How do you tune it?

Generally it's pretty easy to know what pitch a string should be tuned to - it's written right on the soundboard. (If the decal is gone, let me know and we can probably arrive at a tuning list for your instrument.) Probably the easiest way to tune it with the help of an electronic tuner, but you can use a pitch pipe. If you have a good ear for intervals, you can pretty closely tune a single-key instrument by just having the pitch for "C".

The tuning pins are the same as those on an autoharp, so if you didn't get a key with your instrument, you can use an autoharp tuning wrench. Those wrenches are actually nicer than the original cast-iron key - they give you better leverage.

It's best to be tightening a string up to the correct pitch, rather than loosening it to pitch. Sometimes, though, you'll get a string that will not smoothly change pitch in one direction. It "droops" a bit each time you let go of the wrench. For these, you're almost forced to tune it a little sharp with the wrench, then let it droop back to the right pitch. It can be a rather hit & miss affair.

There are situations when you may want to tune to something other than what's specified. For instance, on the 4-chord Phonoharp instruments, the #2 chord is usually a G7. Sometimes I find the seventh a bit too schmaltzy, and I tune the high F down to a D to get a plain G major chord. The most extreme change I've made was to retune three chords to something completely different. I wanted to play "What Wondrous Love Is This," so I changed the G to a Gm, changed the F to a Dm, and changed the Am to a Bb major. I also changed the 2 Bs in the melody section to Bb.

Some things to note (ha) about radical chord changes… It's unwise to raise a string's pitch very much. Most of that last retuning involved lowering strings, and the ones that were raised only went up a half step. Raising the pitch not only moves you closer to the string's breaking point, it increases the tension on that old wood and that old glue joint under the end block. On the other hand, lowering a string too much starts to degrade the sound that it makes. For instance, Changing the F chord to a Dm involved dropping the strings 1 1/2 steps, brought them awfully close to being to floppy to sound good.


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This page was banged out with Word 97, 14 Oct 98.