Reworking the Chords of My Autoharp

With Amanda gone to Montgomery most of the day today, and feeling under the weather from a cold, I decided today would be a good day to rearrange (and change) the chords on my autoharp.

My autoharp is a new Oscar Schmidt OS120CNE Adirondack Acoustic/Electric with a fine tuning system. It came with a serviceable array of chords, but there were some I needed right away to play with the Whistle Stop Poka Pickers (who are dominated by dulcimer players and cannot fathom any song not in the key of D) that were not included, most notably B minor. In addition, I hope to play chords by touch alone, so it was important to me to have a dependable chord arrangement regardless of the key in which I play.

factory layoutI started by taking this picture so I could remember the “factory” layout if I ever needed to return to it. Then I loosened the four phillips head screws securing the cover over the chord bars. I had heard a couple of horror stories about losing the tiny springs on which the chord bars ride, so I was careful to remove the cover slowly and carefully. The springs stayed put. The chord bars are U-shaped, and the chord buttons that have to stick through the cover are in reality just free-floating plastic nubbins that slide back and forth in the channel of the bar, so it’s easy to move a chord bar from one place to another and then slide its button to the point at which it needs to protrude through the cover.

There were five chord bars that I needed to convert to a different chord:  Eb, F7, Ab, Bb7, and Cm. The new chords I wanted instead were B, F#m, E, B, and C#m. I started with each of them simply by pulling off the series of felt rectangles that came on them. Then I used my utility knife (fresh blade, of course) to scrape the old glue off the bar. I didn’t bother getting every little bit of the glue off; I was satisfied simply scraping off the “lumps.”

Next I cut a length of felt (I bought mine from 3dfotog on Ebay) that stretched about 1/8 inch beyond the widest strings and attached it to the bar (the felt strips almost all come with adhesive backing for convenient attachment to the chord bar). Then, with the bar resting on the springs just over the strings, I used my ball-point pen to mark the location of each string that I wanted to sound in that chord. So, for example, to mark the  bar for my new B chord, I marked on the felt each occurrence of B, D#, and F#. Then I used the utility knife to cut a 1/8 inch wide “V” in the felt for each mark I had made. That left plenty of felt to dampen the strings next to the string that was sounding.

Before I re-inserted the chord bars, I marked each chord button using our little paper label machine. When it was time to put everything back together, I started by arranging the chord bars where I wanted them and moving the buttons to the point where they needed to protrude through the cover. Of course I was off a little with several of the buttons, so I used a small screwdriver sticking through the holes to pull the button into its exact position. If I were a real man I would have photos of each step along the way, but I’m afraid I was too nervous while I was doing the work to stop and take pictures.

lee layoutchords on sides of buttonsHere’s my chord layout after the change. I started with the layout favored by Arnold Henig, which emphasizes the chords I believe I’m likely to play most often with the dulcimer group and with the guitar players at church. Henig’s layout in its pure form places close together and in a consistent arrangement for each key the one chord, the four chord, the five chord, the dominant 7th chord, and the minor 6th chord. The one change I made to Henig’s layout was the removal of F#7 that he places between the E chord and the C#m chord (why take up space for a 7th chord that resolves to a chord I can’t play, C# major?). I substituted B major instead so that I’m not dependent on B7 when I play in E. This gives me full functionality in the keys of F, C, G, D, A, and E.

Because I play with the autoharp against my body, I added labels on the side of each chord button so I could see the buttons while playing. Now that I’ve gone through this process, I’m not at all intimidated about doing it again if necessary. If I decide after playing for a while that this layout isn’t quite right, I’ll adjust it again. It’s just not that big a deal. The entire process took me about three hours from start to finish and would take less time now that I know more about how to do it.

Note: When I shared this with 3dfotog on Ebay, he or she responded with this: “I might just add that you can make labels for your revised chord bar keys that are virtually identical to the originals with Microsoft Works Word Processor and some adhesive blank labels, the kind with 6 labels per sheet are probably the easiest to work with.”

June, 2015 update

I developed a problem last month, and today I figured out a strategy, so I’m sharing it online. I noticed last month that the lowest four strings on my autoharp were muffled by the felt chord bars whenever the chord cover was in place. When I removed the cover, the problem went away. I agonized over doing this, and I know I shouldn’t need to do it, but I ended up drilling new holes in the metal tabs that receive the screws for the chord cover, on the bass end only, about 3/32 inch above the factory holes. I am now using the new holes instead of the factory-drilled holes. The cover is in place now, and my autoharp sounds great again. Weird.

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