Richter-tuned harmonica

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For the 1998 film directed by Takashi Miike, see Blues Harp (film).
Blues Harp

The Richter-tuned harmonica, or 10-hole harmonica (in Asia) or blues harp (in America), is the most widely known type of harmonica. It is a variety of diatonic harmonica, with ten holes which offer the player 19 notes (10 holes times a draw and a blow for each hole minus one repeated note) in a three octave range.

The standard diatonic harmonica is designed to allow a player to play chords and melody in a single key. Because they are only designed to be played in a single key at a time, diatonic harmonicas are available in all keys. Harps labeled G through B start (on hole 1 blow) below Middle C, while Harps labeled D through F start above middle C. Here is the layout for a standard diatonic harmonica, labeled C, starting on Middle C.

BluesHarp Notes Layout.png

Although there are 3 octaves between 1 and 10 "blow", there is only one full major scale available on the harmonica, between holes 4 and 7. The lower holes are designed around the tonic (C major) and dominant (G major) chords, allowing a player to play these chords underneath a melody by blocking or unblocking the lower holes with the tongue. The most important notes (the tonic triad C–E–G) are given the blow, and the secondary notes (B-D-F–A), the draw.

Valved diatonics[edit]

The valved diatonic is one of the most common ways of playing chromatic scales on diatonic harmonicas. While chromatic is available, valved diatonic is also common, and there are reasons to use a valved diatonic rather than chromatics. It does not have a slide assembly (so that it has less air leakage), and it has a wider tonal range and dynamic. As well, it has a smaller size and is much more suitable to use with microphone, and it is still cheaper than chromatic, even for a premade one like Hohner's Auto Valve or Suzuki Promaster MR-350v.

Valved diatonics are made by fitting windsavers on draw holes 1–6 and blow holes 7–10; this way, all reeds can be bent down a semitone at least, although most players can easily bend down a whole tone. Alternatively, one can simply buy a factory-made valved diatonic such as the Suzuki Promaster Valved.

The disadvantage of the valved diatonic is that it does not require one to develop proper embouchure in order to bend the notes accurately. Also, many of the notes reached by bending are nearer just intonation, and the slightly lower equal tempered pitches preferred by western classical music are unattainable. This limits the number of chromatic notes available when playing classical repertoire when compared with that of jazz or blues. Another thing worth noting is that, due to the valved bends being one-reed bends, the sound is less full than traditional bends, and may seem dull, making it less dynamic. One way to address this is by having an additional reed that activates when one bends a note; this is the philosophy of Hohner's XB-40 and Suzuki's SUB30 Ultrabend.

Playing in different keys[edit]

Aside from bending, Richter-tuned harmonicas are modal.

Playing the harmonica in the key to which it is tuned is known as "straight harp" or "first position" playing. For example, playing music in the key of C on a C-tuned harmonica.

More common (especially in blues and rock) is "crossharp" or "second position" playing which involves playing in the key which is a perfect fourth below the key of the harmonica (for example, on a C tuned harmonica, a second position blues would be in G—resulting in the instrument playing in mixolydian mode). This is because the notes of the G pentatonic scale (a commonly used scale in blues and rock) are more easily accessible on a C-tuned harmonica. The lower notes of harps in the lower keys (G through C) are easier to bend, but take more wind. Since much of crossharp is played on the inhalation, every opportunity for exhalation must be capitalized upon—by blowing out lots of air on every exhaled note and during every pause. Crossharp lends itself to seventh and ninth chords (particularly G7 and G9) as well as blue notes (particularly on D chords, where the harmonica is tuned to play D minor while the other instruments play D major).

Another method is to play in the key one whole tone above that of the harmonica. On a C-tuned harmonica, this would mean playing in the key of D. This is known as "slant harp" or "third position" playing, and results in the harmonica playing in dorian mode. This is much less intuitive as it requires the ability to bend notes completely accurately, and there are fewer useful chords available than in 1st or 2nd position playing. The technique offers many notes that are not achievable in the other positions without overblows, such the blue note on the third degree, which may or may not be favorable depending on the circumstance. The bends available at the lower end of the instrument also make playing melodies in a D major scale relatively easy for those who have any semblance of proficiency at the bending technique, though most of the notes (all but the second and fourth, E and G) in the scale are on the draw, requiring great skill and strategy in exhaling, even more so than in crossharp.

