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How Much Does a Good Harmonica Cost?

How Much Does a Good Harmonica Cost?

If we define a ‘good harmonica’ as one that is made in Germany or Japan, or is from the higher end of one of the better Chinese manufacturers’ ranges, and is sufficiently airtight and well-tuned that it could be used by a professional musician in the course of their work, here are some approximate prices for the various types of harmonica:

Diatonic Harmonicas

Entry level professional harmonicas in the ten hole variety come in at around the £28 – £35 mark. This includes harps such as the Seydel Session, Hohner Big River and Suzuki Bluesmaster. Spending more than this will get you nicer materials, and a slightly more responsive feel, but the differences will be far less than those between these harps and cheap Chinese diatonics.

Chromatic Harmonicas

Chromatics are by their nature more expensive than diatonics, so expect to pay at least £120 for a 12 hole German made chromatic such as the Hohner Discovery 48. More holes gives more tonal range, but also increases the cost, with decent 14 and 16 hole chromatics starting at near to £200.

Tremolo/Octave Harmonicas

These are a less common sight than a couple of decades ago, so choice is fairly limited. Tombo produce some well made tremolo harps, which start at around £40. Octave harmonicas are thinner on the ground, with Seydel being the only major brand offering more than one model. Expect to pay at least £70 for a German made harp.

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How Long Does a Harmonica Last?

How Long Does a Harmonica Last?

This may seem like the proverbial piece of string question, but it is quite a common query from harmonica customers, so I’ll attempt to give some (qualified) answers.

First of all we should identify what actually goes wrong with a harp to make it stop working. Generally speaking, the comb and cover plates are exceptionally durable, and will rarely need to be replaced. Wood comb harmonicas like the Marine Band 1896 Classic may experience some swelling, which eventually will make playing them uncomfortable, but this doesn’t render them unusable. What does, however, is an out of tune or broken reed. Let’s look at how this happens and give an estimate of frequency of occurrence for the various types of harmonica on the market.

Tremolo, Octave and Chromatic Harmonicas

 

Hohner ACE 48 Chromatic Harmonica – Side View

These types of harmonica have two sets of reed plates, and these tend to be more expensive than on diatonic harps. The good news is that when properly cared for, these harmonicas should last for many years before they go out of tune, or a reed snaps. The primary reason for this is that note bending on dual reed plate harmonicas is fairly rare, and the absence of this technique means that the reeds are under much less stress than on a ten hole diatonic used for blues playing, which often features heavy bends. The wider note range of most chromatics and octave/tremolo harps, also means that any wear is spread out across a greater number of reeds.

As an estimate, the average player will get at least two years of use from an octave or tremolo harp, before reeds will need to be replaced. This figure increases to three or more years for chromatic harmonicas.

Diatonic Harmonicas

Hohner Rocket Harmonica
Hohner Rocket Harmonica

Diatonic harps tend to be less expensive than their dual reed cousins, but this is balanced by reduced longevity. The reasons for this are twofold – most diatonic players make extensive use of note bending, which is very hard on reeds, and, with only a limited range of notes available, playing is concentrated in a small tonal area, accelerating wear.

As a guide, a quality German or Japanese harp with brass reeds may last anywhere from three months to a couple of years, depending on frequency of playing and the extent to which the player bends notes. Harmonicas with stainless steel or phosphor bronze reeds tend to last significantly longer – anywhere from 50% to 100% longer in fact.

The only caveat here is that stainless steel reeds can be more brittle than brass ones, and can snap when inexpertly played using unnecessarily heavy draws.

 

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Where are Hohner Harmonicas Made?

Where are Hohner Harmonicas Made?

Like many musical instrument companies, Hohner offers its products at a wide range of price points in order to capture as big a slice of the market as possible. In practice, this means that its harmonicas are manufactured primarily in two countries – China and Germany.

List of Hohner Harmonicas Made in China

As you would expect, the lower end instruments, and those intended for use by children, are manufactured in China. This includes the following harmonicas from Hohners’ current range:

It’s worth noting here that there are multiple versions of the Little Lady on the market, and it is only the original version with the pearwood comb that is still made in Germany.

As a rule, replacement reed plates are not available for Hohner’s Chinese made harmonicas. The only exceptions are the Chrometta harps, for which a wide range of spares are available.

List of Hohner Harmonicas Made in Germany

In general, all Hohner diatonic harmonicas retailing over around £25 at the time of writing are made in Germany. For chromatics, this figure increases to just in excess of £120. All German made harps, with the exception of the Little Lady, have replacement reed plates and other parts available from the Hohner spares department.

The following harmonicas are all made in Germany:

It’s worth noting here that Hohner’s quality control on its Chinese made harps tends to be fairly thorough; there are certainly far fewer issues with these harmonicas than many other Chinese brands.

This said, in my opinion, it is generally worth investing a little more cash in a German made harmonica, as the availability of replacement parts, and the better playability makes them a better choice in the long run.

