Q: What kind of harmonicas are there?
A: Basically four kinds. The diatonic-, the chromatic-, the chord- and
the bass harmonica. However, there are several types of diatonic and a
few variations of the others also — BB
>From : "Jason’s Questions" 09 Jul 94 WY:
DIATONIC CHROMATIC TREMOLO OCTAVE
These are all types of harmonicas. As one respondent showed, they are
also general musical terms. (unfortunately, his answer was full of confused
and erroneous information. I’ll be glad to give him remedial theory lesson
when I get back from Memphis).
DIATONIC is the basic inexpensive harmonica used by most players. It
is commonly used for blues, folk, rock and country. It is even used for
jazz, now that Howard Levy and others have advanced its technique enough
to handle the demands of more harmonically complex music.
Diatonic means, roughly, something in only one key, and that’s the meaning
applied to the harmonica. A C harmonica is tuned to the C major scale,
and plays the two most important chords in C (C Major chord and G 7th
chord). If you want to play the same song in another key, let’s say D,
you’d pick up a D harp and play it the same way you did in C. It’s a little
like using a capo on a guitar.
Funny thing is, diatonic players are more likely to play a C harp in
G and a D harp in A – five notes up the scale. This makes the instrument
bluesier and more expressive. On a C harmonica, the blow notes form a
C chord when played together, and the draw notes form a G7th chord. The
draw notes can bent (you can lower the pitch), allowing you to wail, cry,
choke and generally be very vocal-sounding on the notes of the G chord.
This is called second position, or cross harp. Playing the C harp in C
would be first position, or straight harp. A diatonic can be played in
twelve positions – one for each note of the chromatic scale, meaning,
that with advanced technique, you can play one diatonic in all keys, thereby
defeating the name go this type of harmonica. Howard Levy is the main
pioneer of this recent development.
Chromatic (literally, in Latin "colored") means anything that
goes outside the boundaries of one single key. Chromatic harmonicas come
in several different keys, with a tuning that is adapted from the middle
octave of the diatonic, and can be played in any key with sufficient skill.
however, some players treat their chromatics like diatonic – learn to
play in one or two positions, then just switch to a different key chromatic
to play in a different key.
The chromatic is actually two harps in one body. A C chromatic contains
a complete C harmonica and a complete C# harmonica. It will play the notes
of C major unless you press in a sliding lever at the right side, which
blocks out the C harp and exposes the notes of the C# harp. Using the
slide like this gives the chromatic all kinds of possibilities not found
on the diatonic, but the chromatic can’t get quite the same juicy wail
that the diatonic can, and it’s not as versatile for playing chords.
Some blues players play chromatic for variety, usually in third position
(D on a C harp) because the draw chord on a C chromatic is a d minor chord.
The sound of this chord and the big, ominous tone of the extra-large chromatic
favored by blues players combine for an effective, eerie sound that is
However, the chromatic is a very different instrument to play, and much
more expensive than the diatonic – price start at around $50 – so most
diatonic players never go too far with it.
Almost all classical harmonica playing is done on the chromatic (Larry
Adler, Tommy Reilly, Robert Bonfiglio, Cham-ber Huang). There are several
excellent jazz players on chromatic (Toots Thielemans, Hendrik Meurkens,
Mike Turk, William Galison). Stevie Wonder is somewhere between jazz and
popular music. Chromatic is also used in harmonica bands (see below).
TREMOLO and OCTAVE HARMONICAS
These are DOUBLE REED instruments, meaning that every time you play a
note, two reeds are activated instead of one, which augments the sound.
The AutoValve harp is a diatonic harp, tuned like a standard diatonic,
except that it is two harmonicas, one above and one below, mounted in
the same body. The lower harmonica gives the sound warmth and depth, while
the upper one gives it brightness and snap. You can play both harps together
(which is the intended manner) or separately (this takes some practice).
I wrote an article about it in HIP No. 2 and demonstrated it on a companion
The BASS HARMONICA and CHORD HARMONICA are also double reed instruments
(SEE BAND INSTRUMENTS below).
