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OK, so you want to learn to play the harmonica! It is truly the instrument of the people and a great little instrument with amazing possibilities! You can play simple children's tunes, folk songs, amazing Blues and Jazz, Country, or even become a Classical musician on one! So you are confronted with a lot of choices! (I won't get into brands here, because I have another guide that discusses that. Please take a look at it, and my other guides, as well.)
So, what key harp to get? There are twelve keys to choose from! And what sort of harp? There are all these terms: Richter, Diatonic, Chromatic, Tremolo, Koch, Octave, Major, Minor, Straight Harp, Cross Harp, Solo Tuned, Cross Tuned, Straight Tuned --it makes your head whirl and spin like a top on a merry go round! OK, here is a simple guide to help you through this maze!
What Key Should I Get?
Well, if you are playing all by yourself key does not matter too much! The conventional wisdom is to start with a standard 10 holed C diatonic harmonica, which is what is called Richter tuned. If you want to play Blues or basic Folk music this is what you want. Standard Richter tuned 10 holed diatonic harmonicas include: Seydel Soloist, Session, Favorite and 1847 models, Hohner Marine Band, Blues Harp, Special 20, Big River, and Golden Melody, Lee Oskar Major Diatonic, Suzuki Bluesmaster, Promaster, Folkmaster, Firebreath, Pure Harp, and Harpmaster, Hering Blues 2020 and 1923 Vintage Harp, Huang Star Performers, etc. You can learn your way around one diatonic harmonica and then take that basic pattern to another harp in a different key. Some keys like G, A, Ab, Bb, and B are lower and have a nice deep sound, and other keys like E, F, and F# are higher, but these are all are laid out the same way in Richter tuning, just in different keys.
The key of a harp becomes more relevant when you play along with records or with others. For learning the basics of the harmonica many books and most courses start with C harmonicas, so this is often the key of choice for the beginner. A C harp allows you to easily play folk songs in C in what is called first position or straight harp. It also is used for Blues in G in what is called second position or cross harp and it is also used for blues in D using what is called third position.
(If you are wondering why you play blues in a different key from the key of the harmonica, realize that blues scales use different notes than the standard major scale, hence a different pattern of holes is played to get blues scales. See: www.angelfire.com/tx/myquill/Positions.html for a terrific chart and more detail on harp positions!)
Keys beyond C are essential for the 10 hole diatonic harp player! Adam Gussow has some great Blues harmonica teaching videos on Youtube and he often uses an A or Bb for that. If you are getting started on harmonica and want to play with others, either blues or folk, you need to get at least these keys in addition to a C. The popularity rank of keys for harmonicas is C, A, G, D, E, F, Bb, and Eb, in that order. Eventually you will want to get all the keys!
Richter vs. Solo Tuned
is the tuning used on standard 10 hole diatonics. It is mostly
what Folk and Blues guys use. The bottom four holes are different from
the holes that follow to allow for certain chords. If you want to play
a major scale you need to start on hole 4 and go up.
Solo Tuned harps
play the same note pattern all the way up the harp, just repeating the same pattern in different octaves. Some tremolos and some 12 holed harmonicas are solo tuned. You can start a major scale usually by blowing on the first hole,
but sometimes this can vary according to the size of the harp.
Chromatics are mostly solo tuned --unless they are Koch chromatics mentioned below-- and you start a major scale on the first hole blow for 10, 12 and 16
hole models. 14 hole models start on the third hole blow to play a major
Other Harmonica Tunings
Now, to make matters more complicated, let's talk about a few other kinds of harmonicas and terms used. Some harmonicas are tuned differently. We now see 10 hole harps tuned in Harmonic Minor (great for Eastern European, Jewish and Gypsy music) and Natural Minor (great for minor Blues and Jazz). Country Tuned I have found less useful personally, but some like it for Bluegrass. (For more on this Google country tuned harmonica.) There is also the question of Just Intonation vs. Equal Temperament. This is a pretty technical area and has to do with micro-tuning. If you are a new player don't worry about this at all to start with. If you get very advanced and want to know more, see Pat Missin on this. (http://www.patmissin.com/tunings/tunings.html) Most harmonicas have a compromised tuning that is between Just and Equal. Hering Vintage 1923 harmonica are set up in Just Intonation. Seydel harmonicas have additional tunings and also offer the possibility of designing your own tunings.
Chromatic harmonicas are solo tuned and have a button that raises the pitch 1/2 step. Irish Tuned chromatics lower the pitch 1/2 step, which many Irish players prefer for trills and many blues players prefer because that button set up makes pushing the button similar to blues bends --a harmonica technique which lowers the pitch for that bluesy sound. If you want to play classical music on a harmonica you need a chromatic. Most use a C chromatic for classical music. Blues players use a variety of chromatics in different keys to play mostly in third position. See my guide to blues on a chromatic for more help on this. A Cross Tuned chromatic means, when the slide button is out the holes are open top, bottom, then top, alternating up and down as you go up the harmonica. Hohner 16 holers are set up this way as well as their CX-12. A Straight Tuned chromatic means the holes are all open on top at the same time, then when the button is pushed, they are all open on the bottom. Most 12 hole chromatics are set up this way as are Hering 16 holers. Now what about Koch chromatics? These are tuned like the 10 hole diatonics, which have different notes in the bottom four holes to make certain chords easier. A Koch chromatic allows a blues player or folk player, who is used to a 10 hole Richter diatonic harp, to play like he usually does, but also have extra notes as on a chromatic. I do not personally recommend them. What about Tenor and Baritone Chromatics? Some 12 holed chromatics are specially tuned to be lower, like a C Tenor or C Baritone (same thing!) which play an octave lower than a regular C. There are also altered tunings for chromatics, such as diminished and bebop tunings, which involved a retuning of several reeds. Seydel offers custom tuned chromatics now. Let me know and I'll order one for you!
XB-40 and Valved Diatonics
If you are more advanced you can learn to play pretty close to chromatically on a valved 10 hole diatonic harmonica such as a Hohner XB40 or a Suzuki Valved Promaster, which are made to allow more bends than a usual harmonica. If you are really advanced, like Howard Levy, you can play anything on a 10 hole harp using very advanced overblowing techniques, you are one of the elite group of harpists who can do it, and you don't need this guide!
Tremolo and Octave Harmonicas
A Tremolo harmonica has two reeds for one note and they are tuned slightly apart to give a vibrato or tremolo sound. some, like the Hohner Echo, are Richter tuned and others are Solo tuned.
Octave harmonicas are tremolos that have the two notes tuned an octave apart to give an organ sound. The Hohner Auto Valve and the Huang Cathedral Concert are two examples of this type of harmonica, and they have a nice sound for folk music or hymns.
Wood, Plastic or Metal Comb?
Do I want a wood comb, a plastic comb, or maybe even a metal comb? Some folks swear by wood combs. Tests have been done at harmonica conventions where the same reedplates are put on different comb materials and it seems folks cannot definitively detect a difference in sound! Not even electronic equipment can tell the difference! Wood combs may swell with use unless they are sealed wood combs, and they can also crack. A harp with a metal comb can double as brass knuckles! It is largely a matter of taste and personal preference. There seems to be little or no difference in sound according to tests that have been done, no matter what anyone claims! Any differences detected are probably due to different reeds and micro-tuning systems. If you play through an amp, the microphone and amp will make a much greater difference than any variation in comb material would.
Well, I hope this guide has helped you some. Contact me if you want something else added or explained and I'll update the guide. Please do me a favor and click the button if this has been helpful. I've included some URLs below that will be of additional help.
Seydel 1847 Silver Harmonica with STAINLESS STEEL REEDS
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