Continuing along the circle of fifths, fourth position, fifth position, sixth position and zeroth positions can be played, with the scales played in those positions indicated as follows:

Position Tonic Heptatonic mode Pentatonic scales Name
0 F Lydian Major
1 C Ionian (major) Major, ritusen Straight harp
2 G Mixolydian Major, ritusen, suspended Crossharp
3 D Dorian Minor, ritusen, suspended Slant harp
4 A Aeolian (natural minor) Minor, man gong, suspended
5 E Phrygian Minor, man gong
6 B Locrian Man gong, blues

Note that using blue notes, any of the seven positions can be used over music in its corresponding major scale if only the notes in the corresponding pentatonic scale are played.

Specially-tuned instruments[edit]

Some players prefer specially-tuned variants of the diatonic harmonica. For example, Lee Oskar Harmonicas makes a variety of harmonicas to help players used to a "cross-harp" style to play in other styles. Cross-harp players usually base their play around a mixolydian scale starting on 2 draw and ending a 6 blow (with a bend needed to get the second tone of the scale; a full scale can be played from 6 blow to 9 blow). Lee Oskar specially tunes harmonicas to allow players to play a natural minor, harmonic minor, and major scale from 2 draw to 6 blow. Below are some sample layouts (the key labels describe the scale from 2 draw to 6 blow, whereas traditional harmonicas are labelled according to the scale between 4 and 8 blow).

Country tune: Identical to standard Richter Tuning, except hole 5 draw is raised a semitone

Natural Minor (cross harp, 6 blow to 9 blow) / Dorian (straight harp, 4 blow to 7 blow):

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10
blow C E G C E G C E G C
draw D G B D F A B D F A

Harmonic Minor (straight harp, 4 blow to 7 blow)

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10
blow C E G C E G C E G C
draw D G B D F A B D F A♭

Major (cross harp, 6 blow to 9 blow), Lee Oskar Melody Maker (this will be labeled as "G": Melody Major's key indicate cross harp's key, starting from draw 2)

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10
blow C E A C E G C E G C
draw D G B D F A B D F A

With the major second on the 3 blow (where, in standard Richter tuning, the cross harp tonic would be repeated) and a major 7th (rather than a minor 7th) on the 5 draw, the Melody Maker has a full major scale. This can be very useful for playing major key melodies, for example, fiddle tunes, quickly, without having to do a lot of precise bending or overblowing. This tuning, designed and marketed by Lee Oskar, is a particularly interesting evolution of the harmonica, since it allows a player accustomed to playing "cross harp" (in mixolydian) to play in a major key (which is what the standard layout is designed for in the first place). Rather than providing the standard C major and G dominant chords, the Melody Maker provides a G Major 7 (2–5 draw), a C Major 6th chord (1–4 blow), an Am or Am7 chord (3–5 or 3–6 blow), a D major chord (4–6 draw) and a C Major chord (6–10 blow). If we are in the key of G, then, the melody maker provides the I chord, the IV chord, the V chord and the II chord, allowing II–V–I progressions as well as I–IV–V progressions.

Optimized Blues Tuning (this will be labeled as "C": starting from draw 1)

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10
blow B D F A B D F A B D
draw C E G B C E G B C E

It is also possible for a harp player to tune the harmonica himself. By making small scratches in a reed, the note played can be changed. It is possible to either get a higher or a lower note. Some harp players make extensive use of these modifications. One of the most famous examples is the harp solo on "On the Road Again" by Canned Heat, on which the harmonicist gets the minor 3rd crossharp on the sixth drawn reed, which is normally the major 2nd crossharp. There are books, toolkits and guides to tuning and harp customization available on the Internet; anyone interested in trying their hand at tuning should be prepared to sacrifice a few harmonicas during the learning curve.

12-hole and 14-hole diatonic[edit]

Hohner had made a few non-standard harmonicas. All of them have more than 10 holes and are labeled "grosse richter". For 12 holes, Hohner makes the M364 Marine Band, as well as the M36460 Marine Band Soloist. The Marine Band Soloist is solo tuned, with 3 full diatonic octaves with all notes of the major scale of the key of C. Since it can bend notes in the same way as a regular diatonic harmonica in the middle octave, some players use this for blues (and even jazz) instead of the more well-known solo-tuned harmonica, the chromatic harmonica, since the bent notes sound very different from true semi-tones. (For layout, see below at Chromatic harmonica, key out) In this configuration, blues players usually play in the third position, the D-minor blue scale.