 

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What’s the Easiest Harmonica to Bend?

What’s the Easiest Harmonica to Bend?

As a beginner, the first technique that you encounter on the harmonica that takes significant practice to perfect is bending. It’s also the technique that most players struggle with in the initial stages of learning the instrument, leading some to conclude that there is some sort of equipment problem, and that the harmonica that they are using is impeding their progress. Of course, this is generally not true, unless you’re trying to bend on a tremolo or octave harmonica, or are using a very cheap, poorly-made Chinese harp; almost any standard diatonic will allow draw bends – the key is correct technique.

This said, there are some harps that are easier for beginners to learn on. Let’s take a look at the options.

What Key?

Beginners are usually told to purchase a C harmonica as their first harp. Not only are more songs written in C than any other key, but C is also the easiest key with which to practise bending technique. Lower keys, such as G or A, have thicker reeds that require more effort to achieve full bends. Higher keys, such as E or F, have thinner reeds that do bend more easily, but require a particularly precise technique to achieve accurate pitching. If your ambition is to just bend a note down from its original point to any note or half note, then a high key will be easier, but I suspect what you actually want to do is to bend down to a specific note, rather than some random, wavering point, in which case, stick with C.

What Harmonica?

Most beginners will want a harmonica that isn’t super expensive. I would, however, recommend not going too far towards the opposite end of the spectrum, as most Chinese made harps, particularly those costing under £20, tend to be quite leaky, which impedes the ease with which notes can be bent. I would also recommend choosing a harmonica with a plastic comb – not because they are any easier to play, but because they are much less liable to swelling and warping than a harp with a wood comb.

One material used in the construction of harmonicas that does affect ease of bending, though, is the type of metal used for the reeds. Brass reeds are softer than phosphor bronze and stainless steel used by Suzuki and Seydel, respectively, and this softness makes bends much easier to achieve for beginners. My advice, then, is to opt for a mid range harmonica, made in Germany or Japan that features brass reeds.

Given that this harmonica is for someone starting out with the instrument, let’s set an imaginary budget of £40. Harmonicas that fall within this price range and meet the other requirements include the Hohner Special 20, Seydel Session Standard and Lee Oskar Major Diatonic. Having played all harmonicas extensively over the years, my personal opinion is that the Special 20 is the optimum harp on which to learn to bend. It has a lighter feel to the reeds, which makes it particularly easy to bend the hole 4 draw when getting to grips with the technique, is widely available and keenly priced.

So, there you have it – if you want the easiest harmonica to bend then buy the Hohner Special 20!

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Chromatic Harmonicas – a Brief Guide to the Best Harps on the Market

Chromatic Harmonicas

There’s a wide range of chromatic harmonicas on the market right now, and it can be bewildering, particularly to newcomers, when, on paper at least, the differences between sub-£100 harps and those costing over £1000 seem to be slight. Help is at hand, though – in this post we’ll give you an impartial guide to the best chromatic harmonicas, and explain the differences between models how this influences how they play and sound.

Let’s start by examining the different price points.

Sub-£100 Chromatics

Hohner Chrometta 12 Harmonica
Hohner Chrometta 12 Harmonica

The least expensive models in this price range tend to be slideless models, such as the Tombo S50, or Chinese-made instruments produced by companies like Easttop and Swan (sometimes on behalf of more famous companies, such as Hohner).

Slideless chromatics are quite different from traditional chromatics, and work by having two sets of holes situated at angles to each other, which activate their respective reed plates. This enables full chromaticism to be achieved, but is more limiting in the techniques that can be used and sounds that can be produced. Fans of Steve Wonder-esque chromatic runs will need to look elsewhere.

The least expensive chromatics in this price range tend to be fairly ‘leaky’. That is to say, they take a lot of breath to achieve consistent sounding of notes. This is generally due to their lack of valves (thin pieces of material on the reeds that limit air loss) but can also be a consequence of poor tolerances in the manufacturing process. The Easttop Forerunner is a typical example of this level of harmonica; although initially it seems similar in appearance and construction to the brand’s higher end chromatics, the lack of valves and lower quality reed plates make it significantly harder to play.

Our general advice with chromatics is to spend a little more than the entry level, sub-£100 price point, as the improvements in quality, playability and tone are more than worth the extra cost.

£100 – £250 Chromatics

Hohner Discovery 48 Harmonica
Hohner Discovery 48 Harmonica

At the lower end of this price point the first German and Japanese made chromatics start to appear, and this is where we recommend most players should look when buying a chromatic harmonica. Although £100+ may seem a considerable sum to those more used to the low prices of diatonic harps, chromatics are much more complex and versatile instruments than their 10 hole counterparts, and are still remarkably inexpensive when compared with guitars, for example.

Most harps within this price range will have 12 holes, although at the mid to upper end some 16 hole models start to creep in, such as the Hohner Chromonica 64 and the Suzuki SCX-64.

