The Chromatic Harmonica – what is it and why should I be interested?
When I began to master the basic elements of the diatonic harp, several years ago, I started to wonder how difficult it would be to play the chromatic harmonica. After all, I was a classically trained pianist, and the layout of the chromatic harmonica didn’t seem to dissimilar to a piano keyboard. At least, that’s what I thought…
Trying to Play
Sitting in the corner of the office was an old Hohner Chromonica II Deluxe – a remnant from many years ago. I picked it up, expecting instantly to sound like Stevie Wonder (maybe a bit ambitious, but there’s nothing quite like false hope). The resultant cacophony, however, seemed to be most appealing to the local dog population. Less so, sadly, to my colleagues.
If we take a look at the construction of the chromatic harmonica, we can see, perhaps, how my expectations differed from the reality. In most cases it has two sets of reed plates – one mounted above the other – and a button that activates a slide, by which the air is directed to the top or bottom reeds (the exception is cross tuned harps, more of which later). The top reeds are usually tuned to an altered diatonic major scale, whilst the bottom reeds are usually tuned to the same scale, but a semitone higher. Thus, all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are available by using the slider to switch between which reeds are activated.
Visualising the Notes
My primary issue was that I was visualising the tuning as being akin to a piano keyboard – white notes on the top reeds, black notes on the bottom set. In reality, however, the bottom reeds actually contain a complete set of notes from the scale that is one semitone higher than the top reeds (so, on a C tuned chromatic, all of the notes from the scale of C#). This results in some duplication as the two scales will have some shared notes (C, D and F, in this case). In my naivety I expected to depress the button a few times and perform the sort of trills that Stevie Wonder achieved so effortlessly. Instead, as I was visualising the notes incorrectly, I was getting the sort of atonal chromaticism beloved of Arnold Schoenberg.
The other main difference I experienced, compared to a diatonic, was related to bending notes. Chromatics, generally speaking, can only bend notes down, and only by a semitone. There are some exceptions to this rule, but only in the case of non-standard chromatics, such as the Tombo S50, which achieves its chromaticism without a slide. Thus, chromatic harps are not the sort of instrument on which you’d achieve the traditional blues harp sound, and my ham-fisted attempts to do so did not help my cause!
Where they do excel, however, is in jazz and classical music, where their ability to play any note from the standard Western scales instantly, with no recourse to bending, and to pick out trills and grace notes with ease, is more important than achieving the wailing sound of the diatonic harp.
Let’s have a closer look at a typical chromatic harmonica to see how it achieves this.
How it Works
Although slider operated harps had been around in one form or another from the late 19th Century, it wasn’t until Hohner produced their first chromatic at the start of the 20th Century that something akin to what we play today was widely available. Indeed, the 10 hole Chromonica 260 from 1910 is very similar in appearance and specifications to the modern Chromonica 48.
We have already seen that most chromatics use a slider to switch between the two sets of reeds, but how these sliders operate can vary. The traditional straight tuning has the two reed plates tuned as explained above. Cross harp, in comparison, has a slider with a zigzag of holes, meaning that the notes are split between upper and lower reed plates when the slider is open or closed. There are some supposed advantages of the latter setup, including greater volume, due to the larger openings, but I struggle to hear or feel any appreciable difference myself.
What on Earth is a Windsaver?
You may have heard the term ‘windsaver’ bandied about when people talk about chromatics. This slightly mystifying word refers to the small valves that are used on most chromatic harps to make them more efficient. Due to their construction, chromatics tend to experience more leaks than diatonics; windsavers limit this leakage, and also help to shape the tone of the instrument.
They, also, make bending notes more difficult, which has led to some players experimenting with their removal, and the creation of slideless harps that do away with their valves altogether.
Chromatic Harmonica Tuning and Keys
You might be wondering why chromatics are sometimes available in a range of keys. After all, you might think, if you can play any note in the chromatic scale, you shouldn’t need different keys of harmonicas for different keys of songs, as you do for a diatonic. The answer relates to range – a chromatic harmonica tuned to A, for example, will have a lower range (at the expense of the higher notes) than one tuned to C.
It’s useful to note that C is the highest tuned chromatic harp. The order of keys, from lowest to highest is as follows:
C Tenor (low) D (low), E (low), F(low), G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C,
Unlike diatonics, the keys of low D, E and F are not referred to as ‘low’, as there is no equivalent standard D, E or F above C.
Chromatics with 16 holes are generally only available in C, due to the fact that there is little need to offer alternative keys with the range available from this size of harmonica.
In terms of tuning, most chromatics are solo tuned. Of the alternative tunings available, the most common is Orchestra, as shown below in this diagram from Seydel:
The primary advantage of this tuning is the additional range offered in the lower octave.
OK, What Harmonica Should I Buy, Then?
Because chromatics are more complicated than diatonics, they have a commensurately higher price. Hohner’s Chrometta range, which is targeted at beginners, sits at the £50 – £100 range (the larger models being more expensive), and is the entry point for chromatics.
The next step up is the Chromonica 48, which is noticeably weightier and deeper in tone than its less expensive brethren. At the same price point is the Seydel Deluxe Chromatic, which is similar in design and construction to the Hohner, but features an acrylic, rather than wood, comb.
The Hohner CX12, at around the £140 mark is unique in its design: it’s an extremely modern looking harp, with an ABS cover and easily removable reed plates. Sound wise it’s a bit brighter than a Chromonica, and its construction makes cleaning and maintenance exceptionally trouble-free.
At the next price point we have a range of chromatics: the Chromonica 270/48 Deluxe has thicker reed plates than the standard model and a fuller sound; Suzuki’s SCX-48 offers their signature phosphor bronze reeds; and the Seydel Deluxe Steel add unique stainless steel reeds to their Deluxe range. All are great harps and will give years of service if properly cared for.
Above the £200 mark we find chromatics with alternative comb materials, such as the Seydel Saxony, with its aluminium comb, and those with more than 12 holes, such as the 14 hole Suzuki SCX-54 and the 16 hole Hohner Super 64. As the price increases, we start to see more exotic materials, and in some cases, such as with the Hohner ACE 48, unique features such as the VarioSpring and Accoustic Coupling Elements. The Seydel Symphony even comes with a heated case that enables the harp to gently heated to the perfect temperature for playing prior to any performance.
So, there you have it – the chromatic harmonica. It’s tricky to play at first, but, as with any instrument, persistence will reap rewards!
As ever, any questions, feel free to email us.