What is a Diatonic Autoharp?

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Editor's Note: As of this writing (Feb. 20, 2017), I have not converted any autoharps to diatonic, although I've made plans and even bought some parts. But I mentioned diatonic autoharps in other articles, and felt that they needed a better description than I had provided so far. At the moment, I have a 12-chord autoharp I hope to convert if the poor old thing is stable enough to hold a tune for more than a day at a time, and if that one works out, I have a 15-chorder I may follow up with. But in the meantime, this article should hopefully fill in some of the gaps in my other articles. - Paul

What is a Diatonic Autoharp?

Folks who want to use their autoharps chiefly in folk-friendly keys like G, A, and D notice that there are a lot of strings they never use, like Eb and Bb. Why not tune those strings down to, say, D and A and get half-again to twice as many strings sounding on some chords? Some folks even go to the extreme of focusing on a single key, and retuning all the strings that will never be used in Folk or Bluegrass songs in that key. Such autoharps are called "diatonic," like most harmonicas - you know, the ones that only play in one key.

Not only do you retune some of the strings, but you have to rework the chord bars so that the other strings sound. Usually this entails pulling the old felts off the chord bars and cutting new felts. Sometimes this is done in conjunction with converting the chord bars for flat-friendly chords like Ab, and Eb, to Folk-friendly chords like Bm and F#m. You can usually get away with some version of that because - for example - Bm and F#m use notes that are G, D, and A anyway. (For more information on reconfiguring your autoharp to Folk-friendly keys without converting it to diatonic, check out our article "Making Your Autoharp Folk-Friendly.")

Of course this restricts you from playing along with those flat keys again ever again. But most professional autoharpers take multiple autoharps to gigs where they might be expected to play in other keys.

A book that documents such conversions and has inspired many autoharpers to get out the screwdrivers and widgets is George Foss' Going Diatonic: A Comprehensive Guide to Autoharp Conversion. The book also recommends Bryan Bowers' button layouts, which differ from standard 21-chord layouts by putting the tonic (I) chords in the middle row and moving the sharps to the top row. (You don't have to do that to make your autoharp diatonic, but lots of folks who convert 21-key harps like Bowers' arrangement.)

One example of a person who reconfigured a 21-chord autoharp to a diatonic so it would play well in G and D (and somewhat in A) is Wendy Grossman, of Shiremanstown, PA. Her account is here. Wendy used tips and resources from Bob Lewis, who runs Autoharpworks.com, and who frequently reconfigures autoharps for himself and for clients. For Bob's list of common autoharp chord layouts, both as they come from the factory, and as Bob frequently reconfigures them, click here.

Wendy configured her 21-button autoharp to add chords that don't usually appear on autoharps at all, including suspended fourths, and no-third chords (useful in modal and certain kinds of mountain music). She also retuned strings that are typically only used on one or two chords, so they would double with strings on chords she used more often. So she retuned the G# strings down to G and recut the E7 chord bar so that it only plays E, B, and D. She also retuned the D# strings down to D and cut the B7 chord bar so that it only plays B, F#, and A.

That way when she plays a G, there are almost twice as may strings sounding as before. When she plays a D, the sound is almost as rich.

Note: When I was discussing such "doubling" with Bob Lewis, he cautioned that you really need an instrument with fine tuners for this - otherwise it is almost impossible to get the "doubling" strings close enough to sound right.

Reconfiguring a 12- or 15-Chorder for Diatonic

One consideration when you go to a 1, 2, or 3-key autoharp with a lot of doubling is that there are only so many chords you can actually make with the remaining notes, so, while a 21-chorder may be easier to reconfigure in some ways, 15-chorders are a lot cheaper and will still give you most of the chords you need in a limited key range.

In early 2017, I bid on a 15-chord autoharp that needed some springs, etc., with the idea of reconfiguring it to a G, A, and D diatonic. I went through several plans and ultimately settled on one that would allow me to double G, D, A, and E notes, while sacrificing a true E7 and B7 (because the harp wouldn't have G# or F#).

