Harmonicas

Harmonicas

I’m thinking about picking up a few harmonicas for playing tunes. I used to have a link to a few good sites about harmonicas in ITM, including one interview with a well known player detailing tuning mods, but I seem to have lost them.

Can anyone recommend good websites and harmonica models for Irish/English/Scottish tunes? I don’t know anyone in my area playing this kind of music on the harmonica. Are any made with multiple voices? Are alternate tunings available, wood comb or plastic? I’m completely out to pasture when it comes to these things, any help is appreciated.

Re: Harmonicas

I play harmonica a bit, and I have a heap of them - another addiction. But the ones I have in my bag at the moment are a Suzuki Humming tremolo in D, a Tombo tremolo 24 in A and an Irish-tuned Seydel chromatic in G. I’ve also got the bigger version of the Marine Band in G - that’s a nice harp and in tune too. Many come tuned sharp. The Tombo is a little sharp but you can bring it down when playing, and the Suzuki is spot on. I mainly used to use them when there’s a song involved, but lately I’ve found I can play jigs and reels on them pretty much OK, but I don’t venture too far into different keys than the one that the harp is in, though you should be able to do this on the Seydel as the slide gives you a semitone lower (rather than higher as with conventional chromatics). C sharp for example is there when you push the slide when blowing D. I got the Seydel from http://www.harmonicaland.com/ and they were friendly and helpful.I think they have Suzukis too.

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I have been playing blues harp for decades and some years ago branched out into ITM; there of course is a story to that but that´s not really the point here; in between I was into waltzes - especially country waltzes as eg `Midnight on the water´ (see tunes section here!) and this gave me the idea to play them on the harmonica because I was looking for an instrument able to sustain long notes. When I began to play ITM tunes, I needed a harmonica that made it easy to play tunes in minor keys - the first I got into were `Kid on the mountain´ and `man of the house´. On the usual diatonic harmonicas this is practically impossible: you would have to `bend´ some notes, and this sounds good in blues but very strange in ITM. The chromatics, on the other hand, I found need lots of air which makes it difficult to play fast - you tend to sound like a freight train which barely makes it up the hill. When listening to harmonica players playing ITM on youtube, I usually also found this to be the case. Here is my solution: it´s with the Seydel harmonica manufacturers; they developed a new tuning called `circular´ (German: zirkular) tuning which gives you all the notes you need, and you can get these harmonicas in different keys. `Zirkular D´ eg gives you the keys of Dmajor, Gmajor, and Eminor - and probably also Aminor, but I´m not to sure about that - and there are ALL

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(Sorry, pushed the wrong button!) So here is the rest: …and there are ALL the notes - you don´t have to bend or to slide.
Just go to their website: www.seydel1847.com - they ship very fast at reasonable prices and you can pay with credit card, PayPal or whatever. This harp instantly solved all my problems playing ITM tunes on the harmonica. Happy experimenting !!

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And another PS about Seydel harmonicas: to give you an example for what they call the `Zirkular´ tuning, in this case `Zirkular G´: the notes are like this, beginning at the low end, first letter is blow, second letter is draw: g-a/b-c´/d´- e´/ and so on. This gives you first hole blow as the basis for Gmajor, first hole draw as the basis for Aminor, second hole draw as the basis for Cmajor. So this is quite logical progression, and even when you get to the high notes, the order of blow/draw is not reversed as in the ususal diatonics but goes straight up all the ways: the last four holes are: e´´-f´´/g´´-a´´/b´´-c´´/d´´´-e´´´. All this makes it in a way easy to play; and solved lots of my problems when playing ITM on the harmonica. You just have to be careful on the lower notes for a while when the harmonica is new. Happy playing !!

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And something else for `gravelwalks´, some additional information which has got absolutely nothing to do with harmonicas: I read that you live in Florida though you don´t say which part. The reason I got into playing country - and other - waltzes on the harmonica was that while staying for a few days in Pensacola, I heard `Midnight on the water´ played by a four-piece countryband in a nice little club where they apparently always played this tune as the closing number on their Friday night gigs. Nice atmosphere, soulful piece of music, moon shining on the river, nice girls who just loved to waltz …

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There’s plenty of tunings to play with, but an ordinary Richter-tuned D instrument will get you a huge bag of tunes with no trouble. D major tunes, of course, and the E dorian and A mix, obviously (there’s a huge set to start with) but also there are tons of tunes that are nominally in a key requiring a C natural, but don’t actually need it. There are lots of G tunes and Am tunes that never hit the C, and also A major tunes that never hit the G#.

