Creek Don't Rise

Why Don't My Chords Sound like the Chords the Guitar's Playi
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Author:  paulrace [ Wed Dec 26, 2018 9:13 am ]
Post subject:  Why Don't My Chords Sound like the Chords the Guitar's Playi

A reader writes:

I recently purchased a 21-chord O.S. Autoharp. I pulled sheet music off internet for "Do You Believe in Magic." Does the autoharp use the same chords as guitar? If not where can I find chords for songs using autoharp? There are no local teachers so I guess I will be self-taught via You Tube. How too do I know which chord a song is in? Dumb questions I realize but I would like some advice here.


Regarding your question about whether the autoharp uses the same chords as guitar,

Yes, it does more or less. As an example a C chord consists of C, E, and G. But on an instrument like guitar or autoharp, each note is repeated as many times as it can be across the strings. So the most common C chord on a guitar is actually Low E, Middle C, and the E, G, C, E above that.

Most advanced guitar players will fret the sixth string, making the lowest string a G instead, but the rest of the strings are the same.

Jazz and rock players will tend to play the whole chord higher up the neck. So in some cases the chord could be, say, Middle C, then G, C, E, G, C above that. The point is, no matter HOW you play a C chord on guitar, the notes used are C, E, and G.

On most autoharps, the C chord starts with Middle C and plays the E, G, C, E, G, C, E, G above that. On some autoharps, there is a high C at the very top as well. But the notes are the same as the notes on a guitar chord (or piano chord, or banjo chord or mandolin chord): C, E, and G.

Two things can make an autoharp sound like it's not playing the right chords.

Bad tuning will make things sound way off. Find a digital piano or a cheap keyboard and make certain your strings are even in the right ball-park. Wear eye protection. Then once you get the strings close to in-tune, you can use a chromatic tuner to fine tune. If you have a smart phone, you can download one for free from the app store.

If the autoharp is very much out of tune, you will need to retune it two or three times the first day. Then a time or two the second day, then eventually it will start holding its tune more or less. Autoharps that are tuned and played every day are actually much lower maintenance in the long run than autoharps that are neglected. Also, if you don't have a case, be certain to cover your autoharp when you're not playing it to reduce dust buildup. That part is just a hint.

If your autoharp is perfectly in tune, it's still possible for it to sound like you're playing the wrong chords in some circumstances. For example, nobody strums all 35 or 36 strings on every beat. Many folks strum the lower strings on beats 1 and 3 and the upper strings on beats 2 and 4. Depending on where you start your strum, you might be playing E, G, C, E, G, C, E instead of C, E, G, C, E, G, C, E, G. You're still playing a C chord, but you're hitting more Es than Cs, so it might sound funny to you.

The thing is, it won't sound funny to anybody else. And if you're playing in an ensemble with other instruments, one of them is probably filling in the middle C or a lower C anyway.

Regarding how to play the autoharp, I use it for playing chords period, but many folks have figured out how to play melodies on the thing - in fact, the earliest autoharps were made with just that in mind, though they used a very strange system for showing you how to do that. In those days, the autoharp manufacturers had to higher composers to write songs you could play using their system. But many Folk and Bluegrass players play melodies on the things today. Usually they don't bother to read music, but if they do use sheet music, it's the standard stuff.

I can't recommend any specific books that will help you do that, sorry. But now that it's come up, I'll keep an eye out for such resources.

- Paul

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