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What is bending & overblowing?

It's when a skillful player alters their mouth shape and attack to force the harmonica reeds to adopt pitches other than the naturally-tuned ones. When combined with the humble diatonic harmonica, it can play the half-step notes (sharps and flats) in between the primary notes to get that wailing bluesy sound.

 

Harmonicas

   

We feature beginner to professional Lee Oskar, Hohner, and Suzuki harmonicas for playing every genre of music -- blues, rock, jazz, country, pop, and ethnic styles.

Visit Hohner website    Visit Lee Oskar website   

Click on the logos to visit the manufacturer's website.

   
 

Which harmonica is for you?

Excluding the rarely used bass and chord harmonicas, the harmonicas you can buy are the diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, and octave. The type for you depends on the sound you are looking for and the kind of music you want to play.

First . . . get familiar with your instrument ...

 
 
 

Diatonic Harmonicas

Most diatonic harmonicas have 10 holes. Each hole contains two reeds; a blow reed to produce a note when you exhale and a draw reed to produce a different note when you inhale.

Hohner diatonic harmonicaDiatonic harmonicas contain only the notes of the primary scale of a single key -- the major scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-si-do) being the most common. A 10-hole diatonic in the key of C, for example, is like a three-octave piano with only white keys. While that sounds a little limited, we're fortunate that inventive musicians through the years have found ways not only to overcome these limitations but to turn them into assets. Using techniques like note bending and overblowing, the seemingly simple diatonic has become the expressive voice of most blues, rock, country, and folk players. When you hear harmonica players talk about their "harp," they are using a slang term for a diatonic harmonica.

Pros -- relatively inexpensive even for professional models, lightweight, and a configuration that makes them the easiest to learn to play.

Cons -- even moderately accomplished players will need to have several in different keys if they want to perform songs in more than a couple of keys. Most models are available in all 12 keys, the most popular being C, A, D, G, Bb, and E.

While diatonics are available with tuning patterns other than the major scale (minor, country, or melody maker), the major scale is overwhelmingly the most common. Famous diatonic harmonica players include Neil Young, Little Walter, Bob Dylan, James Cotton, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Butterfield, Kim Wilson, and Sonny Terry.

 
 

Chromatic Harmonicas

If you have listened to the music of Larry Adler (on the soundtrack of the British movie Genevieve, for example), Stevie Wonder, or Toots Thielemans, then you've heard three of the most respected chromatic harmonica players in the world. These completely different performers demonstrate the range and versatility of the chromatic harmonica. A new generation of chromatic players such as Brendan Power (Riverdance) has pushed the boundaries further.

Hohner chromatic harmonicaThe chromatic harmonica is larger than a diatonic harmonica and typically comes with more holes (12 or 16 are common). It has a slide button on one side; by pushing the button, you can play all the half-step notes (sharps and flats) between the primary scale notes. Within its range, it can produce the same notes as a piano -- white and black keys. This allows the player to play in any key using one harmonica. Consequently, it is a highly versatile melodic instrument, preferred by musicians in styles that change key frequently, such as jazz or classical.

Con -- heavier and more expensive than a diatonic with the same range (12 notes per octave instead of 7 means a lot more reeds!). Also, the mechanical slide mechanism makes these harmonicas less airtight.

Hohner produces the widest variety of chromatic models.

 
 

Tremolo and Octave Harmonicas

Hohner tremolo harmonicaFor playing traditional Scottish and Irish music, the tremolo harmonica is the choice of many musicians. These are diatonic harmonicas constructed with double holes, each containing two blow and two draw reeds.  Each pair of reeds is tuned to the same note. However, one is tuned slightly higher than the other. When played, both will sound together, and the slight difference in tuning creates a vibrating or tremolo effect. This effect sounds a little like an accordion, a tone that is particularly suited to jigs, reels, polkas, and other traditional dance tunes. Tremolo harmonicas are not made to play the blues because bending and overblowing are difficult.

Octave harmonicas are similar to the tremolo models, but the pairs of reeds are tuned an octave apart. The resulting sound is full-bodied and strong but without the tremolo effect.

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