In addition to the M364 models with 12 holes, there is also the Hohner Marine Band M365 14-hole harmonica. The general dimensions of the 12- and 14- hole Hohner harmonicas are a bit bigger than regular diatonic harmonicas. The M36401 and M36501 harmonicas (in the key of C) are pitched one octave lower than the standard 10-hole C diatonic. Thus, hole-4 blow is the same pitch as hole-1 on a regular diatonic harmonica in the key of C. The Marine Band M36408 and M36508 (in G) are similar to a usual G diatonic, having the higher end expanded.

Holes 1 through 4 and 6 are draw-bendable, and holes 8 through 14 are blow-bendable. Note the extra holes 11–14 which in theory extend the bending capabilities a lot (from A down to E in hole-14, for example), although in practice these are quite limited.

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14
blow C E G C E G C E G C E G C E
draw D G B D F A B D F A B D F A

There is also the Steve Baker Special (M3658) manufactured by Hohner, a special tuned 14-hole diatonic. Below, the layout of the Steve Baker Special in the key of C:

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14
blow C E G C E G C E G C E G C E
draw D G B D G B D F A B D F A B

They come in five keys:

  • C Low – M36581
  • D Low – M36583
  • F Low – M36586
  • G – M36588
  • A – M36590

This harmonica opens up lots of interesting possibilities, especially for blues harmonica, like extended tongue-block octave playing, the possibility to play exactly the same 2nd position riffs in two octaves, etc.

"Power benders"[edit]

Two harmonica models have been released with altered designs that allow for increased bending abilities, and in effect, chromatic playing on a diatonic harmonica. This type of harmonica is often referred to as a "power bender" or "super bender".

The Hohner XB-40, invented by Rick Epping, features an entirely new body design, though in practice, it is still a Richter-tuned (diatonic) harmonica. Here the blow reeds and the draw reeds are sealed off one from another with valves, effectively creating two separate cells in the comb for each hole in the mouthpiece: one for blow and another for draw. A second reed is then placed in this cell at a zero-offset (no gapping) so that it does not sound under normal playing. However, it is placed on the opposite side of the reed-plate from the speaking reed and tuned so that it responds when the player “bends” the note downwards in pitch. This allows for every note on the XB-40 to be bent downwards a whole-tone or more, whereas on standard diatonics only certain notes (the higher-pitched in the cell) will bend at all.

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10


blow
B
B
C
D
E
E
F
G
G
B
B
C
D
E
E
F
G
G
B
B
C
D
E
E
F
G
G
A
B
C
draw


 
D
D
C
 
G
G
F
 
B
B
A
A
D
D
C
 
F
E
E
 
A
A
G
 
B
B
A
 
D
D
C
 
F
E
E
 
A
A
G
 

The other Richter-tuned harmonica of this kind is the Suzuki SUB30 Ultrabend. Where the XB-40 uses valves and a total of 40 reeds, the SUB30 takes a different approach. Each hole of the harmonica houses a third reed, totalling thirty reeds altogether and thus, where the harmonica draws its name. The third reed is dubbed a "sympathetic reed", tuned one tone below the pitch of the lowest note, and is normally passive to airflow. The reed becomes active when the player uses the bending technique, allowing the low note in each hole to be bent down one semitone. Unlike the XB-40, the SUB30 retains the typical shape and size of most other ten-hole diatonic harmonicas.

Blues players[edit]

1900s – 1940s[edit]

The first African American to make a record with a blues harp was Pete Hampton in 1904.[1] These recordings included “race” music, intended for the African-American market of the southern states with solo recordings by DeFord Bailey (who appeared on the first episode of the WSM Barn Dance after it had changed its name to the Grand Ole Opry), duo recordings with a guitarist Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, Sonny Terry, jug band performers such as Jaybird Coleman, as well as hillbilly styles recorded for white audiences, by Frank Hutchison, Gwen Foster and several other musicians. There are also recordings featuring the harmonica in jug bands, of which the Memphis Jug Band is the most famous. But the harmonica still represented a toy instrument in those years and was associated with the poor. It is also during those years that musicians started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the 2nd position, or cross-harp.

