How do you play it?


The way I do it

This discussion assumes that we're playing a 4-chord diatonic instrument, like the Phonoharp #2.



I hold the instrument on my lap, or place it on a table, with the long side toward me. (You'll get a richer sound if you put it on a table with a hard surface.) The strings are running from right to left. The fingers of my right hand can easily move up and down in the melody section. The fingers of my left hand can play the chords. I only play with my fingernails. (Except when my right hand was broken and I had to get by with a big flat pick.) [Here's what this very instrument sounds like!]

[Here are links to some more pieces played on a nearly identical instrument.]




Playing melody

It can be as simple as picking one note at a time. It can be as complex as picking chords with multiple fingers & thumb, either synchronized or arpeggio-style, like a harpist would play. I've even pretended to be an autoharp, on occasion, by stopping some strings and strumming across the rest. I don't often stop the melody strings from ringing, but sometimes it can clean up the sound. For instance, if I'm doing a run of G-A-B-C, and C is the important note, I'll lay the side of my thumb on the G, A, and B strings at the same time that I pick the C.

Playing accompaniment

This had me stumped for a while. You can simply strum the chord which fits with the music, but it's kind of plain-sounding, and the chords ring so long that you can still hear one when you're playing the next one. Here are the two techniques which suddenly made this instrument a pleasure to play.

First, instead of strumming a whole chord at once, I almost always pluck the bass note, then play the rest of the chord. This creates a sort of "oom-pah" effect which is far more interesting than a plain strum. The other wonderful potential that this idea opens up is the ability to separate the bass note and the chord "remainders". For instance, you can play a pattern of C, C chord, G, C chord, for a nice alternating feel. F, F chord, C, F chord is another example. Another example I really like is the ability to create an inversion of the G chord, by playing the C with the G chord. That really adds some nice color.

The bass note-chord idea lends itself strongly to the playing of waltzes - bass-chord-chord, bass-chord-chord. In fact it's such a natural fit that I usually find that my improvisational playing comes out in 3.

Second, I decided to stop a ringing chord before going on to the next one. If the next chord is above the first, I let my thumb touch the strings of the first chord as my hand moves up. If it's below, I do the same thing with one of my fingers. It's almost a feel of gently "wiping" out the chord to be stopped. Of course, if you're doing an alternating pattern as described in the previous paragraph, you can just let the main chord ring while you alternate the bass note.

I have found occasions to strum a whole chord, but it's usually a really fast motion that's done as a movement from one place to another.

Another approach I've used with chords is to play bass note, the lower part of the chord, then the upper part of the chord (when playing in 3). There's some overlap in those two "chord parts," but the effect is to make things a tad more interesting.


Other ways

I'm pretty sure the original designers expected these instruments to be played with the end cover toward the player, and the strings stretching away. The decals and labels are all placed so they would be read correctly in this orientation. I recently picked up a copy of the "Self Instructor for the Mandolin Guitar Harp", by B. L. Umberger, from about 1908. It has as much detail about playing as anything I've seen, and it describes such a position and even has a drawing of someone playing this way. Umberger suggests a using thumb pick on the right hand and the thumbnail of the left hand. He says it's possible to use several fingers on the right hand, "as in playing a piano," but they're really not pointing in a very useful direction for that. Rotating the instrument 90 degrees lets the fingers of the right hand do the walking, "as in the Yellow Pages." (OK, nobody ever actually said that.)

Another device which was sometimes included with the instrument was a spring hammer. It's a little wooden handle, with a piece of felt under one end, a springy piece of metal attached, and a small wooden hammer-head at the end of the spring. Striking the melody strings with this hammer creates a brighter, more percussive sound - in fact it's reminiscent of a hammered dulcimer. The structure of the hammer lets you produce a special effect beyond a single strike. If you bring the felted end of the hammer down sharply against the end cover and hold it there, the hammer head will bounce for a little while and give you multiple strikes. It's a sort of mandolin effect, which gave rise to the often-used name "Mandolin-Guitar Harp."

Etienne de Lavaulx plays the chord section with a finger pick in the index finger of his left hand, and uses a flat pick in the right hand to play melody. He positions the instrument at a near 45-degree angle, with the corner a little to the right of center. This allows both hands to fall naturally to the instrument without any bending of the wrist. He generally always plays chords using a single strum motion, varying the speed of the movement of his finger. He also uses a technique he calls a "staccatto strum," which is a sort of stopped strum similar to guitar technique. In addition, he stops a ringing chord just after the next chord has been played. This approach avoids the gap in the sound between chords which you hear in my playing.

Here's some text directly from instructions of the period. It refers to printed music which was slipped under the strings and provided a sort of map for which strings were played when.

Self Instructor for the Mandolin Guitar Harp


Why does the #2 D string (or the #1 C string) sound so weird?

This appears to be a design problem. When there are plain steel (not wound) strings in those positions, the combination of the short length, the diameter needed, and the qualities of the metal, result in a sound that's not as pleasant as the other strings. This can be remedied by using a plain bronze string, about 0.025", or a wound string, about 0.029".


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