THE FIRST 50 YEARS...
I played the guitar from the age of 17. My first guitar was a cheap steel string instrument but I soon realised that I was most interested in classical music so I bought a moderately good nylon string one. It also accompanied me in folk song around the Yorkshire Dales in the 60s. Some years ago I started to get painful arthritis in my finger joints. Before that I had been missing the occasional string and wondering why my fingers were so stiff. After a couple of years I realised that if I laid off the guitar, I was not troubled by the arthritis, so now the guitar hangs on the wall. Hence there are no recordings here of my guitar playing.
AND SO TO THE HARMONICA...
It occurred to me that I might get some pleasure from bashing out songs on a tremolo harmonica as I had done in my teens. At Christmas 2013 I took the plunge and bought myself a Hohner Echo double sided tremolo harmonica
(double sided = 2 keys, A and D in this case). It makes a glorious sound and I soon learned to play a number of folk and other songs. But I was frustrated by the fact that the method of tuning these instruments ('Richter' tuning) omits some notes of the scale at the low end. This is to make it possible to play chords, but I was more interested in being able to play more tunes so I retuned one of the lower reed pairs which gave me a much greater range.
I also retuned all the reed pairs to make them less 'wet' ('wetness' is a way of expressing how strong is the tremolo effect. This increases with increased separation in the tuning of the pair).
Samples of the Hohner Echo -
However, I became curious about other models and decided to buy one which was 'Solo' tuned, i.e. having all the notes of the major scale, and bought a Tombo Band Deluxe
. I found this to have a much 'lighter' tone than the Hohner and a different selection of folk tunes seemed to fit it very nicely.
Samples of the Tombo -
AND YET MORE...
But at the same time I was beginning to itch for a chromatic harmonica. This is the kind which has a button at one end which gives access to the 'black notes'. So I bought a Seydel Saxony
. A bit more expensive than 'standard' models but it was highly recommended and I thought I wouldn't be buying another in the near future.
This instrument is unusual in that it has stainless steel reeds. They give a 'brighter' tone than brass (or you might say not as warm). Also, it has an aluminium comb. It is very responsive even on the lower notes which in my short experience can be difficult to play on many other models.
The only problem is that after taking the mouthpiece apart in order to clean it, it is very fiddly putting it back together. You have to find a way of holding the spring while inserting the screws. Nevertheless, I like the Saxony and I find that I play it more than any other.
Samples of the Seydel Saxony -
Now, it turns out that there is something called 'HAS' - Harmonica Acquisition Syndrome.
My Seydel is in key C, as are the great majority of chromatics, the emphasis being on playing all keys on the one instrument, but I felt that I wanted another chromatic with a lower pitch. Just for variety. So I looked on eBay and found a key G Hohner Chromonica. I bought it for £8 and it was ok for a trial, also useful for practising retuning and fitting new windsavers.
I decided also that it would be useful to have a 16-hole model. The standard 12-hole model has just 3 octaves, starting with C4 and ending with C7 and I wanted to be able to descend a few notes below that bottom C. On eBay I found a Hohner 'Larry Adler Professional 16'
which looked to be in good condition, at about half price. I used the 'Buy it now' option. I enjoy playing it. Its tone is pleasant though weaker than the Seydel but this is to be expected from brass reeds. It is quite responsive and airtight and my only complaint is that the slide clicks loudly. Some of the low draw notes sound rather dull, but not as much as some other models. One outstanding point is that the valves never stick. I do not expect this to be common to all examples of this model.
I understand this to have the same reeds as the Hohner Chromonica (which is the popular model). But it is better constructed, having a better mouthpiece, plastic comb and the reedplates are attached by screws - not nails which I consider to be a ridiculous cheapskate feature of the Chromonica.
Recordings to be inserted]
Struggling with the ancient 2nd-hand G-Chromonica persuaded me that I really did need a new lower key instrument and I was curious about the very innovative Hohner CX-12
. So I bought one in the key of A.
The photo below shows it in its 'exploded' form. The outstanding feature of this model is that it is so easily taken apart for cleaning. No tools, just 2 actions. The mouthpiece is a much larger radius than the conventional design and some people don't like it. However, many people are somewhat besotted with its stated virtues which besides easy cleaning are airtightness giving good response, ands loud tone.
Personally I don't like the tone and I do not find it to be as airtight as the Seydel Saxony or indeed some other Hohner models. And I think those who like the sound volume are people who normally play in public with other musicians, which I do not. Anyway, it is always possible that I got a dud.
Many people, even among those who claim it to be the best choice, agree that there is a problem with valves sticking. I certainly find it to be so.
I do not recommend it for beginners if only because it is likely to be misleading with respect to all other models.
Recordings to be inserted]
As I write this in August 2014, I tell myself that I really must not buy any more. At least until 2015. Actually, I am curious about the Suzuki models. And the Hering...
What I really need is HASNT - Harmonica Acquisition Syndrome Nullification Therapy.
As I return to this page it is October 2014 and I have bought another chromatic - the Seydel De Luxe
in the key of G.
This is a step down from the Seydel Saxony (which is also produced in G) but I was curious as to how this would compare with the Saxony and other brands.
It has a much warmer sound than the Saxony and very different (warmer?) from the Hohners that I have experienced. I prefer it to the Saxony for some pieces to which the tone is more suited.
I though at first that that some of the low draw notes were particularly dull but after a while I realised that it is just a matter of practice in technique, and possibly they improve with use. This is, in fact, an early problem for many people with most models.
Samples of the Seydel De Luxe -
Will there be more?..