As a starter 12 hole chromatic, it’s hard to beat the Hohner Discovery 48, which is a German-made harmonica with an ABS comb and the same reed plates as the more expensive Xpression harp. It’s robust, has excellent tone and playability and its comb is completely swell resistant.

Moving towards the middle of this price point, there is a wealth of great harmonicas available. Our recommendations would be the Suzuki SCX-48, the Seydel Deluxe Steel and the Hohner CX12, which are all Japanese or German made harmonicas with excellent build quality, tone and playability. Importantly, a wide range of spare parts is available for all of these harps, so they are fully serviceable and should last a lifetime if correctly maintained.

£250 – £500 Chromatics

Hohner ACE 48 Chromatic Harmonica – Side View

At this price point, 16 hole harmonicas become more common, and unique features begin to appear to differentiate these more expensive harps from their cheaper counterparts. Hohner’s ACE 48, for  example, has removable inserts that enable the player to tune the tonal colour and weight distribution of the harp, and Seydel’s Symphony 48 features a magnetic slider system and polished stainless steel reeds.

Our recommendations within this price range include the Hohner Super 64 and Super 64X (as used by Stevie Wonder), the Seydel Symphony 48 and Hohner’s ACE 48.

£500 – £1000 Chromatics

Suzuki Sirius S-64C Chromatic Harmonica
Suzuki Sirius S-64C Chromatic Harmonica

Although there is an element of diminishing returns at this price point, it does open up the range of harps available to include some of the finest harmonicas on the market. High end 16 hole harmonicas, such as the Seydel Symphony 64 and Suzuki Sirius 64 feature in this category, as do instruments, such as the Suzuki Gregoire Maret G48W, which make innovative use of materials such as brass and walnut to optimise tonal quality.

Our recommendations in this price category are the Seydel Symphony 64, Hohner Meisterklasse and Suzuki Sirius.

£1000+ Chromatics

Hohner Silver Concerto Chromatic Harmonica
Hohner Silver Concerto Chromatic Harmonica

Whilst this may seem an extravagant amount of money to spend on a harmonica, viewed in the context of other instruments, such as electric guitars, where £1000 is roughly the point at which quality, US-made guitars become available, it is not as profligate a figure as might initially be thought.

Harmonicas in this price bracket range from high end production harps, such as the Hohner Amadeus, through to fully custom chromatics made without compromise from the most expensive materials, such as the Polle Concert Chromatic and Hohner Silver Concerto. As with many professional level classical instruments, silver is the choice of metal for the bodies of the most expensive chromatics, having been championed as a material by Tommy Reilly in the late 1960s. This provides the absolute pinnacle of tonal quality, but also is a major contributor to the high price of these instruments.

How Much Should I Spend on a Chromatic Harmonica?

In simple terms, we recommend the following:

Beginners and those on a tight budget – £120 – £200

Experienced players and those needing a quality 16 hole chromatic – £250 – £650

Beyond this price point you will be experiencing diminishing returns, so the differences between a £650 chromatic and a £1000 one will be far less than the difference between a £50 chromatic and a £150 one. As ever, though, a professional level instrument can be a joy in ways that can’t be easily justified in purely financial terms, so if you’re really sold on the idea of owning, say, a Silver Concerto, don’t let this put you off!

 

 

CategoriesHarmonica

What is the Difference Between D# and Eb? (Or Any Sharp or Flat?)

What is the Difference Between D# and Eb? (Or Any Sharp or Flat?)

Musical terminology can be confusing sometimes, with its esoteric symbols and strange Italian words, like ‘allegro’ or ‘andante’. Nowhere is this more prevalent than when the subject is sharps and flats. But it doesn’t need to be complicated; in this post I’ll explain how sharps and flats work, and whether there is a difference between D# and Eb or F# and Gb (TL:DR answer – in almost all Western music there isn’t).

Why Do We Have Sharps and Flats?

When I started learning the piano, around 40 years ago (I was very young!) I wondered why classical musicians used such a weird form of notation. Why didn’t they just assign a unique letter to each of the 12 notes in an octave, rather than messing about with sharp, flats and naturals? It was only later that I learnt that traditional Western music had begun with no sharps or flats at all; instead, for much of the first 1000 years of Western musical history, we had only what we now call the natural notes – in other words, just the white notes on a piano keyboard. These were then notated on a musical staff with 11 lines, with each space and line indicating a natural note. This staff was eventually split in two, with symbols (treble and bass clefs) indicating the tonal range, to make it easier to read, but not much else changed for several hundred years. Music of the time was modal, rather than being based on the concept of keys, although some of these modes, such as the Ionian mode (basically C to C on all the white notes) do correspond with modern musical keys (in this case, the key of C Major).

