How Many Chord Bars Do You Need?

A question arose recently on the Cyberpluckers autoharp email group asking, "How many chord bars does a player really need?”  I enjoyed seeing the varied points of view and the reasons given in support of those views.  In looking at all the different responses and for any points they all share in common, what I found is that the chord choices seem to be driven by only two factors:  1) The type of music the player favors, and 2) The player’s playing style.  Since these two factors are rarely if ever identical from player to player, chord choices will vary somewhat.  Nonetheless, some general themes start to develop when you look at these two factors individually.  In one of the responses to this question, Steve Brown enumerated a number of prominent players and listed how they fit their autoharps to their particular needs.  It shows that there are some definite similarities in motive, if not method — and that where there’s a will, there’s a way (the unspoken motto of the fatally autoharp-afflicted).

Genres such as Blues, Swing, Broadway, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, etc. etc. require the flexibility of crossing multiple keys in a single tune. Chromatic tuning is mandatory, and the limitation to straight majors, minors and sevenths is also mandatory to preserve the ability to cover all of those keys adequately, *IF* we are discussing a one-bar-per-chord standard system.  Hal Week’s Prizm, Steve Brown’s Keyboard and Will Smith’s Deleter chord bar systems enable the creation of many other chords by engaging more than one bar at a time.  The types of chords created with these systems don’t enable playing in additional keys, but rather allow the player to add flavor and color to their arrangements by using these combination chords to add something in addition to the straight majors, minors and sevenths.  But then you need to evaluate the player’s style (factor 2).  Players whose playing style focuses mostly upon picking note-for-note melody with only minimal chordal underpinning would most likely lean toward the straight I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, V7 while players who want the complexity of varying the underlying chordal accompaniment will want something that allows them to drop in a minor 7th or sus4 to give the arrangement the desired flavor.  In all cases, the player has one or more chord bars engaged at all times unless using a hammer-on technique or some other type of rhythm strum.  Although these systems do allow chromatic players the option of utilizing chords that are most often relegated to the diatonic, the chromatic tuning won’t allow utilizing the diatonic technique of open-noting.

As for genres such as Irish/Celtic, Old-Time, Bluegrass, etc., where the tunes tend to fall in specific key ranges and require rapid-fire melody picking, the player may find that  limiting their autoharp to a diatonic tuning in a specific key or keys will give them the advantage of doubled strings, more volume to play in a group and the speed-enhancement of open-noting.  But a player with this type of repertoire probably won’t be interested in any unusual chords beyond the I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi and V7, and may opt to leave out sevenths entirely.  Sus4s and m7s may not be utilized at all because the player’s repertoire doesn’t require them.  Open-noting techniques may also not be utilized, particularly if the player prefers to play closed-chorded to control sustain.  These diatonic players can generally live with very few chord bars, which makes sense given their repertoire and playing style.

The players who find the alternative chords of the diatonic autoharp most useful are those who use them to flavor their arrangements.  While a particular song may be quite playable using the standard chords, these players want more flexibility than the standard chords provide.  This goes beyond the flavor of the alternative chord and gets into melody-picking territory, when an add9 or a m7 chord might include the exact note progression for a clean melody run that a straight major or minor won’t provide.  But in order to have a logical selection of alternatives that work well in multiple genres and will be used regularly enough to warrant dedicating space to them requires opting to play single-key diatonics.  I find myself in this camp.  Again, it comes down to repertoire and style.  I play tunes and songs that lend themselves extremely well to arrangements that utilize non-standard chords.  I also open-note a good part of the time.  I play an underlying chord and then play melody on top of that while keeping as much of the underlying chord ringing through for as long as possible.  Those alternative chords allow more of that to happen.

The number of desired chords (other than the standard I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi and V7) on a diatonic autoharp will be determined by the individual player’s repertoire and style.  These two factors are rarely static over the long term but do tend to be linear.  A player who is coming to the autoharp from a guitar background may find the lack of sus4s, M7s and m7s very limiting if that player is used to incorporating those types of chords in their arrangements.  For this player, a two-key diatonic with a couple of sus4s and a major or minor seventh might be more palatable.  But if the player plans to pursue open-noting techniques, two bars have to be delegated to locks so this further limits the chord selection if one is to maintain the optimum of 15 bars.  A single-key diatonic offers the most flexibility for alternative chords, but a seven note scale has limits of its own.  Many of the chord possibilities in a single key actually sound so similar that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to include those that can easily be substituted for another — an add9 vs. a pentatonic, for instance.

The final decision as to how many chord bars are necessary and which specific chords will reside on those bars is something that individual players have to determine for themselves.  Advice from seasoned players should always be sought.  However, the final determination can only be made by the individual player’s own experience via trial and error.  The process of discovery — finding how each new chord choice either enhances their repertoire or remains unused — can only be obtained by cutting up some felt and putting it to use.  Finding where a new chord fits in the context of the songs happens when the chord is on the autoharp, not when being thought about on a piece of paper.  My own journey down this road has been very similar.  I was privileged to be the recipient of a single-key autoharp in the 1999 Winfield competition, and hearing the alternative chords that were installed on this autoharp in the context of my playing helped me determine which ones I was going to use, and which ones I was not.  This didn’t happen overnight, but within a period of a couple of years I had settled on four specific chords that I considered essential to have on all my diatonic autoharps.  Since then, my playing and repertoire continued to evolve and I have added others — often in response to needing a particular chord for a specific song I wanted to play.  I would then discover that it worked well in other songs and tunes and so it stayed permanently and was added to each of my other diatonics.

Mike Fenton once quipped “Horses for Courses” at a workshop I attended years ago.  That quip has stayed with me, and it speaks volumes — because it’s not about the instrument.  It’s about the MUSIC.  Choose the tools you need in order to do justice to the music.  Rather than trying to make the music fit the instrument — make the instrument fit the music.