Key changes on harmonica

Key changes on harmonica

how do you do it? On diatonic harmonicas, playing a set of tunes where you go from D to G (for example) would seem to require a very quick and seamless change of instrument. Is there another way? or do I just practice?

Re: Key changes on harmonica

Yes please, and maybe take a few videos?

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You can bend the notes on any diatonic harmonica. This guy can do it - he posted clips of Scrapple from the Apple played in all keys played in all 12 keys on a C harmonica: http://tenhole.com/index.php?menuid=296
I used to try with little success to play tunes in different keys on one harmonica but gave up. I have tremolo harmonicas in D G and A and just use them.

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delete the first "played in all keys" - Oh for an editing facility!

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1) Most tunes can be played on the D diatonic harmonica. I estimated 80% at one point, looking both at tunes I knew personally and at tunes on "standard session tunes" lists. Many tunes nominally in 1 sharp or 3 sharps don’t actually accent the c natural or the g sharp, so you can play them fine on a D.

2) However, this does leave a hole in the harmonica repertoire: no Star of Munster, no Pipe on the Hob, no Kitty’s Rambles, etc. For this, you can change harmonicas. I don’t like playing tunes on a G harp, it’s just not laid out nicely for tunes, but at one point I had some sets worked out which switched between D and C harmonicas, both between tunes and in the middle of tunes, and that worked out fine. If I were serious about playing harmonica in sessions, I’d get hold of a D mix harmonica, and life would be good, but I haven’t got around to that yet.

3) If you’re having trouble making a smooth transition, it might be that you don’t actually have the tune in your head. If the mechanical act of playing the tune is what keeps the tune going, then it’s going to be difficult to make that change. Try "playing the tune in your head". If you can play the tune through in your head three times and hear everything that’s happening in it, then it shouldn’t be too hard for you to make a swap of harmonica. If this is difficult for you, you probably don’t really know the tune well enough.

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RichardB, I know that’s possible… but pretty difficult. JK, I did try and see if I could play some Dmaj tunes on the G harp but will try the other way round too. also of the tunes I’m trying are new to me so maybe it’ll be easier when I know them better.

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Try Donnybrook Fair and Blackthorn Stick, just for starters.

Have to say, I am no kind of a fan of bending notes on Irish tunes. Sounds like underdone ass to me. My opinion, your mileage may vary.

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Jon Kiparsky
It’s funny, but i play most of tunes on the G Paddy Richter harmonica, and don’t like playing on D harmonica.

There are some D tunes which do not have a C# in it and it can be played on G Paddy and also D mix tunes, G tunes, Ador, Emin

Now i use D only for a couple of polkas and for Jolly Beggarman (Red Haired Lass), but it in Amix

Posted by .

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I’m sure I saw Johnny Cash playing "The Orange Blossom Special" years ago, and he held two, one over the other, and just shifted up or down for the key changes.

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I spend most Sunday afternoons sitting beside George Current with his line-up of diatonic moothies, and I think what he has instantly available on the table usually goes like: a C, two differently tuned Gs, two differently tuned Ds, an A and a D/A double. He does the one-over-the-other sandwich trick, often with three in the stack, and pops from one moothie to another for just a few notes sometimes, for tunes with mode or key shifts. Never does semitone bending. I’ve got no idea how he finds the right note every time.

If you look at the series of videos of Sam Hinton on YouTube, you see him doing it differently; mostly he played ten-holers, and he swung them into place from the side like a weaver’s shuttle, sometimes holding two in each hand. It’s a bit more theatrical and he managed it just as quickly.

They both had 50 years practice.

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"Johnny Cash playing ‘The Orange Blossom Special’"

Actually he changed harps on every chord change. A bit silly, I always thought, but I cut the great man a lot of slack.

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You might consider a chromatic harmonica. They have a lever that brings all the notes up half a step, and work particularly well for tunes that have short sections in another key or perhaps playing tunes in two closely related keys (like D and G).

I have chromatic harmonicas in C, G, and D although I no longer use them much having moved on to other instruments.

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Like Jon says above, large amounts of tunes can be played with just the D scale available to you, and more if you learn to play around with other notes when the folks around you are hitting those C naturals (a G for example, if often a good substitute). Single row D melodeon players have been around for decades, doing lots with the music, without any accidentals available. Out on the Ocean and Off to California, for example, are two G tunes that have no C’s in them, and thus fit well on a D harp.

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You can simply put one harp down and pick up another if you’re in a session with other melody players. Nobody will bat an eyelid. Just keep your D, G and A harps lined up and ready on the table in front of you. But you *can* develop your skill at switching harmonicas seamlessly. Just google Noel Battle and watch him doing it in his videos - and he’s using relatively unwieldy tremolo harmonicas. Practice makes perfect.