I came up with a configuration that would let me play in keys from F to E, but would give me Bm and F#m, which I was sorely missing on my 21-chord Chromaharp. I plotted it all out on a spreadsheet, using Wendy's original template. (If that link doesn't work, click here.)

During my planning, I realized that some of the strings were only used on ONE chord. For example, if I abandoned the Bb chord, I could tune the Bb strings down to A, doubling that note and getting more volume and texture in chords that used the A note.

I wanted to keep a B7, but when I revisited Wendy's chart, I realized that her "B7" chord was actually missing the third (D#). That's okay, many piano arrangements I've encountered over the years left the third out of a dominant seventh chord, and you don't always miss it.

Then I realized that I could do the same thing with an E7. That would free up the G# strings to go down a half a step and double on G.

Eventually I settled on a configuration for that harp which would allow me to play most songs in C, G, D, and A, while doubling the G, D, and A strings. In the picture below, you'll see that the G, D, and A strings are doubled in those chords and many others.

Since this would be used mostly to play simple Folk tunes, most of which revolve around three chords, I arranged the tonic ("major") buttons on the "top" row with the sevenths between the related chords on the second row. The I-IV-V7-buttons together setup is similar to the standard arrangement of 21-chorders, allowing you to keep the same relative finger positions while changing keys. (D minor is sort of an outlier in this setup, so I just moved it where it is to get it out of the way.) That is totally negotiable, of course.

The BIG hassle of working with 12- or 15- button harps versus 21-button Oscar Schmidt harps is that the buttons are permanently fastened to the chord bar. (This is true of the 21-chord Chromaharp, too.) On a 21-button Oscar Schmidt, you can move the chord bars anywhere you want them and slide the buttons around where they need to be to poke up through the button cover. So if you want to try something like this on a 12- or 15-chorder, and you really have to have Am in the top row or some such, make sure you work out the details BEFORE you cut and attach all of the new felt.

I also ran an early version of this configuration past Bob Lewis of AutoharpWorks.com. He disagreed with my plan to remove G# and D# notes (and consequently "cheating" on E7 and B7). He also suggested that string doubling on harps without fine tuners is, shall we say, problematic, since it's just about impossible to keep two autoharp strings exactly in the same pitch without fine tuners. I'm sure he's right, but I hope to give it a whirl anyway. On a more positive note, he recommended allowing the minor third below the tonic to sound on the chord bars for my minor chords. So there's a low G on the E minor chord bar, a low C on the A minor chord bar, and a low D on the B minor chord bar. I could probably have put the low F below the D minor, but we didn't discuss that specifically.

Note: - As of February 20, 2017, I have NOT configured an autoharp this way, so I'm not guaranteeing anything; I'm just illustrating the sort of things you should consider when you consider altering your autoharp's conventional configuration.

To download the Excel spreadsheet and do your own tweaking, right click on the graphic.

Paul's Folk Configuration for 15-Chord Diatonic CGDA Autoharp. Click to see this in Excel format so you can tweak it for your own needs.

The configuration shown above would result in the button arrangement shown here.The illustration to the right shows the button arrangement that would result from the configuration shown above.

The format of the spreadsheet above is based on a spreadsheet Wendy Grossman published on her page. If you use either of these resources and document your efforts on the internet, please be kind enough to tell folks where you got them.

Also, don't assume my plan is the best - I used it because it suited most of my needs, not because it was perfect. Look at Bob Lewis' suggestions, Wendy's example, and any others you can find.

Diatonic 12-Chorder in G, D, A

Subsequently, I bid on a 12-chord Oscar Schmidt autoharp because A: it was cheap (~$30), and B: I liked the look. When I got it, the soundboard was cracked, so I figured it would make a good wall decoration. Then I tuned it up just to see what it would sound like (and if it would collapse into a pile of spinters), and I liked the sound. So I dabbled with the idea of reconfiguring it, using a similar note setup as I planned for the 15-chorder, except for retuning the F notes down to E. This would remove the F and Dm chords and keep me from using the harp in the key of C, but it would allow me to add doubling on E which would make the A, A7, Am, and Em chords that much fuller.