Incredibly, it wasn’t until around a thousand years ago that an Italian musician named Guido D’Arrezo noticed that there was a missing note between A and B. He discovered this when attempting to transpose the Ionian mode to F, which resulted in the B sounding wrong; it was slightly too high. Realising there must be a note between A and B, he dropped the B by a semitone, and renamed the old B ‘H’ (which is why Hohner harmonicas still have ‘H’ in brackets next to their key designation of B). These days we call B, ‘B’ or ‘B Natural’, and the note that Guido named B is now referred to as Bb. As a result of Guido’s discovery, there were now eight, rather than seven, notes in an octave, and two different major keys were now available.

Weirdly, it took a few more centuries for the other sharps or flats to be discovered. It wasn’t until around 1350AD that all of the 12 notes that we now have in an octave were available to musicians. It seems odd that Guido, for example, didn’t apply the same thinking that helped in his discovery of Bb to the scale of G, which would have led to his finding F#. It needs to be remembered, however, that this was the Middle Ages, where much of the population believed in all sorts of nonsense, such as witchcraft or the healing power of magic stones, so the absence of a more scientific approach from Guido can, perhaps, be forgiven.

An interesting side note here is that the symbols for sharps and flats are derived from the same letter – B. Sharps were originally denoted with a square shaped B, which was later stylised as # to avoid confusion with flats, which were indicated by a rounded b, as they are today.

So, What is a Sharp or Flat, Again?

In simple terms, a sharp is where the base note has been raised a semitone, and a flat is where it has been lowered a semitone. Thus, every black note on a piano keyboard can be described in multiple ways – F#, for instance can be named in relation to being a semitone above F (F sharp), or a semitone below G (G flat). The same is true, theoretically, of white notes, but convention dictates that they will almost always be denoted as a natural rather than as a harp or flat (so E, for instance will nearly always be called ‘E’ and not ‘Fb’).

So, the black keys on a piano keyboard, which are the notes traditionally referred to as sharps or flats can be either Db, Eb, Gb, Ab and Bb, or C#, D#, F#, G# and A#.

Piano Keyboard

Why Use Sharps and Flats?

In practice, however, certain notes are generally denoted as either a flat or a sharp by convention, and are rarely referred to by their alternative name. In the world of harmonicas, for instance, all keys that could be called flats or sharps are referred to as flats, except for F#. So the keys of harmonicas are typically referred to as C, Db, E, Eb, F F#, G, Ab, A, Bb, B.

Caveat

The one caveat here is that D# and Eb are only the same note in commonly used Western tuning systems – the most common of which is 12 Equal Temperament, which splits each octave into 12 equally spaced frequencies. In other, older and much less common tuning systems, such as  5 limit Just Intonation, there is a small difference between the two notes. This is because, instead of dividing the octave into equally spaced notes (which from a tonal and mathematical viewpoint, results in some frequency combinations not being perfectly pure ratios), 5 limit Just uses the circle of fifths to create perfectly pure ratios, but it can never return to the starting pitch class because of the impossibility of fitting multiple 3:2 ratios (fifths) into a 2:1 ratio (the octave). The result is the creation of notes, such as D# and Eb, that are note a semitone apart, but are also not quite the same note.

Some instruments were created to enable both notes to be played. An example of this is shown in the video below, where an organ features a split black key, enabling both D# and Eb to be played. Ultimately, though, 5 Limit Just Intonation was largely abandoned many years ago, so for practical purposes equivalent sharps and flats are the same note.

CategoriesHarmonicaHarmonica Players

How Lee Oskar Changed Harmonicas Forever

How Lee Oskar Changed Harmonicas Forever

Lee Oskar may have initially found fame as a virtuoso harp player in the funk fusion band, War, but today he is better known, even to keen harmonica players, as the creator of an eponymous line of diatonic harps. How this happened, and how the harmonica world was shaken up by Oskar’s approach to their design, is an interesting story, and one that has had the effect of permanently altering the line up of harmonicas from many other manufacturers.

Harmonicas in the Late 1970s

Hohner Marine Band
Hohner Marine Band

To appreciate exactly what Oskar changed about diatonic harmonicas, it’s first necessary to understand  the state of the market in the late 1970s. At this point in time, Hohner was the clear dominant manufacturer, with other German competitors long having bitten the dust, or having been subsumed into the GDR’s Bandmaster brand – an advertisement if there ever were one for the shortcomings of Communism.

Although Hohner had introduced the Special 20, with its innovative plastic comb and recessed reed plates, in the mid 1970s, the majority of its range at the time was somewhat traditional in focus, with nails and unsealed wood combs featuring on many models. Oskar became frustrated with the quality of the Hohners that were available in music shops in the US, which were often poorly tuned and had a propensity to swell after heavy use.

Having spent considerable time in Japan during this period, primarily recording soundtracks for commercials, he came to the attention of the heads of the Japanese harmonica manufacturer, Tombo. This led to a meeting with the owners, ultimately resulting in a collaboration that continues to this day, with Tombo producing all of Lee Oskar’s harmonicas in Japan.