But it’s also very useful to explore the potential for playing some of the tunes in more than one position. Connaughtman’s Rambles can be played either on a D or on a G harp - no missed notes, no changing the tune, no bending. All because the tune has no C sharps in it. Al gives other examples above. If you find you can play a tune in second position (e.g. a D tune on a G harp), you can stick it in a set with other tunes you play in first (or third or fourth or twelfth!), giving you sets with "key-changes" that you can play without switching harps or bending notes.
Two examples of jig sets we play:

Connaughtman’s Rambles/Saddle The Pony/Calliope House (all on a G harp)
Gillan’s Apples/Tripping Upstairs/Morrison’s (all on a D harp).

Keep a weather ear open for tunes with flattened sevenths (Mixolydian tunes) such as Red-haired Boy which work best in second position. Lots of polkas in A don’t have G sharps in them, so play them on a D harp and mix them up with other polkas in D. Similarly with slides.

But no need to strain yerself. If a tune works best in first position (the key of the harp), like most reels I can think of, play it in first. Drop out or switch harps for the next tune if needs be. No-one wants to hear a bloody harmonica all night anyway. Getting into contortions bending loads of notes is simply not necessary in this music. Noel Battle has won the All-Ireland a dozen times and he’s never bent a note (you can’t on a tremolo). He uses harp-switching to the fullest extent, though.Telling someone to play everything on a G harp and changing the tune accordingly to fit the harp, or bend lots, is just bad advice, frankly. This music is not about being clever.

Just one last thing. Your G and A harps at least should be in Paddy Richter tuning. All my harps are now in that tuning. You tune up the 3-blow by a whole tone and you get the crucial missing sixth back in the bottom octave. There are other approaches, but, in my view, you need that missing sixth back and you don’t want to be scrabbling around in fast tunes trying to bend to get it.

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"Telling someone to play everything on a G harp"

I meant to type "or whatever" after that. I would feel totally naked if I showed up without either my D or my G harp.

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I prefer the lower sound of the G harp, however Steve’s advice is very good.

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You can get low D harps (the Hohner SP20 is a good one). These are an octave lower than the regular-pitched Ds and put you at the same pitch as the fiddle. I hardly ever use a standard-pitch D.

Brendan Power uses a standard-pitch D in Paddy Richter tuning and plays tunes in the bottom octave. Mucho bending needed. Too clever for me! If you play a low D in the middle octave, like I do, you are not as low as you think - just nice.

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I need to correct myself: in the longer post above I should have said "like most major-sounding reels I can think of." Keys that sound minor, may be either Dirian or Aeolian mode. The former would be played in third position and the latter in fourth, though there’s nothing scary about it and I was doing it for decades before I knew what "position" meant.

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Tunes that sound minor. I’m havin’ trouble this morning. :-(

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Dorian. And drop that damned extra comma while I’m at it.

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Banish Misfortune, Connie The Soldier, Chief O Neills can only be played on Chromatics

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Banish Misfortune is quite often played in D mixolydian all the way through with no accidentals. That will work on a G moothie. Connie the Soldier is purely diatonic D major. Chief O’Neill’s needs switching between D and C moothies, which a lot of players do all the time.

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Agreed. I do wonder whether Chief O’Neill’s is really worth the hassle.

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LOL! So many tunes, why waste time on the trying to play every last one?

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Chief O’Neill’s is definitely worth some hassle - one of the better tunes, if you ask me.
Admittedly, for a harmonica player it is a pretty big hassle.

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If you’re desperate to play Chief O’Neill’s you could use a D chrom or a D XB40. I’m not desperate.

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Or a half-valved diatonic.

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Good stuff. :-)

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Banish Misfortune is quite often played in D mixolydian all the way through with no accidentals. That will work on a G moothie. Connie the Soldier is purely diatonic D major.
OH No, Jack, no, jack, no, the whole point of Banish are the c# and c naturals, likewise Connie the Soldier, The versions I prefer would be easiest played on a chromatic, the first part of Connie has c naturals[ D mixolydian mode] the second part is c# thus d major, It is the contrast between the two modes that [imo] make it interesting.

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If there are C nats in Banish Misfortune, it is a setting that folks don’t play around here.
Also, I’ve heard Chief O’Neill’s hornpipe played with an F# instead of the F in the beginning (and not as a mistake, by someone who is considered a good source for The Music). And other than that one note, to my best recollection, the rest fits just fine on a D harmonica.
And like myself and others have said above, a well placed substitute for a note your instrument doesn’t have can open up a lot of tunes for you.
The paths to enlightenment are as numerous as the men who seek it.