Tremolo harmonicas, like octave-tuned instruments, sound two reeds for
one note, except that both reeds play the same note – almost. One reed
is slightly detuned, giving the sound a certain warmth and body. Accordions
also have tremolo tuning, and the sound is similar. The more out of tune
with each other the reeds are, the ‘wetter" the sound is said to
be. Gordon Jackson, who is on this list, is something of an expert on
tremolo instruments, which are primarily used in folk music of Europe
and Asia. They don’t seem to have much currency in North America, except
in French Canada. Most tremolo harmonicas are diatonic. Some models come
with several keys mounted on a spindle like a corncob – rotate it and
eat another row in a different key. If a harmonica has Echo, or an alpine
scene on the box, it’s probably some kind of tremolo.
In the 1920’s harmonica bands arose, first as an educational activity
in the east coast, with huge student harmonica orchestras, and then as
a type of vaudeville act, with up to eight or nine players and lots of
slapstick comedy – along with some very fine playing.
Chromatic usually played the lead in these groups, but the supporting
roles were given to BASS HARMONICA and CHORD harmonica, playing roles
similar to bass and rhythm guitar in most other kinds of bands. these
are both double reeded instruments, and are usually two large instruments,
one fastened on top of the other. The bass can play 48 different chords,
while the bass has a two octave range, starting from the same bottom E
note as a string bass or bass guitar.
Additional instruments used in the harmonica bands include the polyphonia
and chromatica, which are chromatic instruments with a twist. Instead
of having a blow and a draw reed tuned to different notes, these instruments
had either all blow notes, or a blow and a draw note tuned the same –
and in tune. If Hole 1 was C, then Hole 2 was C# and Hole 3 was D and
so on –
each successive hole was another note in the chromatic scale, so that
you could slide around from note to note just by moving the harp from
side to side. These instruments give a sort of gliding sound, and are
used for variety, playing perhaps one chorus in a song.
The better known harmonica bands include Borrah Minnevitch’s Harmonica
Rascals, and the Harmonicats. Harmonica bands, both professional and amateur,
continue to be very popular in many harmonica clubs throughout the U.S.
and around the world — "Jason’s Questions" 09 Jul 94 WY
>From "Re: Sugar Blue’s weapon of choice" 30 Nov 94 CH,
Sorry if my original message wasn’t clear. The harp in question as very
accurately described by Barry is a number 7 polyphonia. I have one at
home and both the box label and bottom cover plate describe it as a #7
polyphonia (and it matches the description perfectly). I called it a "bass"
poly because it goes down to the D two octaves below middle C (I checked
The 263 poly is a bigger beast, covering 3 octaves. It is called a "Chromonica"
by Hohner on the cover plate and in the price list, but I’ve always heard
these harps referred to as polyphonias or polys (just like the 270 and
280 are called by Hohner "Super Chromonica" and "64 Chromonica"
respectively, but most people just say "Super", or "64").
And perhaps they are referred to as "zip-zip"s in the UK (though
it sounds like a David Michelsen term to me!).
What ever your preferred name, Kim Field’s book has a nice paragraph
on these harps (found under "polyphonias" in the index, p.48)
———- Forwarded message ———-
> Recently the question was asked as to what the heck was in Sugar
> hand on the most recent album cover. I for one am very curious. It
> 25 holes. Yes 25. It’s huge. It has note names starting with D on
> left and they keep going up. The front notes are the unflatted or
> sharped notes and the back has the sharps and flats. The back note
> are in raised square shaped boxes that are stamped into the cover
> The covers appear to be held on by 2 screws per end. If this question
> was already answered and I missed it my apologies. FJM >
It’s a number 7 bass polyphonia. It goes down to the D two octaves below
middle C, I believe (I have one at home but didn’t bring it along with
me to school). No longer made by Hohner, I bought mine about 10 years
ago when Hohner sent a sale list to all the harmonica clubs. Cost me a
mere $35. A great harp even if I don’t find much use for it. Polys are
a dying breed of harmonica as there aren’t many harmonica bands around
and Hohner only makes one now (the 263, or is it 267, or ?). All polyphonias
are chromatics (with out the lever) and were most commonly used for the
trombone parts or glissandos in harp bands. The #7 is all blow, and has
a great low end. It’s not a harp to just pick up and jam along but it’s
fun to fool with. The #263 is blow/draw and often used to play "Flight
of the Bumble Bee".
Ok, probably more than you wanted to know… — "Re: Sugar Blue’s
weapon of choice" 30 Nov 94 CH, FJM