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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!). Diatonics have been used in almost every genre of music, from blues to rock and from reggae to jazz, and are astonishingly versatile for such a small and relatively inexpensive instrument.
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The Blues Harp
Diatonic harmonicas are often generically referred to as blues harps, due to their strong connection with blues music from the very early days of the genre. The diatonic harmonica itself is a single voice instrument and usually has 10 channels, each with one blow and one draw note - ie one note when the player blows through one hole and a different single note when they suck air through the same hole.
History of the Diatonic Harmonica
Although these is some evidence of a harmonica-like instrument having been produced in ancient China, the modern diatonic can trace its origins back to Germany and Bohemia in the 19th Century, where several companies, including Hohner and Seydel, began to mass produce instruments that resemble the harmonicas we play today. It’s worth remembering that these early harmonicas were originally designed to play German ‘Oompah’ music, with simple chords available at the low and and major key melody notes towards the middle to top of the harmonica. Strangely, this note layout, typically known as Richter, after its (slightly debated) creator Josef Richter, persists to this day, despite its limitations and many attempts to replace it with alternatives.
Although there have been many developments in materials, manufacturing technology and design over the years, most modern diatonics would not look unfamiliar to a 19th century harmonica player. In fact, apart from improved accuracy and tighter tolerances in the manufacturing of the reed plates, a Hohner 1896 Marine Band is virtually identical to an early 20th Century model of the same name.
The main development that influenced harmonica production was its use in folk and blues music, particularly in the USA, from the 1920s onwards. The blues harp was a readily available and inexpensive instrument that could accompany a guitar or banjo, and player soon discovered that they could take it far from its original Oompah music origins by bending draw notes down.
Today there are a number of harmonica manufacturers dotted around the world, with Germany and Japan being pre-eminent at the mid to high end and China being the main source of entry level and low end instruments.
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. Multi packs of diatonics are also available, which offer significant savings over purchasing the same harps individually.
Best Harmonica for Beginners
It is tempting when starting to play a new instrument to purchase something at the budget end of the market. However, as harmonicas are relatively inexpensive, I would generally recommend starting with a German or Japanese made harp, which start at around £30. These will be easier to play than cheaper harps, will last longer and won’t hold you back when your playing improves. In fact, many professional players use harmonicas from the £30 to £40 price point, so, with occasional reed placate replacements this level of harp could last for many years in your harmonica playing journey.
Models that I would recommend for beginners include the Hohner Special 20, https://theharmonicacompany.com/product/suzuki-bluesmaster-harmonica, https://theharmonicacompany.com/product/seydel-session-standard-harmonica and https://theharmonicacompany.com/product/seydel-session-steel-blues-harmonica and the Lee Oskar Major Diatonic. These harps are all keenly priced, have replacement reed plates available, and feature plastic combs, which are resistant to swelling - a common problem with traditional wood-combed harmonicas.
Diatonic Harmonica in C
We recommend that your first diatonic harmonica is in the key of C Major. The reasons for this are multiple: first, C Major is the most popular key used in Western music, which means that you’ll be able to play along with a wider range of songs than any other key; second, and as a consequence of the key’s popularity, almost all beginner lessons on Youtube and other online video channels, start with a harmonica tuned to C; third, C sits right in the middle of standard tunings, meaning that it doesn’t have the harder to play low notes of a lower tuned harmonica or the rather squeaky high notes of a harmonica that is tuned to a higher key.
What Other Keys of Diatonic Harmonica to Buy?
Once you have mastered the basics of harmonica playing, you may want to expand your repertoire to songs outside of the key of C. G and A are popular choices, due to the ubiquity of popular songs written in these keys, but Bb is also a useful key to possess, particularly if you intend to play blues licks with a piano and/or horns.
Which Keys of Diatonic Harmonica are the Highest and Lowest?