I haven't done this conversion yet either - I'm still waiting to see if the thing will hold a tune for more than a few days, but if and when I do, it will probably look something like this: (To download the Excel spreadsheet and do your own tweaking, right click on the graphic.)

Paul's Folk Configuration for 15-Chord Diatonic CGDA Autoharp. Click to see this in Excel format so you can tweak it for your own needs.

The configuration shown above would result in the button arrangement shown here.The illustration to the right shows the button arrangement that would result from the configuration shown above.

You'll notice that the old 12-chorder has 37 strings instead of 36. The high D is a nice addition to a harp I'm basically reconfiguring to play in D anyway.

Note: - The following sections will be fleshed out with photos and details as I get time to do the reconfiguration(s) I am contemplating. In the meantime, please refer to the links above, especially Wendy Grossman's account for more tips and details.

Ordering Stuff You Need

At the very least, you will need new felt. This is available many places, including from Bob Lewis' Autoharpworks.com.

The strings on one of the autoharps I want to convert seem shot, so I figure I'll probably wind up replacing those eventually, but those would cost more than the autoharp, so I figure I'll try to get by for now.

Whether I need springs or anything else won't necessarily be obvious until I get into things.

Disassembling the Autoharp

According to Wendy Grossman, Murphy's Law of Folk Music #102 is "Never take apart a concertina or an autoharp on a shag rug." There are a mess of little springs that will disappear in a hurry if you aren't careful. Now, if your autoharp is very old, they may need replaced anyway. So you can use that excuse when you have to order more. Wendy recommends applying a tiny dab of superglue to the base of each spring, so they don't wander away while you're working.

If you make a point of not losing the springs, disassembly is pretty easy. Remove the screws that hold down the cover at each end and very carefully remove the chord bars one at a time.

Removing the Felts

In some cases, you may be able to simply carve a couple extra notches into existing felt and reuse the bar so consider that before you strip the felt off all the bars.

When you do take the felt off a bar, make certain you mark how far out the felt comes on either end of the bar - going too long or too short will cause problems.

If you have a very old autoharp, the felts may be coming off by themselves. You may be able to cut them off using a very sharp knife. The main point isn't that you get all the glue off the bar, but that the surface you're putting the felt on is completely even before you apply the new felt.

Replacing the Felts

If you are doing this to a 12- or 15-chorder (or to a 21-chord Chromaharp) pay close attention to whether the chord bar you are refelting has a top- or bottom-row button. There isn't much more frustrating than felting a bar, putting it back on the harp, and realizing that you put a chord you wanted on a top-row button onto a bar with a bottom-row button. That's one reason I put the top-row chords on a different row in the spreadsheet. On a 21-chord Oscar Schmidt, you can just slide the buttons around once you get the bars refelted.

Folks do this a few different ways. If you print either spreadsheet above full-sized, it may conform physically to the actual size you'll need for your autoharp (tell the printer driver not to shrink the page). If the edge side of the little blocks on the page lines up exactly with your string width, you may be able to cut the felt strips with a pair of sissors and just stick them on. If not, you might consider sticking the whole felt strip on and then using a razor blade, Xacto knife, or widget to cut the gaps. Some folks don't cut the gaps out completely - they cut a diagonal divot where the gap should be leaving a row of little V shapes in the felt.

Wendy made her spreadsheet so it lined up exactly with her strings. She also made a line every quarter of an inch on the underside of each bar (making sure those lines straddled the strings when the bar was set back in place). Then she used the spreadsheet to figure out exactly how long to make each segment of felt.


Test each felt bar individually to make certain it is aligning the way it needs to, then replace them in the sequence you desire.


Once again, I wrote this article before attacking the projects described in it, but I wanted to publish the results of my research as soon as possible, because I've already been getting questions about it. Hopefully, I'll be better informed eventually and provide photos and details, and - most likely - corrections to what I'm publishing today.

In the meantime, please contact us with any questions at all - reader questions are the main thing that drivers our research, so we're always happy to hear from you.

Best of luck!

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 enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

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