Modular and Modern

Tombo Factory
Tombo Factory

Tombo was already an established manufacturer of harmonicas by the 1970s, but was relatively unknown outside of Japan, and was focused on fairly traditional instruments with wood combs. Oskar saw the potential of the company, but didn’t want merely to add his name to an existing harp; instead he wished to design something both modern and modular from the ground up, combining Tombo’s expertise and craftsmanship with new materials and architecture.

ABS Combs and Altered Tunings

Lee Oskar Natural Minor Diatonic Harmonica
Lee Oskar Natural Minor Diatonic Harmonica

Hohner’s Special 20 had already shown the music world the advantages of ABS combs on harmonicas, and had helped to develop widespread acceptance of the material among harmonica players, many of whom were staunch traditionalists. Oskar realised that not only did plastic combs solve the inherent swelling issue that plagues wood when used in this application, but it could also be manipulated via injection moulding in ways not possible with traditional materials that would benefit the sound and playability of the harmonica.

The end result was a modern ten hole diatonic, with narrower spaces between the holes than was possible with wood, enabling players to move more rapidly between notes. The plastic comb also conferred a further advantage – it allowed for excellent airtightness whilst only necessitating the use of three screws to hold the reed plates to the body, thereby saving a small amount of money per instrument and simplifying assembly and disassembly of the harmonica.

Oskar was not content just to rest at this point, however; he was also keen to offer alternative tunings that, up until that point in time had been available only via custom reed plate fettling. As his harmonica had been designed from the ground up, he was able to make it modular, thereby enabling all parts, including reed plates, to be interchangeable. This, again, saved on costs, and resulted in a simplified lineup, where different harmonicas were defined by their tunings rather than by small variations in aesthetics and materials.

Response by Hohner

Hohner Big River Harp Pro Pack
Hohner Big River Harp Pro Pack

By the 1990s Hohner had been floundering around for a couple of decades, making ill advised forays into electronic instrument manufacturing, and seldom making a profit. In an attempt to counter competition from Lee Oskar Harmonicas, whose designs were perceived as more modern and flexible than the German company’s, they introduced the MS range – short for ‘Modular Series’. Harmonicas within the MS range featured fully interchangeable parts, with the idea being that the customer could ultimately make up a harmonica that was a hybrid of other models. For some time, harmonic and natural minor tunings were also offered, although today these are restricted to aftermarket reed plates rather than off the shelf harmonicas.

Unfortunately, Hohner chose the MS range as the place where they would introduce full automation of tuning – a move that resulted in a disastrous drop in quality, and which nearly permanently sank the Modular Series before it had found its feet. Thankfully, they soon reverted to tuning harps the old fashioned way, and quality and reputation were gradually regained.

The MS range never really became a threat to Lee Oskar, though, partly because it was (and is) too unfocused and has too much duplication. Witness the Big River, Juke Harp and Pro Harp, where the only differentiation is aesthetic, for example. There are also no off the shelf altered tuning harmonicas available within the range now – instead that honour falls, weirdly, to the venerable Marine Band 1896.

Perhaps the most important effect that Lee Oskar’s harmonicas had on Hohner, however, was not in forcing them to create a whole new range of harps; it was instead to force them to improve their quality and lineup. The Modular Series may not have been a dramatic success, but by the 21st century, Hohner’s range of harmonicas and the quality of them had improved dramatically when compared to their offerings in the 1980s. And we all have the Danish born musician, Lee Oskar, to thank for that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CategoriesHarmonica

How Altered Tunings Can Take Your Playing To The Next Level

How Altered Tunings Can Take Your Playing To The Next Level

Have you ever found yourself meandering away on a harmonica, repeating the same old riff? Or maybe you’re finding it impossible to play a particular tune on your ten hole harp, irrespective of how much you practise? The solution to both of these problems may be to move away from your old harmonica, and onto something fresh and… altered!(?)

What Are Altered Tunings?

Before we look in detail at the range of altered tunings on the market, and how these can be used to enhance your playing, it’s worth considering what exactly is deemed to be standard tuning. In the case of a 10 hole diatonic harmonica, the most commonly used tuning – and the one that is to such an extent a default that it often won’t be specifically mentioned on the harp or its packaging – is Richter.

Many musicians who pick up the diatonic harmonica after having previously learnt to play a chromatic instrument, such as the piano or guitar, are puzzled by the weird note layout of Richter tuning. It all starts off intuitively –  C, D, E, then suddenly there’s a jump to G. ‘Where the hell has the F gone?’ is what many players think. Then, only a hole later, they’re confronted with a missing A. The middle of the harmonica follows a more logical pattern, lulling the player into a false sense of security before abruptly reversing the note order, then completely passing over the B at the top end. It all seems, to many beginners, to be unnecessarily complicated and not at all user friendly.

What we have to remember, however, is that Richter tuning was created with a very different genre of music in mind than the blues, folk and country music that harmonicas are most commonly used for today. In the early days of harmonica production, diatonics were used primarily for playing varieties of German Oom-pah music, thus the need for major chords to be available in the first four holes (necessitating, for example, the deletion of F and A in the lower octave on a C harp).