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"It is in D mixolydian, which is uses a D scale with a C natural in it, so it is written with one sharp, and any C sharps shown as accidentals. People see the one sharp and sometimes say "oh, it is in G," but it is not."

Posted on January 17th 2006 by AlBrown

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The F natural in Chief O’Neill’s simply has to be an F natural. It’s a pivotal note that gives the tune much of its individuality. On the other hand, the C sharps in Banish Misfortune, whilst "supposed" to be there, are often glossed over somewhat in sessions and no-one really seems to notice it much.

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I agree with Steve on the Chief’s Hornpipe. The great fun of it is that sense that the tune is climbing up out of the minor, and that release when it breaks back into the major. It’s one of the few tunes that I know of that really has that sort of development, it would be a shame to ram it into some sort of ordinary major hornpipe.

I’ve never heard Hamlet’s played with sharp Cs except as graces to the Ds in the second part. Where do people put C#s in that one?


(yes, Hamlet’s… you know - Danish Misfortune,,,)

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Ooops, I meant there are no C sharps found in Banish Misfortune around here…got myself mixed up, there…
And I agree that the F nat sounds much better in the Chief’s hornpipe, just pointing out I have heard it played differently.
(To raise another nationality, I met someone once who thought the name of the tune Jon calls Hamlet’s was Spanish Misfortune.)

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No worries, Al. I had to retype my last post three times before sending it, and even then I wasn’t sure it was right!

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" Ooops, I meant there are no C sharps found in Banish Misfortune around here…got myself mixed up, there."..
You play it how you like, but in my opinion you are missing the point of the tune, it occurs in bar 9, first bar of the b music.
And the whole point of Connie the Soldier, is the change of modes, same thing with some of the Hag tunes.
Jack Campin has a website on modes, I find it unbelievable that he said what he did about ConnieThe Soldier.

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f# d, d c#d, f# is twice as lomg as d, then three half beats and… it is the tune, not a Grace note, it is important it gives a major feel.

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I’ve never played Connie the Soldier with Cnats in the first part. Moreover, from now on I’ll be playing only Cnats in Banish Misfortune.

:-D

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I’m getting addled by the whole thing. Guess I’ll stick to being guided by the actual noise that comes out of my gob iron.

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Stephen, whip out your D blues harp. You can play Connie The Soldier, exactly as they do, without a bend in sight. In fact, you can play the whole of that YouTube set on a D diatonic. The only reason I didn’t mention this before, in spite of my having been playing that set for 20 years (learned it from Patrick Street!), is that I didn’t know the damn tune’s name! You’ve taught me that at least!

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I played Banish Misfortune after this discussion, and really paid attention to what notes I played, and found I was playing a version very similar to what is posted on this site, but anywhere a C# was indicated, I was playing an E. While probably means, somewhere along the line, I found a substitute note on my harp that didn’t clash with folks that use a C# there. That’s the trouble with learning a tune by ear—it is hard to discuss because you just do what you do, without really being able to label or describe it.

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AlBrown, how can you say you’re really not able to describe what you’re doing? Aren’t you the one with the extensive tutorial in your profile?
;-) I’m just playing with you. Actually I realize describing music in words is an act in futility. Still, even as I’m playing by ear I sometimes think about how to transcribe what I’m hearing.

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Ah, but I approach instruments differently. I have been playing the harmonica for over 40 years, strictly by ear. So I tend to approach it more intuitively. Couldn’t play harmonica by reading sheet music to save my life.
On the other hand, I learned tin whistle much more deliberately. I can read music pretty well with my tin whistle, so if I am trying to learn something from sheet music, and want to know what notes I am playing, that is the instrument I grab.

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What’s the point of trying to describe what you do? If I play a tune three times I never play it exactly the same each time in any case. Making a noise with your instrument is all the describing you have to do.

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This reminds me of Shirley Valentine talking to a wall.
Of course you can play an e note instead of C NAT OR C#, but the tune sounds different, the c nat is what gives it the mixolydian feel, slightly sadder,
The c# gives it the major feel slightly happier,the player then has two Contrasting moods sad to happy, this is best achIeved in my humble opinion on a D chromatic.
In the end everyone has to play it their own way, and with their own methods, I prefer my way, Al Brown prefers his,each to his own, we won’t fall out about it.

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Stephen, I agree with you, and I don’t think anyone is falling out about it, just all talking about the different ways we approach a particular tune. Mostly, I don’t think about stuff like this, but sometimes it is interesting to peel things apart, and look in detail how we all play a particular tune. A good learning experience, from my perspective.