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The most common type of harmonica is the diatonic harmonica or Richter harmonica, named after Joseph Richter from Bohemia, a folk musician who developed this tuning system around 1825 (although this is disputed!).
The Blues Harp
These instruments are often generically referred to as Blues Harps. The diatonic harmonica is a single voice instrument and usually has 10 channels, each with one blow and one draw note.
What Does Diatonic Mean?
Diatonic means 'of the scale' and refers to the arrangement of notes in a heptatonic (7 notes per octave) scale in which there are five whole tones and two semitones per octave and in which the two semitones are separated from each other by two or three semitones.
In simple terms, this usually means that a diatonic harmonica is tuned to one specific key. So a C major diatonic harmonica will offer the notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B (just the white notes on a piano) at various pitches.
Because these harmonicas are tuned to a single key (ignoring the possibility of playing in second/third/etc positions), most players will require more than one in order to be able to play a variety of songs with other musicians. Luckily diatonic harmonicas are relatively inexpensive, compared to their chromatic counterparts (and, indeed, other instruments, such as guitars), so the purchasing of multiple keys does not need to be financially onerous.
Can I Play Chromatically on a Diatonic Harmonica?
Although diatonic harmonicas are set up to play only the notes in their listed key as standard, harp players, particularly those from the blues world, have long been adapting their technique to squeeze some chromaticism out of their instrument. This is achieved by bending notes down on the draw, thus flattening certain notes. The best players can access almost any Western note within the confines of the range of the harmonica using variations of this technique.Many models are available in packs of three or more, offering a significant saving over buying single harmonicas.