In the twentieth century, the limitations of Richter tuning were partially overcome by techniques developed predominantly by blues players, such as bending and playing the harmonica in positions other than first. In some ways, this stifled innovation; rather than changing the tuning to better reflect the needs of the music they were playing, musicians developed techniques to overcome the inherent limitations of a tuning that wasn’t really fit for purpose.

Much like the persistence of the QWERTY keyboard layout, Richter is still the dominant tuning merely because it is the default, and not because it is the best way of arranging notes on a harmonica (or keys on a keyboard in the case of QWERTY). However, there is now a wide range of harmonicas on the market that use altered tunings in order to enable greater expression and/or ease of use. Let’s take a look at some of these and see how they can improve both your playing and creativity.

Powerbender and Powerdraw

Alternate Tunings for Harmonicas
Alternate Tunings for Harmonicas

These two tunings were both created by Brendan Power to overcome some of the limitations of Richter tuning when bending notes. The Powerbender maintains the same layout as Richter on the lowest four holes, but modifies it from holes five to ten so that the draw note is the higher on on each hole. This enables easier draw bending in the upper register, and overblows on all holes.

The Powerdraw tuning is a combination of Richter and Powerbender; the bottom six holes are tuned the same as Richter, but the top  four holes are tuned the same as Powerbender. This makes it a little more intuitive for players who have only every used Richter harps, but still allows for draw bends at the high end.

Buy these tunings if:  You want to play soulful bluesy riffs and you want full chromaticism without having to resort to overdraws or blow bends.

Harmonicas available in these tunings: Brendan Power Powerbender, Brendan Power Powerdraw, Seydel Session Steel Powerbender, Seydel Session Steel Powerdraw.

Wilde Tunings

Seydel 1847 Classic - Minor Wilde Tuning
Seydel 1847 Classic – Minor Wilde Tuning

Will Wilde is a virtuoso diatonic player who specialises in rock guitar style riffs and solos on the harmonica. To enable him to achieve this he has worked with Seydel to create two signature tunings – Wild Rock and Minor Wilde – which are available on selected Seydel diatonics.

Wilde Rock is much like Powerbender in that it maintains the Richter note layout at the bottom end, but makes substantial changes in the upper register in order to allow for draw bends across the whole range of the harmonica. As this note layout was designed from scratch for playing blues and minor pentatonic licks, it enables much easier access to rock style riffs and solos, but is much less optimised for traditional folk and country tunes.

Minor Wilde is based on Wilde Rock tuning, but is designed for minor keys.

Buy these tunings if: You want to play fast, rocky riffs without Richter’s limitations at the high end.

Harmonicas available in these tunings: Seydel Session Steel Wilde Rock, Seydel 1847 Classic Wilde Rock, Seydel 1847 Classic Minor Wilde.

Paddy Richter

Brendan Power Paddy Richter
Brendan Power Paddy Richter

Another Brendan Power tuning, this time with the primary aim of making traditional Irish tunes easier to play quickly. It does this by changing just one note compared to standard Richter – hole three blow is raised by a tone, so that it no longer duplicates hole two draw. This makes it a much easier harp on which to play fast Irish jigs, which often make frequent use of the sixth note in the root key.

Buy this tuning if: You like to play traditional Irish tunes and find Richter tuning holds back your speed.

Harmonicas available in these tunings: Brendan Power Paddy Richter, Seydel Session Steel Paddy Richter, Seydel Noble Paddy Richter

Natural and Harmonic Minors

Lee Oskar Natural Minor Diatonic Harmonica
Lee Oskar Natural Minor Diatonic Harmonica

Whilst natural minor tunes can be played to some extent on standard Richter tuned harps in third, fourth of fifth positions, a natural minor tuned harp (usually designed to be played in second position, and labelled as such) will enable access to minor chords and will make the playing of minor key tunes much more intuitive.

Harmonic minor harps have a slightly different sound and are more suitable for Eastern music, with the raised seventh providing an exotic feel to the harmonica.

Buy these tunings if: You want to play minor key blues, reggae or folk tunes (natural minor) or you want to experiment with Eastern/Gypsy music (harmonic minor).

Harmonicas available in these tunings: Hohner Marine Band 1896, Lee Oskar Natural Minor, Lee Oskar Harmonic Minor, Seydel Session Steel Natural Minor, Seydel Session Steel Harmonic Minor, Suzuki Manji.

There is a whole host of other altered tunings out there besides these, so it’s worth doing a quick search to see if there is anything else that fits your needs, but the tunings above are the ones that I would recommend starting out with. Some of these, such as Powerbender, will help you to play existing licks more easily, whilst others, such as harmonic minor, will take you into whole new musical realms, and help to stop your playing becoming stale and repetitive.

