Blues harp

Blues harp

Blues harp, also called a richter tuned harmonica or 10-hole harmonica (in Asia), is the most widely known type of harmonica. In the United States and Europe, it is called a diatonic harmonica. It has 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. Here is a standard diatonic harmonica's layout in the key of C (blow for 1 is middle C):

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 (D–B–F–A), the draw.

Valved diatonics

The valved diatonic is one of the most common ways of playing chromatic scales on diatonics (as many feel the advanced technique called an "overblow", or "overbend", is too difficult). 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 require one to develop proper embouchure in order to bend the notes accurately, and it's generally agreed that the sound will not be "true", making it suitable for blues and jazz but so-so for classical music. Also, 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".

Playing in different keys

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, in blues and rock at least, is "crossharp" or "second position" playing. This involves playing music in the key five semitones below the key of the harmonica - for example, on a C tuned harmonica, a second position blues would be in G. This is because the notes of the G-minor pentatonic scale (the most 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—blow out lots of air on every exhaled note and during every pause.

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.

Hohner XB-40

The Hohner XB-40 is an entirely new body design, though in practice is still a richter-tuned (diatonic) harmonica. Here the blow reeds and the draw reeds are sealed off from one 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.

Bb|D |F |Bb|D |F |Bb|D |F |A#
B |Eb|Gb|B |Eb|Gb|B |Eb|Gb|B
hole: 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 | -----------------------------
Db|Gb|Bb|Db|E |Ab|Bb|Db|E |Ab
C |F |A |C |Eb|G |A |C |Eb|G

Specially-tuned instruments

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 |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C
draw: |D |G |Bb|D |F |A |Bb|D |F |A

Harmonic Minor (straight harp, 4 blow to 7 blow) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ----------------------------- blow: |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C |Eb|G |C
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |Ab|B |D |F |Ab
-----------------------------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.

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

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 5 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 the exact same 2nd position riffs in two octaves, etc.

Blues players


The first recordings of harmonicas were made in the U.S. in the 1920s. These recordings are included 'race-records', intended for the black market of the southern states with solo recordings by DeFord Bailey, duo recordings with a guitarist Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, Sonny Terry, 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.


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. The music played by the Afro-Americans started increasingly electric use 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 techniques.

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.

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," was also a player on arguably the most exciting 12 bars of recorded harp on the classic Jimmie Rodgers "Walkin' 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. Sonny Boy Williamson II used the possibilities of 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. Stevie Wonder taught himself harmonica at age 5 and plays the instrument on many of his recordings. Jimmy Reed played harmonica on most of his iconic blues shuffle recordings.

1960s and 1970s

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.

Two journeymen Chicago harmonica players were perhaps the most regarded of this era - both associated with the Muddy Waters Band, and both featured on the classic Vanguard release "Chicago: The Blues Today! Vols 1-3" James Cotton and Junior Wells. Cotton, still playing in 2006 although 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, his recordings and live playing with his partner, blues guitarist Buddy Guy, defined the sixties and seventies blues scene. (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.)

Bob Dylan also famously played his harmonica to add a touch of blues to his folk and rock sound during this era. Dylan was known for placing his harmonicas in a brace so that he could simultaneously blow the harp and play his 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. [Rogan, No Surrender, p62, p109]

It is often forgotten that many of the blues rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s, and members who could play the harmonica. In some brands, the instrument was more prominent, than in others. For example, Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin, Roger Daltrey (The Who), Jack Bruce (Cream), Mick Jagger and Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones).

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 on songs such as "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. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine has played the harmonica on an electric guitar through pedal use. Blackfoot, an all Native American 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.

2000s Blues players

Contemporary harmonicists AA Bondy, Howard Levy, Jason Ricci, Carlos del Junco, Olivier Poumay, Frederic Yonnet and John Popper emulate Little Walter. 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 1927 by Blues Birdhead (real name James Simons). Overblowing has been displayed more and more in the 1990s with the emergence of players like Howard Levy, Carlos del Junco, Adam Gussow, Chris Michalek, and Otavio Castro, and players like Jason Ricci are starting to integrate it in a more blues or rock oriented music.

Blues Harp Awards

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) nonprofit corporation headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee. Past winners in the "Instrumentalist-Harmonica" category are:

2008 Kim Wilson
1999~2007 Charlie Musselwhite
1998 Rod Piazza
1997 William Clarke
1992~1996 Charlie Musselwhite
1991 James Cotton


External links

* [ Hohner] diatonic harmonicas (the canonical "blues harp")

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