1950s[edit]

The harmonica then made its way with the blues and the black migrants to the north, mainly to Chicago but also to Detroit, St. Louis and New York. Music played by Afro-Americans started increased use of electric amplification for the guitar, blues harp, double bass, and vocals. Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, is one of the most important harmonicists of this era. Using a full blues band, he became one of the most popular acts in the South due to his daily broadcasts on the 'King Biscuit Hour', originating live from Helena, Arkansas. He also helped make popular the cross-harp technique, opening the possibilities of harp playing to new heights. This technique has now become one of the most important blues harmonica methods. Sonny Boy Williamson II used hand effects to give a very talkative feel to his harp playing. A number of his compositions have also become standards in the blues world. Williamson had a powerful sound and extended his influence on the young British blues rockers in the 1960s, recording with Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds and appearing on live British television.

But Williamson was not the only innovator of his time. A young harmonicist by the name of Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs would completely revolutionize the instrument. He had the idea of playing the harmonica near a microphone (typically a "Bullet" microphone marketed for use by radio taxi dispatchers, giving it a "punchy" mid-range sound that can be heard above radio static, or an electric guitar). He also cupped his hands around the instrument, tightening the air around the harp, giving it a powerful, distorted sound, somewhat reminiscent of a saxophone. This technique, combined with a great virtuosity on the instrument made him arguably the most influential harmonicist in history. He also developed the technique of using his tongue to block a series of holes, so that the notes on either side of the tongue sound an octave.

Little Walter's only contender was perhaps Big Walter Horton. Relying less on the possibilities of amplification (although he made great use of it) than on sheer skill, Big Walter was the favored harmonicist of many Chicago leaders, including Willie Dixon. He graced many record sides of Dixon's in the mid-fifties with extremely colorful solos, using the full register of his instrument as well as some chromatic harmonicas. A major reason he is less known than Little Walter is because of his taciturn personality, his inconsistency, and his incapacity for holding a band as a leader. Horton, also known as "Shakey," played on the classic, Jimmy Rogers' "Walking By Myself" on Chess (1957).

Other great harmonicists have graced the Chicago blues records of the 1950s. Howlin' Wolf is often overlooked as a harp player, but his early recordings demonstrate great skill, particularly at blowing powerful riffs with the instrument. Jimmy Reed played harmonica on most of his iconic blues shuffle recordings.

1960s and 1970s[edit]

The 1960s and 1970s saw the harmonica become less prominent, as the overdriven electric lead guitar became the dominant instrument for solos. Paul Butterfield is perhaps the most well known harp player of the era in the blues arena. Heavily influenced by Little Walter, he pushed further the virtuosity on the harp. However, he rapidly fell into the use of drugs and alcohol and, after his first four albums, his career stagnated.

James Cotton and Junior Wells, two journeymen Chicago harmonica players, were perhaps the most regarded of this era. Both played with the Muddy Waters Band, and both were featured on the classic Vanguard release "Chicago: The Blues Today! Vols 1-3". Cotton, still playing in 2006 (though with greatly diminished vocal powers) was the most energetic harp player of his time and specialized in slow, magnificent note-bends, along with vocals heavily influenced by Bobby "Blue" Bland. Wells, a respected blues singer, defined the sixties and seventies blues scene through his recordings and live playing with his partner, blues guitarist Buddy Guy. (For a detailed account of their live performances, read "Satchmo Blows Up the World" by Penny M. Von Eschen, an account of the State Department tours that Junior and Buddy were involved in during this time.) Harmonica Hinds became known in the 1970s when he shared the stage with Junior Wells in Chicago. Hinds played with many blues greats over the past five decades, including Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Pinetop Perkins, and many more. Hinds remains active on the Chicago blues scene where is he is a regular at the Buddy Guy's Legends and the Chicago Blues Festival.

John Mayall, a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and band leader, is widely acknowledged as the "father of British blues". He has played harmonica as a solo artist and with his band John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers since 1963, when the band began playing London's Marquee Club. Over the years, the Bluesbreakers have included such talents as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood and Jack Bruce. Mayall's style of playing is most influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson II, whom he met and played with in the early 60's.

Bob Dylan also famously played his harmonica to add a touch of blues to his folk and rock sound during this era, though he played mostly in 1st position. Dylan typically placed his harmonicas in a rack so that he could simultaneously play harmonica and guitar.

