Harmonica Lore

It's been suggested that I'm fanatical about harmonicas. I have to admit I'm inclined to confirm that opinion. It's true that I almost always have at least one harmonica pretty close at hand, no matter where I am or what I'm doing. I first played a harmonica before I was in school, and I've had harmonicas more or less continuously since then. I'm always looking (and listening) for opportunities to add the harmonica's voice to new styles of music. I've played Bluegrass, Fiddle Tunes, Old-Time, Country, Funk, Pop, Jazz Standards, and of course, many sub-genres of my favorite music, Blues.

My first harmonica was a Hohner 'Vest Pocket' Diatonic harmonica. I play other brands too, including Seydel, Suzuki, Hering and Lee Oskar. Each of these manufacturers offer very good quality harmonicas that 'feel' good in terms of build quality, expressiveness, and ease of play. I play Diatonic, Chromatic, and other types of harmonicas, such as Tremolo and Orchestral types.

Definition from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"A harmonica is a free reed wind instrument. It has multiple, variably-tuned brass or bronze reeds which are secured at one end over an airway slot in which they can freely vibrate. The vibrating reeds repeatedly interrupt the air stream to produce sound.
"Unlike most free reed instruments (such as reed organs, accordions, and melodicas), the harmonica lacks a keyboard - instead, the player selects the notes to be played by placing the mouth over the proper airways, usually discrete holes in the front of the instrument. Each hole communicates with one or more reeds, depending on the type of harmonica. Because a reed mounted above a slot is made to vibrate more easily by air from above, reeds accessed by a mouthpiece hole often may be selected further by choice of breath direction (blowing, drawing).
"The harmonica is most commonly used in blues, country and folk music, but is also used in jazz, classical music, country music, rock and roll, and pop music. Increasingly, the harmonica is finding its place in more electronically generated music, such as dance and hip-hop, as well as funk and acid jazz.
"The harmonica has many nicknames, especially in blues music, including: harp, blues harp, mouth harp, mouth organ, hand reed, Mississippi saxophone, pocket sax, tin sandwich, ten-holed tin-can tongue twister, and French Harp."

Here's a little more information about harmonicas.

The common, compact 10-hole diatonic is most usually found in folk, country, and blues music. Easily carried in a pocket, the little diatonic delivers a powerful amount of music from a very small package. Invented in Germany, the most common modern diatonic harmonicas are tuned to a scheme known as "Richter tuning" The Richter scheme is intended to facilitate playing both melody and accompanying bass or chord parts at the same time, in the character of the popular brass band (Oom-pah) music from that part of the world. Diatonic harmonicas are most commonly 10-hole (20 reed) instruments and encompass 3 octaves. Richter Diatonic harmonicas were originally intended to play in 1 major key; therefore it would theoretically require 12 harmonicas to play in all (Major) keys.

Blues players typically play the diatonic harmonica in the key whose tonic is a fifth degree of the original key the harmonica was designed and tuned to play in (i.e., G for a C harmonica). This is referred to as 'second position', or 'cross harp' and it's done by using the Mixolydian Mode (which sounds very close to the Blues Scale) and taking advantage of the fact that some notes on a diatonic harmonica can be 'bent' to allow more than 2 notes (1 blow & one draw) to be played in each hole. Accomplished players can coax up to 3 additional bent notes from some of the holes.

A further exploit of the Richter layout is available by moving the tonic yet another fifth degree up the scale and allows one to play in the Dorian Mode. Although not a true natural minor scale, the Dorian Mode sounds good when played against a song in a minor key.

So this strategy gives the average Blues harp player 3 keys, modes, or 'positions' in which to play each of his Diatonic harmonicas:
1st position 'straight harp' (Tonic, i.e., C for a C harmonica) - Ionian Mode
2nd position 'cross harp' (Tonic + fifth, i.e., G for a C harmonica) - Mixolydian Mode
3rd position 'slant harp' (Tonic + 2 fifths, or Dm for a C harmonica) - Dorian Mode

Some players will occasionally also use:
4th position (still another fifth degree up, or Am for a C harmonica). This is the Relative minor of the tonic - Aeolian Mode, and
12th position - Lydian Mode.

Even fewer players ever use other 'positions' than those listed above, but a very few advanced players can theoretically play a single diatonic harmonica 'chromatically' (all notes) in all 12 keys by utilizing an advanced bending technique known as 'overblowing' and 'overbending'. The overwhelming majority of diatonic players play primarily in the 1st three positions, making the choice for a)ease of play, b)consistency of pitch, and c)consistency and beauty of tone. Further, specially-tuned diatonics are available to facilitate other strategies to playing melodies and harmonies that would be difficult using a Richter instrument.

Other strategies exists for the resourceful player to gain access to songs or musical approaches that cannot be comfortably or attractively played on a standard Richter diatonic. Specially-tuned harmonicas are available (both diatonic and chromatic), including Natural Minor, Harmonic Minor, Melody Maker, Jazz, Country, Paddy Richter, Spanish Spiral, and scores of other options.

The bending technique, coupled with the fact that the instrument is played with the breath, and the sound is further shaped by the player's hands lends a very expressive quality to the sound of the harmonica, much like the human voice.

The prevalent Richter diatonic harmonica used for blues is the traditionally-designed Hohner 1896 Marine Band and similar variants which feature brass reed-plates, tin covers, a wood comb and a nailed-together construction. The Marine Band has been built the same way for over 100 years with only minor changes! Hohner also makes an updated version called the Marine Band Special 20, which uses an injection-molded comb, screwed together with the same reed plates and similar covers as the Marine Band, and which is very popular among blues players (and a modern favorite harmonica for playing American Blues music).