Well, I am now waiting for delivery of a Seydel Fanfare
tremolo. I have realised that these are true solo tuning, i.e. just like a chromatic (but diatonic scale). My main reason for this is because having early in the year got accustomed to the Richter layout of the upper register on the tremolos that I have, I lost that ability after concentrating on the chromatic for a couple of months.
...and here it is, October 2014
It is to a degree similar in tone to the Hohner Echo but richer in overtones and I find it even more enjoyable to play. (The overtones are so strong that at times while playing it I thought I could hear the telephone but in fact it is a strong harmonic.)
You can see that it is identical with the Seydel De Luxe above, but for the inscription and the lack of the slide button. Seydel has used the body of the chromatic for this excellent tremolo model.
Now I find that I am becoming curious about how Suzuki compares with the chromatics that I have already experienced. They have a good reputation. Also, I would like a good 14- or 16-hole model. Of course, I have the Larry Adler Chromonica but it was second-hand. And if I am honest with myself, although there is the highly recommended Suzuki Chromatix SCX-64 and SCX-56, what I am really curious about is the Sirius range. Much too expensive, of course. So I bought one, the 14-hole model.
At the same time I sold the CX12 on eBay for half price.
Samples of the Sirius -
The Suzuki harmonicas have a large radius mouthpiece (similar to the Hohner CX12). Some people prefer it but I find it more difficult than the more common narrower ones which I can put my lips around. With the Sirius you must rest it on your lips.
Also I have two particular problems with it - my moustache gets caught in it much more than the others, and for some reason I salivate a lot more. It is the only one of my harmonicas which suffered from saliva getting right inside.
However all this does not mean that I don['t like the instrument. I like the tone, which is very smooth, and prefer it for classical music whereas I find the Seydel Saxony better for most songs.
To be critical, it is not as easily responsive as the Saxony.
I am not an expert harmonica player. (That's obvious if you have listened to any of the samples above). But because I am a beginner I know a beginner's problems so here is advice from a beginner to beginners...
If you are thinking of buying a harmonica, your choice of type/model must be decided according to the kind of music you wish to play. If you are undecided even about that and simply want to try it out then I advise you to buy a tremolo.(See below).
Some experts will tell you that the simplest type to try out is the 10-hole diatonic. I have not found it so. You will much more easily play simple tunes on a tremolo. It is easier to blow, has a more satisfying tone and demands no special techniques.
First, let's understand 'diatonic'.
It means the do-ra-me scale with no 'black notes' (which from here on I will call 'accidentals')
'Chromatic' on the other hand means the full 12 half-tone scale of Western music.
Let us also understand that as a beginner you must resist the temptation to buy a low price harmonica. No matter what type, they are all more difficult to play than a moderate to good one.
The 10-hole diatonic harmonica
The reason that so many people would advise you to buy one of these is that it is there is a huge following of the 'blues' style of playing, and almost all of them use this harmonica. But it has a very short scale and no accidentals which are essential to the blues. In order to produce the latter you must learn to 'bend' notes. This means forcing a reed to vibrate to a pitch which is not natural to it. It's a tricky technique and some people can't do it, myself included. If you wish to play the blues, you need this. Blues can be played on a chromatic but most 10-hole players will look down their noses at you. If you don't want to play the blues, read on....
The tremolo harmonica
This is the most simply and easily enjoyed harmonica. It doesn't take long to learn to play simple songs such as Shenandoah, Scotland the Brave, Molly Malone and very many others.
(My samples above, Hohner and Tombo)
The tremolo (or vibrato) effect is created by having 2 reeds for each note, not quite in tune with each other. There is also a variety called the 'octave' harmonica in which the 2 reeds are an octave apart to give a rich sound but I have no experience of these (yet).
Most tremolos are 'Richter tuned'. This means that some notes of the scale are omitted at the bottom end so that chords can be played but it limits the tune-playing capability.
The alternative is 'solo tuned' but not many are available. There is the Tombo Band Deluxe but I am not clear about other Tombo models - best to check with the manufacturer.
Another feature of most tremolos is that the upper octave has the blow/draw notes reversed, i.e. the sequence of the scale is not the same as the middle octave, and this applies generally to both Richter and solo tunes models. (Difficult to describe. Check the manufacturer's site for a diagram)
An exception to this is the Seydel models - Mountain Harp (a double sided harmonica in keys C and G) and Fanfare, both of which have true solo tuning exactly as a chromatic, i.e. with the scale sequence repeating so that there is no difficulty in changing octaves. I would recommend this but have no experience of it. I might correct this.
I can now strongly recommend the Seydel Fanfare or the Mountain Harp to beginners.
Because you can only play one key on a tremolo, they are supplied in a range of keys.
The chromatic harmonica
All music genres can be played on this instrument.
Popular styles are classical, jazz, ballads, film music, and even blues.
You can think of it as being set out like a piano keyboard - all the white notes are in sequence with blow and draw. Push the slide in (i.e. the button) and you have the accidentals (black notes).
The vast majority of chromatic models are in the key of C and it is a easy to play any tune in the base key but with practice any key can be used (again, picture it as a piano). Some models, however, are offered in a range of keys.
12-hole models are most popular but 14- and 16-holes are available, the extras being an extension below the bottom 'doh' note.
The number refers to the hole on a 12-hole solo-tuned harminoca in the key of C.
The number alone signifies 'blow'. A minus sign preceding the number signifies 'draw':
I have so far included one piece for the 14- or 16-hole chromatic harmonica. ('Smoke gets in your eyes')
so that 14- and 16- are consistent.
These are all for the C key chromatic and are all suitable for relative beginners. I apply tab notation above the stave on standard sheet music. This , I believe, makes it more understandable and avoids the problem of lacking timing.