Types of Harmonicas
The harmonica brand that one chooses usually is based on one's ability to play, the pliability of the reeds, sound of the instrument, and price. Although many feel that the best harmonicas are more expensively priced, skilled players often feel that price and quality are not related.
The chromatic harmonica usually uses a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed-plate, although there was one design, the "Machino-Tone", which controlled airflow by means of a lever-operated movable flap on the rear of the instrument. In addition, there is a "hands-free" modification of the Hohner 270 (12-hole) in which the player shifts the tones by moving the mouthpiece up and down with the lips, leaving the hands free to play another instrument. While the Richter-tuned 10-hole chromatic is intended to be played in only one key, the 12-, 14-, and 16-hole models (which are tuned to equal temperament) allow the musician to play in any key desired with only one harmonica. This harp can be used for any style - Celtic, classical, jazz, blues (commonly in third position)- as well as many other styles.
Strictly speaking, "diatonic" denotes any harmonica that is designed for playing in only one key (though the standard "Richter-tuned" diatonic can be played in other keys by forcing its reeds to play tones that are not part of its basic scale; see "Blues harp" below). Depending on the region of the world, "diatonic harmonica" may mean either the tremolo harmonica (in East Asia) or blues harp (In Europe and North America). Other diatonic harmonicas include octave harmonica.
The tremolo harmonica's distinguishing feature is that it has two reeds per note, with one a bit sharp and the other a bit flat. This provides a unique wavering or warbling sound created by the two reeds being slightly out of tune with each other and the difference in their subsequent waveforms interacting with each other. The term "tremolo" is actually something of a misnomer; "vibrato" would have been a better term for this instrument or perhaps "musette". The Asian version, which has all the notes on it, is used in all East-Asian music, from rock to pop music.
The 10-hole, or Richter tuned harmonica, is the most widely known type of harmonica. It has ten holes that offer the player a total of 19 notes (10 holes times a draw and a blow for each hole minus one repeated note) in a three-octave range. This is the harmonica commonly used in blues, country, and rock music, as well as some skilled jazz players. The reeds of diatonic harmonicas produce the notes of the scale to which they are tuned. For example, a diatonic harmonica tuned to the key of C would produce the natural notes of the C scale without sharps and flats (picture the white keys on a piano, without the black keys). Each hole has two reeds; one plays when breath is exhaled (blow) and the other when inhaled (draw). The individual reeds are each tuned to play a different note on the scale. As with many other diatonic instruments, they come in all of the musical keys, and are manufactured by just about every company- Hohner, Suzuki, etc.
One of the specialties of the 10-holed diatonic "Richter" tuned harmonica is its ability to play more than its basic 20 notes. It has the ability to produce 42 notes, (including 4 repeats), ending up with a complete 3 chromatic octave range, plus two extra half-steps on the high end. This requires the use of special techniques such as bending and overblowing. Furthermore, these techniques are used to produce many different effects. The most common is slurring (linking from a regular note in the scale to an overblow or overdraw) to the bent note, or playing straight into the note.
Octave harmonicas have two reeds per hole which are tuned to the same note a perfect octave apart. Many share their basic design with the tremolo harmonica explained above and are built on the "Wiener system" of construction. Octave harmonicas also come in what is called the "Knittlinger system". In this design, the top and bottom reed-plates contain all of the blow and draw notes for either to lower or higher pitched set of reeds. The comb is constructed so that the blow and draw reeds on each reed-plate are paired side-by-side in a single chamber in the same manner as on a standard diatonic. However, the top and bottom pairs each have their own chamber.
Thus, in a C harmonica the higher pitched C blow and D draw found in the first "hole" would be placed side-by-side on the upper reed-plate and share a single chamber in the comb and the lower pitched C blow and D draw would be placed side-by-side on the bottom reed-plate and share a single chamber directly below the higher pitched pair of reeds' chamber. Knittlinger octave harmonicas are also called "concert" harmonicas and are almost always tuned in a variation of the traditional major diatonic with chords tuning found in diatonic harmonicas. Octave harmonicas built in the "Wiener system" may be tuned either in this traditional method or in the same manner as the Asian tremolos mentioned above.
