Chromaharp Bluegrass Reconfiguration

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Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise?

Chromaharp Bluegrass Reconfiguration

I have a 50-year old Chromaharp Bluegrass model. That one, like the original 15-chord OS Appalachian sacrificed the Eb and F7 to insert an A and E major. The idea was that it would be more "folk-friendly" and get picked up by the folk music crowd. It was too little, too late, though, and never caught on. For one thing, the D, A, and E were as far from the G chord as they could possibly be, so playing songs in D was still nearly impossible. (First Photo).

Note: This article does not apply to 99% of the Chromaharps and Autoharps out there. Only to two specific models: The 15-chord Chromaharp Bluegrass and the original 15-chord Oscar Schmidt Appalachian with A and E natural chord bars. The OS45 15-chord series with the flower-shaped hole is NOT the same. It looks way cool, but it has Eb and F7 just like 99.9% of the 15-chorders out there. Polka-friendly, not Folk-friendly.

The Chromaharp 'Bluegrass' model, a typical 15-chorder replacing Eb and F7 with E and A.  Click for bigger photo.An Oscar Schmidt 15-chord 'Appalachian' model autoharp, replacing Eb and F7 with E and A. Not to be confused with the standard-tuning 'Appalachians' being made today. Click for bigger photo.

Factory key layout for a 15-button 'Bluegrass' Chromaharp.  Click for bigger photo.The O.S. Appalachian and Chromaharp "Bluegrass" models shown above give you E and A chords by sacrificing the Eb and F7 chords. (The instrument includes Bb, F, C, C7, G, G7, Gm, D, D7, Dm, A, A7, Am, E, and E7.) So you can play simple 3-chord songs in F, C, G, and A. You can play songs in D, too, if you can reach all the way from D to G for fast chord changes.

Ergonomic Reconfiguration

To make it possible to play in D without developing carpal tunnel syndrome or something, I decided to move the D, and, and E as far as I could to the other end of the chord bar arrangment.

Loosening the chord bars is just a matter of removing the three microscopic screws that hold down the ends of the chord bars. Do this on a solid surface over a hardwood floor. Generally the springs on these older autoharps won't jump out when you loosen the chord bars, but you don't want to have to search for one in shag carpet if one gets away from you.

At first I was only going to move certain chord bars, then I decided to make the instrument as intuitive as possible, give its limitations.

One of its limitations is that the chord buttons can't be removed from the chord bars without potentially breaking something. So, if, say, A major started out in the upper row of buttons, it was going to stay in the upper row of buttons, because I didn't want to get that crazy with my rebuild.

Another limitation is that the upper-row and lower-row chord buttons have to alternate to keep the thing playable. So, for example, I couldn't put A major and E7 adjacent to ech other.

Factory key layout for a 15-button 'Bluegrass' Chromaharp.  Click for bigger photo.So I figured the best I could do, as a person who isn't really used to the standard chord arrangement anyway, would be to follow the circle of fifths from E major to F major, and squeze in the 7ths where I could. It's optimized for playing in D and G this way, and neither A nor C is too hateful. F may be a little more complicated, but is still possible, since I haven't sacrificed the Bb chord bar (yet).

Purists might complain that the E7 chord bar should be closer to A major than the E major chord bar. But because of the way the chord name buttons are glued onto the chord bars, the E7 couldn't go next to the A.

Yes, it's not the chord arrangement your grandmother used, but it's much more intuitive.

Only one problem. A LOT of songs in G (and some in C and D) really need Em.

One of my readers has the same harp, but the E was accidentally configured for Em in the factory, and he liked it. After playing with the harp in its new configuration and deciding it was good, I realized what he meant about the Em being necessary.

On this harp, it made more sense to reconfigure the E7 as an Em. For one thing, it was already in the row with the other "relative minors." I popped out the E7 chord bar. Then I marked the felts where the G should be and cut out little cubes there to "unmute" the G strings. Then I glued the little cubes where they would mute the G# strings.

This gave me one extra cube from over string 8. That's a G natural that for some reason is never open in factory-built Em chord bars but sounds fine to me. I glued that cube over string 14, which is a D note that is the 7th. That made the lower notes of the chord sound like Em instead of Em7 (though there is still a 7th up on string 24).

So far the "carpenter's glue" I used seems to be holding well. And I can play "Country Roads" and a lot of other songs the way God intended.

Of course relabeling that chord bar Em/Min is going to be challenging.


Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you come away with some great ideas for "sharing the joy."

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