Harmonica/Chromatic Harmonica

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Playing chromatic notes[edit]

In general, there are five main ways to get chromatic notes on a harmonica: use a chromatic harmonica, overbend on a diatonic, valve diatonics, use the Hohner XB-40, or use two 24-hole tremolos stacked together. Here is a comparison of all five:

Octaves Chords Rapid key switching Size Learning Difficulty Tonal Precision Tonal Quality Playing range Price
Chromatic All blows and draws I, ii, vii Possible Big Easy Always exact Quantitized (tonal vary little) Most common is three octaves; Four octaves is also quite common Expensive
Overbend (diatonic) All blows, some draws I, ii, V-7 (straight harp)
I, IV, v (crossharp)
Possible Small Difficult to master technique. Easy afterward. Sound different for overbended notes Very dynamic Typically three octaves. Four octave diatonic harps rare. Cheap (but need proper calibration)
Valved diatonic All blows, some draws I, ii, V-7 (straight harp)
I, IV, v (crossharp)
Possible Small Slightly difficult Bended notes "bluesy" Quite dynamic Typically three octaves. Must be self-valved to obtain four octaves. Cheap if self-valved; expensive if buying Suzuki MS-350v
Hohner XB-40 All blows, some draws I, ii, V-7 (straight harp)
I, IV, v (crossharp)
Possible Sort of Small Difficult (much precision required) Sometimes exact, sometimes "bluesy" Mostly are dyanmic; sometimes quantitized Three octaves only Expensive
Stacked tremolo All blows and draws I, ii Not available Big Easy Always exact Quantitize Three octaves only Relatively cheap

As referred by the table, if one wants an instrument that is capable of thickening the sound and playing many tricks (essentially a "one-size-fits-all"), then a chromatic harmonica, especially a four-octaves version, is the only way to go. This is because the lowest octave actually allows transposing to even lower octaves; additionally it will make the music sound closer to the saxophone in lower registers. Since there are still some chords and bends available, it can also convey some of those jazzy feelings.

However, if one truly wants to gain the dynamic feelings of blues and jazz (growling and wailing, for example), it is a good idea to either get the valved harmonica or learn overbends; however, much skill is needed since those methods depend on proper embouchure. Overdrive is difficult to use due to its small size (many players have large hands).

Alternatively, the XB-40 is quite easy to bend, but this is also a disadvantage; one will need precise control of the bending in order to bend a semi-tone down instead of a full tone down. However, if played properly, it has the tonal quality and precision of both diatonics and chromatics; adding to the fact is that it is capable to do some true tones and double reed bends because of the additional reeds. Thus, it can be very suited for hands-free playing at the very least, and is a definite must for people interested in playing music that have a bluesy or jazzy feeling; lastly, since there are many ways to play the same note, it is easier to play legato on XB-40.

Still, XB-40 is not without problems; the C-key model, for example, often warrants complaints about its third octave, in which bending (blow and draw) is difficult to perform. Also, it requires precise tonal control (not unlike playing trumpet), as it is easy to miss the required note during bending and accidentally bend down a whole tone. Lastly, it is limited to three octaves, making it restricting if players truly want to play in numerous keys. (Of course, Toots use a standard 3 octaves harmonica to play jazz, so maybe it's not much of a problem.)

Stacked tremolo, as common as it is in East Asia, just do not cut it, since switching the notes in a key is very slow. If one must have the tremolo sound, get Suzuki's chromatic tremolo, which plays just like a conventional 16-hole chromatic.

All in all, it depends on how a player approaches playing music. Keep in mind that just because a piano is designed to play classical music doesn't mean a jazz player cannot play piano jazz with the proper feeling. Likewise, a chromatic harp can also play jazz harp, as long as the musician is skilled enough. On the other hand, classical music has such a rigid requirement that some view XB-40 as inappropriate; to those classical musicians, they will simply call it "classical music play in jazz style", as they will deem the wailing effect not proper. Others, however, believe that it's fine, so long as the player can hit the notes precisely.

