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Tuning the Autoharp
When it comes to the world of stringed instruments, there is a multitude of tuning options to consider, and the same is true of the autoharp. As the student gains more experience, it will become more likely that he or she will become interested in the many alternate tunings available for the autoharp as opposed to standard tuning. However, in the beginning, it is paramount that one should fully understand the basics. So, in this article I will stick to explaining standard tuning only. Additionally, it is highly recommended that you invest in a quality electronic tuner. Though there are other methods one can use to find a proper tuning, in the beginning, an electronic tuner will be worth its weight in gold!
This folk instrument can seem a complicated and formidable instrument. Moreover, (and adding to the confusion) it has a range of pitch that is three octaves deep, and an additional fifth interval. Also, there are different types of autoharps, those being chromatic, one-key, two key, and three key diatonic types. However, with a little time and patience, this instrument will become familiar and comfortable. In this article, we will talk about the chromatic autoharp in standard tuning.
First, the Foundational Octave
The mid-octave range of the chromatic autoharp starts at “F,” which is the lowest bass note, and then ranging to C at its highest treble note. Additionally, the mid-octave range is where most all arrangements are developed. With that being said, it is this octave then that must be tuned first, as, aforementioned; this is the foundational octave for all the others. On a standard chromatic autoharp, and with this being the standard foundational octave, this is the middle F.
As aforementioned, an electronic tuner will prove invaluable when tuning the autoharp; increasing the accuracy of tuning, and allowing for consistent tuning as well. However, as you will read below, there are times when your ear will be the best way to go.
Remember, you must first tune the foundation octave, and then tune the other octaves. One could save some time by using a trained ear to “rough in” the tuning of the lowest octave, and then follow this by fine-tuning the other octaves against the foundational octave. In fact, on these strings, better results can sometimes be achieved by using your ear in the tuning process. Once the bass strings are in tune, your tuner will most likely detect these strings as being tuned “flat." In this particular case, trust your ear instead of the tuner. Let’s get started.
How do you find the beginning note, (in the correct octave) on your autoharp? Perhaps, the most reliable way is to find the note on another instrument. For instance, on the piano, F is the second F below middle C. Once you have found the correct octave, you can then tune each string in succession. Tuning all the F notes throughout the octaves is the best method, and then you can tune all the G notes, and so forth.
When reading the tuner, if the note you have sounded is not the note specified on the autoharp, raise or lower the pitch of the specific string using a tuning wrench to turn the tuners clockwise, (raising the pitch) or counterclockwise (lowering the pitch). Once you have found the correct note, try to determine if the note is sharp or flat. Referring to your tuner, if the needle is left of “0,” the string is flat; however, if the needle were to the right of “0,” the note would be sharp. (Flat notes must be raised to proper pitch, and sharp notes must be lowered.) Sometimes, when tuning, the pin may “jump” a bit causing the string to become sharp. If this should happen, simply push down on the string to stretch it a bit, and then attempt to tune the string again.
Now, Tune the Other Octaves
Once you have tuned all the strings in the foundational octave, you can begin to tune the other octaves. This will be done by comparing the resonance of all the strings. Remember, they should be an octave apart. In other words, if you pluck the already tuned middle F, and then simultaneously pluck any of the other F notes in any of the other octaves, you can then tune these notes to closely match the foundational note. Thusly, (and to stay organized) it is important to tune all of the F notes in all of the other octaves before you attempt to tune any of the other notes.
As is sometimes the case with electronic tuners, you may find that you will need to override the tuner's reading of high string pitches by tuning slightly on the sharp side of the note. This method is completely valid, because of the stiffness of the strings and the effect of harmonics on the thinner strings. In turn, the lower octaves may be tuned somewhat flat. Because an electronic tuner cannot judge partial harmonics, but only the basic note, you may be required to use your ear to balance the intonation of these notes.
Checking the Tuning through Chords
Once you have tuned all the other octaves based on the foundational F octave, strum some chords to make sure everything sounds in tune and correct. (If you find that you have to adjust any of the foundation octave strings, you must then check this adjustment against all of the octaves for the same note you adjusted.) When making adjustments here, tuning by ear will be the better method. However, as with all other stringed instruments, the resultant adjustment then may not match the standard tuning as precisely. This is ok, because, if a chord happens to sound a little “out,” it does not mean that the instrument is necessarily out of tune. Nevertheless, remember, you are trying to make the chord itself sound tuned, and sometimes, because of the individual characteristics within the instrument itself, an adjustment will bring things inline.
Autoharps have been used in the United States as bluegrass and folk instruments for many, many years. Perhaps most famously by the Carter Family, on legendary stages such as the Grand Ole Opry, and in performances at the Ryman Auditorium, where they regularly performed on the Johnny Cash Show. And who knows, with many hours of dedicated practice, you too may find yourself on a stage experiencing the wonderful tones of the autoharp. Good luck!