactly which chords you include in the 15 spaces, but the context of standard note array in the bass end would mean Eb and Bb keys would be expendable, more or less the 6 bars on the left of a set of 21.

There is a separate discussion of harmonics...what they are and how to deal with them to the extent possible.
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