As ever, any questions please drop us a line in the comments sections.

 

JP

 

 

 

CategoriesHarmonica

Music and the Art of Focused Practice

Music and the Art of Focused Practice

I’ve written in the past about the role of practice versus natural ability in the learning of an instrument, and the 10,000 hour rule for mastery of a skill, popularised by the writer and intellectual Malcolm Gladwell. It is only recently, however, that I’ve begun to think in detail about exactly how this focused practice needs to be structured for the best results. It’s probably prescient at this point to say that I’m not a dogmatic adherent to the theory that all skills can be mastered by all people given enough time and the correct pedagogical techniques, but I do believe that the influence of innate abilities is often overestimated in today’s society.

In Outliers, Gladwell argues that relatively small differences in natural aptitudes at specific skills in the early stages of childhood can form a virtuous circle that results in these individuals being more enthusiastic about practising these skill than peers whose initial ability level may be only marginally lower. Those who show an innate talent for maths, for example, would be more likely to enjoy solving mathematical problems, and, as a consequence, get better at maths through consistent and regular practice, than those who initially find it harder, and thus shy away from the subject. This theory is at least partly corroborated by evidence showing that children with birthdays early in the academic year tend to perform better in national attainment tests taken later in life than those born further into the academic year. The difference is not a consequence of the age variance at the time of the tests, which is minimal in percentage terms, but is more likely to be explained by the age difference when schooling is started, when cognitive growth is most rapid, and younger children in the year group are at more of a disadvantage. This disadvantage is further amplified by the effects described above.

Gladwell goes on to describe the importance of focused practice; that is to say, the type of practice that is most likely to yield progress. Even a child prodigy such as Mozart, he indicates, would have concentrated on focused practice for large periods of his early life, helped by a father who was remarkably forward thinking in pedagogical terms. But what exactly is focused practice, and how can we use it to improve our playing?

What is Focused Practice?

For a little while now, I’ve been attempting to master the piano on the well known Nina Simone hit, My Baby Just Cares For Me. Most of you, I think, will be at least partially familiar with the tune, and will recognise its descending bassline and jazzy, bluesy piano, but for those who don’t know it I’ve included a version below. It starts with a fairly simple combination of stabby inverted chords in the right hand with a walking bass style bottom end played in the left hand. However, by about two thirds of the way through the song some tricky stuff creeps in, involving significant right and left hand separation both rhythmically and tonally.

My approach to learning and mastering this song had, until recently, been to play it all the way through, stumble over a few bits, then try again. Occasionally I would repeat a phrase that I found difficult, but most of the time I’d play start to finish and then circle back again. Unfortunately my progression with this piece of music had seemed to reach a plateau; sometimes I’d feel that I’d improved a bit, but after any sort of sustained break from playing it I would be roughly back to square one. The reason for this lack of progression may seem obvious in hindsight, but at the time I felt that I was doing exactly what I should do – focused practice on a single piece of music. This had worked for me on simpler pieces of music in the past, but for something complex like this song I needed a different approach.

Four Stages of Competence

There’s a well known theory in the psychology of learning that breaks down skills acquisition into four stages: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence. Stage one – unconscious incompetence – is not always pertinent to playing an instrument, unless you’re tone deaf or deluded about your own abilities; it’s pretty hard to be incompetent at playing a particular piece whilst also being unconscious of this fact. Most players, instead, find themselves somewhere beween stage two and stage three, with, perhaps, a smattering of stage four at some points in a given musical work.

The point to take home here is that if you practise pieces of music by playing them all the way through, all of the time, it’s likely that, unless you are in at least stage three throughout the piece, you’re not making the best use of your time. So what do you do instead?

Isolate Parts

With complex tasks it’s often best to break them down into constituent parts and focus on perfecting each of these before putting them together as a whole. It’s no good trying to correct multiple technical areas at once, as your brain will not be able to find the necessary focus, and you’ll be left with a mess. I finally perfected the solo part of My Baby Just Cares For Me, by isolating the difficult parts in each hand, then perfecting them by practising, in a critical, but not overly critical, way again and again, until each hand could play its part cleanly and consistently. After that it was just a case of putting the two hands together, which was made easier by the fact that I didn’t need to worry about exactly what each hand was playing – by this point I had mastered this and, therefore had to focus only on synchronising them.

I may be making this sound easy. Unfortunately it isn’t and wasn’t. Practising in this way can be tiresome, which is why many musicians will either move on to something else, or try to play the whole song, albeit imperfectly. One of the keys, (no pun intended!), to progression, of course, is persistence, and I strongly believe that this is a more important quality in top musicians than supposed natural talent, but this type of practice can be made more bearable and productive by ensuring that it is done in small segments. Three sessions of 20 minutes practice will yield much better results than an hour labouring away. Short sessions also allow for development time – think of it as the unconscious digesting the practice. It’s also worth understanding that the development of your playing will not be a nice linear process from beginner to expert. Instead it will be marked by a series of improvements punctuated by plateaus where no significant development appears to be happening. Ensuring that you stay committed and consistent throughout these plateaus is the key to achieving the jumps in ability level that appear to come out of nowhere, but which are actually a consequence of persistent hard work eventually paying off. It is also vital that you focus on rewarding yourself mentally for any small gains, whilst visualising mistakes not as inherent errors that are impossible to remove, but areas for improvement that will be addressed by continued work.