Although closely related to the diatonic, the chromatic harmonica has a markedly different appearance and note layout, and requires different playing techniques. The first thing one notices is that chromatics tend to be larger than diatoncs - most of them are more than twice as large as a 10-hole diatonic. Intended to facilitate 'chromatic' (all notes in all keys) playing without requiring the use of bending techniques, chromatic harmonicas are tuned to a different scheme than the diatonc, know as 'solo'. The solo layout provides all the whole tones of the scale in 4 holes, so that a natural major scale is easy to play.

To facilitate playing the 'accidentals' (sharps & flats) the chromatic harmonica is in fact two solo-tuned harmonicas, one tuned 1/2 step higher than the other. The accidentals are played by shifting to the higher-pitched reeds by using the slide assembly, actuated by a button on the instrument's end. If you read the foregoing carefully, you realize that this scheme means that there are a number of enharmonic notes on every chromatic harmonica. This is good and bad. To the good, one can find some notes in more than one place on the instrument. To the bad, the layout doesn't seem particularly rational or consistent, other than the fact that each octave is exactly repeated. Finally, the layout is 'biased' (like most any horn) to play easier in some keys than others.

Another feature of chromatics that differs from diatonics is the wind-saving valves required to keep the instrument air-tight, due to the complex (and slightly leaky) slide assembly. These wind-savers change not only the techniques used to play a note, but also make the notes sound different (from a diatonic) on a chromatic instrument. Also due to relationship of notes to one another, chromatic harmonicas offer different chord possibilities from their diatonic cousins.

Due to the somewhat eccentric layout and operation of a chromatic harmonica, they are generally considered as deceptively difficult to master as the diatonic is easy to play and enjoy. In fact, most diatonic players never really master the chromatic instrument, instead approaching it like a diatonic, and many even eschew the use of the slide much of the time. In contrast, musicians who first learn the chromatic often don't master the bending techniques required to fully exploit the expressiveness of diatonics, and the idea of having to use a different instrument for every key often seems absurd to the chromatic player. Chromatic harmonicas are more frequently heard in Jazz, Classical and Pop music, but a subset of 'modern' Blues players use them almost as avidly as the diatonic.

Chromatic harmonicas come in a number of configurations, including 2 octave (8-hole), 2.5 octave (10-hole), 3 octave (12 hole), 3.5 octave (14 hole) and 4 octave (16 hole) models with the 12 & 16-hole models being the most common. Most chromatic harmonicas are tuned in the key of C, but many 12-hole models are available in various keys.

Inventor and musician Cham-ber Huang also designed a Chordomonica model for Hohner that looks like a chromatic (with similar body, mouthpiece and slide), but is designed to facilitate playing chords.

These harmonicas are popular in many different regions of the world for folk music. Tremolo harmonicas get their shimmery sound by having a pair of reeds for each note, slightly off-tuned from one another. The effect is similar to a mandolin with its double-course of strings - very pretty. Aside from the 'double-reed' configurations, tremolo harmonicas generally use a 'solo' tuning scheme and are available in various keys. Double-sided tremolos are very popular, having 2 harmonicas of different keys on either side of a unified comb, so the harmonica can be quickly 'flipped' to access the second key.

In Asia, it's common for players to hold two harmonicas in their hands (one a semitone higher in pitch) and play the two instruments as one, in the same way a slide chromatic is played. These harmonicas are inexpensive and popular throughout much of Asia in music education.

Octave harmonicas are popular in hispanic, cajun and french canadian styles of music just to name a few. They are similar in construction to the tremolo, save that the paired reeds are tuned an octave apart, giving them a sound reminiscent of an accordion or concertina.

These big bruisers saw their heyday in the harmonica ensemble bands once popular in the 40's & 50's. They have a limited range (usually 2 octaves) that is 1 to 2 octaves below the 'normal' range of a chromatic harmonica. Generally an 'all-blow' instrument because of the effort required to vibrate the accordion-size reeds, there are also octave and solo-tuned (without accidental notes) variants. Most of the chromatic bass instruments utilize two courses of reeds, mounted in separate bodies, which are hinged together to facilitate handling. Considered an 'orchestral' instrument, these are rarely seen outside a harmonica ensemble band or classroom.

Easily the largest of all harmonicas (some spanning over 2 feet in length with 3 double courses of reeds!) the chord harmonica is obviously the most difficult to handle and play. This monster instrument can make beautiful music in the hands of a master (of which there are very, very few). Like the Bass, this instrument is rarely seen outside the harmonica ensemble. Small versions have as few as 8 chords, so-called compact versions 24 or 48,  the biggest 72 chords, and some models even feature bass accompanying notes. Masters of the chord harmonica use a technique known as 'chord splitting' and chord substitutions to coax even more music out of the instrument. There may be fewer than 10 real masters of this unique instrument globally.

Wrapping up...
There are other variants of the harmonica, such as 'slideless' chromatics, polyphonias, and a number of optional tuning schemes for diatonics and 'slide' chromatic instruments - there are even some distant cousins like the Harmonetta, Accordina and Melodica - all mouth-blown free-reed instruments that use buttons or keys like an accordion.

By far the most popular and common of all harmonicas in the Western World is the humble diatonc. If you listen, you'll hear it in about half the commercials on the radio, in the background of about 1/3 of the TV shows and in a lot of movie soundtracks. You'll hear it in every genre of music from alternative to zydeco, 'oom-pah' to hip-hop, country to dirty greasy blues. You'll hear it whine, moan, chatter, chug, scream, shout and wail.

I hope (like me), you'll fall in love with those sounds.

Muddy Waters called the harmonica "The mother of the band"... I can't do any better than that.