An interesting variation upon the Knittlinger octave harmonica is the so-called "half-concert" harmonica. This is not an octave harmonica at all, but rather a single-note diatonic harmonica which is built with a single reed-plate rather than the standard two--essentially it is one half of the standard octave harmonica.
These harmonicas are primarily designed for use in ensemble playing.
Orchestral Melody harmonica
There are two kinds of orchestral melody harmonica: the most common are the Horn harmonicas that are most often found in East Asia. These consist of a single large comb with blow only reed-plates on the top and bottom. Each reed sits inside a single cell in the comb. One version mimics the layout of a piano or mallet instrument, with the natural notes of a C diatonic scale in the lower reed-plate and the sharps/flats in the upper reed-plate in groups of two and three holes with gaps in between like the black keys of a piano (thus there is no E#/Fb hole nor a B#/Cb hole on the upper reed-plate). Another version has one "sharp" reed directly above its "natural" on the lower plate, with the same number of reeds on both plates. "Horn harmonicas" are available in several pitch ranges, with the lowest pitched starting two octaves below middle C and the highest beginning on middle C itself; they usually cover a two or three octave range. They are chromatic instruments and are usually played in an East Asian harmonica orchestra instead of the "push-button" chromatic harmonica that is more common in the European/American tradition. Their reeds are often larger, and the enclosing "horn" gives them a different timbre, so that they often function in place of a brass section. In the past, they were referred to as horn harmonicas.
The other type of orchestral melodic harmonica is the Polyphonia, (though some are marked "Chromatica"). These have all twelve chromatic notes laid out on the same row. In most cases, both blow and draw have the same tone, though the No. 7 is blow only, and the No. 261, also blow only, has two reeds per hole, tuned an octave apart (all these designations refer to products of M. Hohner). The Polyphonia is often thought to allow the easy playing of pieces such as "Flight of the Bumblebee" (because it is not necessary to switch airflow). However, Dan LeMaire-Bauch disputes this, pointing out that all three players known to him who have played "Bee", (Victor "Panky" Paul, Jia Yi He, and himself) have used 16-hole "push-button" chromatics; nevertheless, in his relentless pursuit of further harmonica knowledge, he would welcome any information on player(s) who do "The Bumblebee" correctly, note-for-note, on a Polyphonia. Dan's performance does however include one 24-note phrase on a No. 7 Poly (pronounced "polly"). The Poly was commonly used to make glissandos and other effects very easy to play--few acoustic instruments can play a chromatic glissando as fast as a Polyphonia.
The bass harmonica consists of two separate combs joined together one atop the other with moveable connectors at their ends. These are all-blow instruments covering much the same range as the viola family double bass. Today, bass harmonicas are all octave tuned, which means that each hole has two reeds, one of which plays the bass note and the other a note an octave higher. The lower comb contains the notes of the C major diatonic scale, while the upper comb contains the notes of a C#(Db) diatonic scale.
The chord harmonica has 48 chords: major, seventh, minor, augmented and diminished for ensemble playing. It is laid out in four-note clusters, each sounding a different chord on inhaling or exhaling. Typically each hole has two reeds for each note, tuned to one octave of each other. However, less expensive models often have only one reed per note.
Quite a few orchestra harmonicas are also designed to serve as both bass and chord harmonica, with bass notes next to chord groupings. There are also other chord harmonicas, such as the Chordomonica (which operates similar to a chromatic harmonica), and the junior chord harmonicas (which typically provides 6 chords).
A recent harmonica innovation is the ChengGong 程功 (a pun on the inventor's surname and 成功, or "success," pronounced "chenggong" in Mandarin Chinese) harmonica, invented by Cheng Xuexue 程雪學 of China. It has two parts: the main body, and a sliding mouthpiece. The body is a 24 hole diatonic harmonica that starts from b2 to d6 (covering 3 octaves). Its 11-hole mouthpiece can slide along the front of the harmonica, which gives numerous chord choices and voicings (seven triads, three 6th chords, seven 7th chords, and seven 9th chords, for a total of 24 chords available). Yet, the ChengGong is still capable of playing single note melodies and double stops over a range of three diatonic octaves, all the while maintaining a small profile, not much larger than a 12-hole chromatic. Unlike conventional harmonicas, blowing and drawing produce the same notes because its tuning is closer to the note layout of a typical Asian tremolo harmonica or the Polyphonias
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