There is a strong incentive among North American players to play chromatic-capable harmonica in positions only, and thus treat it as diatonic. This is inappropriate, as it defeats the purpose of a chromatic-capable harmonica. They should instead train themselves so that they can play with only one or two harmonicas (e.g.: chromatic and XB-40)

Opinion of playing chromatically[edit]

  • In classical playing, as recommended by Chmel and Adler, leave out "trills". That is, do not use trills as in pushing the buttons in and out.
  • One thing that I agree whole heartly to Chmel and Adler is their opinion of playing chromatic on other keys than C: DO NOT BOTHER. This is the exact reason why people claim harmonica is not an instrument but a toy (I think people treat xaphoon as an instrument more than harmonica). Yes, a piece may be "close to impossible", but not "impossible"; this is common in classical music, which as Chmel had pointed out, may need ten hours per week to practice.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Playing chromatically require such effort.
  • Learn to read from the traditional notation instead of tabulature. Aside from giving one the sense that it is truly an instrument, traditional notation also provide many information unavailable in other forms.

Getting Over the Physical Movement limit[edit]

A harmonica basically have the following physical limits:

  • Horizontal movement
  • Movement of blowing and drawing
  • Slide movement

One solution would be to make extensive use of lines which are based on the layout of the harmonica. Lines that need 'limited' control over all the variables at the same time. This is basically the solution Toots uses in a very effective way. From many people's research, it would seems his legato is based on the double notes. For example, in the key of C:

  • C
    • slide-in draw: hole 4', 4, 8
    • slide-out blow: hole 4', 4, 8, 12
    • slide-out blow: hole 1', 1, 5, 9
  • F
    • slide-in blow: hole 2', 2, 6, 10
    • slide-out draw: hole 2', 2, 6, 10

Additionally, horizontal movements can be overcome somewhat by using tongue/corner-switching, which involves, in tongue block, moving the tongue from using the left to the right (or even using U-block).

Then there's the interval grid approach, which is by looking at sequences of intervals. There are various systematic ways of approaching these in composition and arranging. Recently there was talk on Slidemeister of an interval-based instrument-neutral study approach to improvisation authored by Joe Messina, a guitarist who also plays jazz chromatic in a non-Toots influenced style. Something that simultaneously and systematically approached both interval-based patterns (by this I mean outside the hierarchy of identified scales and harmonic considerations) and action patterns on the harmonica.

One special topic that should be paid attention is the C notes. Even for the same C notes, there are three positions to choose:

  • Slide out blow lower C
  • Slide in draw (lower) C
  • Slide out blow upper C.

One way, as Chmel had explained, is that if playing a descending passage going past a C note, it’s best to choose either of the lower Cs, since this allow a quick switch to B. Likewise, during an ascending passage, it would be best to use the upper C notes, as this allow a quick switch to D.

On the other hand, should I need to change the direction of breathing (such as too much draw notes), it could be wise to do so during the Cs and Fs. While for that notes it would create a slight dissonance, it would be much better than create a much longer period of discord afterwards.

Ultimately, though, this depend more of the general flow and any other requirements when playing the melody. Obviously, for a quick change, it would be better to use the slide to change such notes... though make sure the note after the next notes allows it. Basically, it is all intuition and feeling. This is especially true on a chromatic: If you are playing blues, it may be better (and easier!) to use a bend instead of the slide.


Harmonica
Getting started: Why should I Play Harmonica? | Types of harmonica | Anatomy of a Harmonica | Harmonica Purchasing guide
Playing the harmonica: Basic Holding and Playing a Harmonica | Tablature | Basic Chords | Bending
Additional techniques: Advance Chords | Advance techniques | Self accompaniment
General harmonica theory: Chromatic Harmonica | Positions | Tremelo | Ensemble Playing | Music Style | Learning Songs | Improvising | Recording | Playing with Amp
Cleaning and maintainence: Basic Maintainence and Care | Advance Maintainence |Harmonica Modifications |Tuning
Appendices: Harmonica Layouts and Alternate Tunings| Harmonica Positions Chart | Blues | Writing Songs