In the classic Simpsons episode, The Otto Show, Homer asks Bart where his guitar is. Bart apprehensively tells his father that he found it too hard, to which Homer replies, ‘It’s OK, son. If a job’s hard to do it’s not worth doing!’ The reality of learning an instrument, sadly, is the opposite of this sentiment – focus on the hard parts of playing and your weaknesses and progression will come naturally.

 

 

 

 

CategoriesHarmonica

What is the Best Harmonica for Children?

What is the Best Harmonica for Children?

The harmonica is an ideal instrument for children to learn the basics of music, whilst still having fun. The learning curve for playing simple melodies is relatively shallow, and, as diatonic harmonicas are tuned to a single key, errors will not generally sound cacophonous! Compare this to some other instruments, such as the recorder or violin, which, when played poorly, can be akin to a form of torture, and it’s clear to see the advantage of letting a child start their musical education with the naturally tuneful blues harp.

There are many harmonicas that are designed specifically for the junior market – some merely from a price or aesthetic point – so it can be difficult to sort the metaphorical wheat from the chaff. Let’s examine some of the main options to help you avoid any pitfalls.

Buy Cheap, Buy Twice?

There’s an old adage when buying musical instruments that suggests that cheaper purchases are a false economy. However, there is also the counter force at play that parents often don’t want to invest serious money in what might be just a whim of their child’s. The good news with harmonicas is that even a professional level diatonic will only set you back £30 to £100; compared with, say a saxophone or piano, this is a remarkably small outlay for a serious instrument.

Of course, there are plenty of models of harmonica below this price that are specifically designed for children. Let’s look at some of these and see if they offer any advantages over standard diatonics.

Hohner Speedy

Hohner Speedy Yellow Harmonica
Hohner Speedy Yellow Harmonica

The first thing you’ll notice about Hohner’s Speedy harmonica, other than its bright primary colours, is the fact that it has only four holes, providing just a single octave. Whilst this limits the tonal range, it does make playing simple melodies much easier for small children. It also features larger holes, meaning that mouth position doesn’t need to be as precise as with a standard ten hole harp when trying to achieve single notes. As such, this is our number one choice of harmonica for small children just starting out on the harmonica.

Suzuki Airwave

Suzuki Airwave Diatonic Harmonica
Suzuki Airwave Diatonic Harmonica

The Suzuki Airwave is not dissimilar to a much larger version of the Speedy, albeit one with the standard ten holes rather than four. It is considerably bigger than a standard diatonic harmonica, but with larger holes and spaces between holes, to facilitate the playing of single notes by beginners. Its dimensions make it unsuitable for very young children with small hands, but for those around 8 years and up it is a great sounding and playing harmonica that replicates the tone and feel of a standard diatonic but with a lower price point and easier initial playing experience. This makes it our recommended harmonica for slightly older children, who have either progressed from the Speedy or who are just starting out with the harmonica.

Hohner Big River MS

Hohner Big River Harp Pro Pack
Hohner Big River Harp Pro Pack

Whilst there are a number of ten hole, standard sized children’s diatonics on the market, many of them are harder to play than a harmonica designed for adults. For tweens and teenagers who wish to play a standard blues harp, we’d recommend skipping both the plastic bodied ten hole harmonicas, and the cheaper, Chinese made harmonicas from brands like Hohner and Suzuki, and go straight to a German or Japanese made instrument. One of the most inexpensive of these is the Hohner Big River, which features a durable ABS comb, replaceable reed plates (making it m0re cost effective than inexpensive harps in the long run) and decent airtightness – something lacking in many Chinese made harps. This latter feature will make more complex techniques, such as bending, far easier than on a cheaper harmonica, which, in turn, will help to ensure that your child or teenager continues to practise!

What Key of Harmonica Should I Buy for a Child?

Most children’s harmonicas are only available in C, but if you are purchasing an adult harmonica, such as the Big River, you will be given a choice of keys. You should always choose C as the starter key for a number of reasons; most online lessons are in the key of C; more songs are written in C than any other key; and C is in the middle of the tonal range of standard tunings, meaning that the player will learn to bend on moderately thick reeds, especially at the bottom end, rather than very thick reeds (too hard) of the lower keys, or the thin reeds of the higher keys (too easy). This will stand them in good stead when they move on to other keys.

Do I Need More Than One Key?

It’s not necessary to purchase more than one key of diatonic harmonica unless your child wishes to play along to songs that aren’t in the key of the harp that they have, or to play with other musicians.