Van Morrison, a long-time harmonica player, first played the instrument on-stage in 1963 during a performance of Sonny Boy Williamson II's song "Elevate Me Mama". In 1965, when in London with his Them band and staying at the Royal Hotel, Morrison would run errands for Little Walter for harmonica-playing tips.[2]

It is often forgotten that many of the blues rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s have, or had, members who could play the harmonica. In some bands, the instrument was more prominent, than in others. For example, Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin), John Lennon (The Beatles), Roger Daltrey (The Who), Jack Bruce (Cream), Mick Jagger and Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Ray Davies (The Kinks), Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), Bruce Springsteen (The E Street Band), Keith Relf (The Yardbirds), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (Grateful Dead), Tom Petty and Scott Thurston (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) and Steven Tyler (Aerosmith).

George "Mojo" Buford, Magic Dick, Jerry Portnoy, Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top, Lazy Lester, Corky Siegel, Sugar Blue, Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Taj Mahal, Slim Harpo, Al "Blind Owl" Wilson of Canned Heat, John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful (whose father was also a harmonica star in the Larry Adler classical harmonica days), and others all contributed originality and creativity to the recorded history of the blues harmonica. Many rock enthusiasts are heavily sentimental about the brief recorded harmonica work of Beatle John Lennon, who played it on such early hits as "Love Me Do" and "I Should Have Known Better". Lennon used the instrument in his solo career only once on "Oh Yoko!."

Recently, harp players have had major influence on the sound of the harmonica. Heavily influenced by the electric guitar sound, John Popper of Blues Traveler, electric solos are played at a breakneck speed. Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News brought harmonica solo work to the limelight in the 1980s, including a dueling number with saxophonist Johnny Colla which the band often used as an encore piece. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine has played the harmonica on an electric guitar through pedal use. Blackfoot, an all Native American Southern rock band, used the harmonica in one specific song, the Train Song, to simulate a train whistle and track. Blackfoot also utilizes the harmonica in other blues/rock songs, as well do many other bands and artists.

Modern blues players and over blow[edit]

Contemporary harmonicists Howard Levy, Chris Michalek, Jason Ricci, Carlos del Junco, Dennis Gruenling, Tom Ball and Peter "Madcat" Ruth use their own strategies and innovations for playing the harmonica, some of which draw on predecessors and some that do not. Levy explored and pioneered the over blow technique in the early seventies, which enables the diatonic harmonica to play full chromatic scales across three octaves, while retaining the particular sound of the harp. The over blow technique was first recorded in 1929 on the Okeh label by Blues Birdhead (real name James Simons), "Mean Low Blues" 403111-A-OK 8824, {hca solo; acc. unknown, pno; Richmond, Va., 13 October 1929}. Overblowing has been displayed more and more in the 1990s with the emergence of modern masters like Howard Levy, Chris Michalek, Carlos del Junco, and players like Jason Ricci, Rui Veloso and Adam Gussow have integrated it thoroughly in a more blues or rock oriented music.

Blues Music Awards[edit]

The Blues Music Awards
Instrumentalist-Harmonica
1991 James Cotton
1992—1996 Charlie Musselwhite
1997 William Clarke
1998 Rod Piazza
1999—2007 Charlie Musselwhite
2008 Kim Wilson
2009 Billy Gibson
2010 Jason Ricci
2011-2012 Charlie Musselwhite
2013 Rick Estrin
2014 Charlie Musselwhite

The Blues Music Awards (formerly known as the W.C. Handy Awards) represent the highest accolade afforded musicians and songwriters in blues music. Winners are selected each year by vote of the members of the Blues Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Internet and Blues Harmonica[edit]

The internet has been a center for beginner as well advanced harmonica players to learn songs, post music, discuss harmonicas, etc. Several harmonica players have started YouTube channels such as Adam Gussow, Jason Ricci, Howard Levy, and many more. Gussow also started a Blues Harmonica Forum where members hold discussions about the harmonica.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Neil A. Wynn (2007). Cross the Water Blues: African American Music in Europe. Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1604735473. 
  2. ^ Rogan, No Surrender, p62, p109

External links[edit]

  • Seydel diatonic harmonicas (the canonical "blues harp")
  • Hohner diatonic harmonicas (the canonical "blues harp")