Diatonics are labelled as standard keys (ie no high or low designation) from G (the lowest) to F# (the highest). A G harp that is a semitone higher than F#’ is referred to as a High G (and some manufacturers make a High A and a High Ab). Those with a range that start a semitone or more below G are referred to as ‘Low’ harmonicas (or sometimes ‘Tenor’ in chromatics). So a Low F, will be an octave lower than a standard F, but only a tone lower than a standard G. Low Low harps are two octaves lower than the standard key, but are usually confined to E, Eb and F, as below that the notes get extremely low and hard to play at the bottom end. Conversely, some manufacturers don’t offer a standard F#, due to its squeaky nature at the top end, and instead suggest that customers use a Low F# when playing in this key.
Low tuned harmonicas are harder to bend at the low end, but they do have a distinctive tone, and the top end tends to be much more useable than the very high notes on, say, a standard D or E harmonica.
10 Hole Diatonic
Most diatonics have 10 holes, thereby providing 20 notes - 10 on the blow reeds and 10 on the draw reeds. However, there are a small number of diatonics available with a greater range - typically 12 to 14 holes. These tend to feature the Richter note layout, but offer additional lower notes - much like having a low and a standard tuned harmonica combined into a single harp.
What is Meant by Second Position?
Harmonica players often talk about playing in second position, or less commonly, third or fourth position. This can be the source of much confusion, as it suggests a playing technique rather than what it actually is, which is playing a diatonic in a different key to the one in which it is labelled.
This may sound strange, so let’s explain what is meant by these ‘positions’. Consider the scale of C Major - all the white notes on a piano - C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Now consider the scale of G Major - G, A, B, C, D, E, F#. You’ll notice that the only difference in the notes is the F#, so a C harp can actually play all of the notes of the G major scale except for the F#. However, the F, which is available when playing G on a C harp is actually a key note (a 7th) in the blues scale. Combine this with the fact that playing in G on a C harp puts the notes that need to be bent for the blues scale on the draw (where they can be bent) and it’s clear why this arrangement (known as second position) is widely used by blues players.
There are many other positions (consider for example, that C major and A minor share the same notes), but second and first position are the most popular.
Natural Minor, Melody Maker and Alternative Tunings
The standard Richter tuning in the major key has many limitations, not least of which is the fact that it was designed to play a quite different genre of music than that which it is typically used for today. Manufacturers, and in some cases, individuals, have, as a consequence, created alternative tunings in order to circumvent this issue.
The most popular alternative tunings are natural harmonic minors. As the names suggest, these enable the natural minor and harmonic minor keys to be easily played on a diatonic, giving players access to minor key blues licks (typically using natural minor tunings) and Eastern style tunes, via the harmonic minor.
Other tunings, such as Powerbender, Powerdraw and Wilde Rock, aim to make the diatonic more suitable for playing the blues by ensuring that the notes that need to be bent are positioned on the draw reeds. Paddy Richter, in comparison, applies some subtle tweeks to Richter tuning to make it more suitable for playing rapid Irish style folk melodies. Melody Maker, which is available from Seydel and Lee Oskar, is designed to make major key melody playing more intuitive.
Seydel offers the widest range of alternative tunings, whilst Hohner and Suzuki limit their offering to natural and harmonic minors in one or two models.
What is the Difference Between a Diatonic and a Chromatic Harmonica?
As we have noted above, a diatonic harmonica is tuned to a specific key, and can only play notes outside of that key by the use of bends (more on this later). A chromatic harmonica, in comparison, has two sets of reeds, tuned a semitone apart, and usually has a slide, operated by the player, that directs air to the top or bottom set of reeds. This enables it to play all Western notes within a given range. An easy way to imagine this is to think of a piano keyboard - a diatonic in C will feature only white notes, whilst the chromatic will feature the white notes and black notes.
Chromatics are still labelled as being in a particular key, but this is related to the specific note layout and range rather than which key it is able to be played in. So, for example, a G chromatic will start and finish lower in the pitch range than a C chromatic, but many of the notes will be the same on both.
In general, diatonics are more suited to blues and rock, where the ability to bend notes is important, whilst chromatics’ greater range of available notes make them more suited to jazz and classical music.
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.
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