For a start, here’s the titles from an abc file I made a few years ago of tunes that looked promising for diatonic D harp:
T:A Fig For A Kiss
T:Boys Of Bluehill, The
T:Cliffs, The
T:Coleman’s Cross
T:Connaughtman’s Rambles, The
T:Crosses Of Annagh, The
T:Donnybrook Fair
T:Drunken Landlady, The
T:Egan’s
T:Galway Piper, The
T:Geese In The Bog, The
T:Glenside, The
T:Going To Donnybrook
T:Honeysuckle, The
T:Humours Of Lewisham, The
T:Ingonish
T:Jackson’s Fancy
T:Joe Madden’s
T:Key Of The Convent, The
T:Killavil, The
T:Little Diamond, The
T:Maggie In The Woods
T:Maid Behind The Bar, The
T:Maids Of Mt. Kisco, The
T:Man Of The House, The
T:Michael Gorman’s
T:Miss Monaghan
T:Mrs. Kinney’s
T:Mulqueen’s
T:Noon Lassies, The
T:Off To Alaska
T:Old Joe’s
T:Out On The Ocean
T:Red Haired Boy, The
T:Ships In Full Sail
T:Tap Room, The
T:That’s Right Too
T:Trip To Durrow, The
T:Tripping Up The Stairs
T:Up In The Air
T:Walter Sammon’s Grandmother
T:Where Lilies Bloom


These are all on this site, conveniently enough. Man of the House, incidentally, is fantastic on the D harp, put it with the Drunken Landlady and maybe Sporting Paddy in there as well. (there’s an example of a tune that’s in "Am" without ever hitting the c)

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Just grab a D harmonica and start playing, there are huge amounts of tunes that you can play with a simple unmodified harp. Your lowest octave lacks a low A, but most tunes don’t call for it. I play Hohner Special 20s myself, as I like the plastic comb, easier on my mouth than the old wood comb and brass edges. Hohner makes a Low D Special 20 that puts you into the same range as flutes instead of the whistles that the normal D harmonica is pitched with.
If you get a G harmonica, that is where you need special Paddy tuning, as there are not many G or Em tunes that don’t need that low E missing on normal G harps.
One mistake people make is getting too caught up in research, ordering special harps, etc, etc. Until you are playing with other people, it doesn’t matter what harp in what key you pick up, just pick it up and get started!
Steve Shaw will probably chime in on the discussion soon, he is a great resource on this site.
A nice simple instrument, the harmonica can be a lot of fun.
Enjoy!

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Will (Billy) Atkinson, a harmonica player from Northumberland, England, who died some years back.

He was a consummate player. It’s not easy to get hold of recordings now. He did a solo album called "Mouthorgan", and recorded also with Willy Taylor (fiddle) and Joe Hutton, notably on an album called "Harthope Burn" though on others also.

You might just strike lucky if you try a website called FARNE (this is acronyms for something..) which has many recordings of trad players from North-East England on it.

Will’s style and repertoire were altogether more influenced by Scotland than by Ireland - after all he lived near the Border, and the Scottish music was easily come by on Scottish radio programmes or through visits - but any aspiring moothie player would find his music worth listening to.

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Thanks all for helpful replies. I’ve been frequenting the FARNE radio site for a few years now, its actually Will Atkinson’s playing that got my ears perked up to harmonicas. That, and a relocation from Tallahassee to Utah requiring that my accordions be thinned out, at least temporarily.

As a diatonic player on the box I’m no stranger to the reversal in the second octave, so incidentally I’d have to relearn all my tunes if I bought a zirkular instrument. For the same reason, I’m accustomed to learning all sorts of tunes and mentally transposing them to different keys.. only two rows on a box, after all!

Paddy Richter was the guy, no doubt. Thanks for the heads up.

As it stands, I’m looking at a Hohner Echo in octave tuning but haven’t decided the key (brand loyalty, I know, one day I’ll learn…). Some of these harmonicas are really pretty and look like great fun to play… and all I needed at this point was another compulsive instrument addiction… 🙂

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I’ve recently put a lot of energy into this thread on Chiff and Fipple:
http://forums.chiffandfipple.com/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=70992
…so I hope I’m not breaching protocol if I just link to it instead of churning it all out again here.

Echos are not in octave tuning by the way. That’s the Comets you”ll be thinking of. Last time I checked (a long time ago) they were available only in G and C. I don’t like them because they only have to drift a teensy bit out of tune (which they do) and you start to hear beats. Echos come in single-sided and double-sided versions. The latter are, basically, two harmonicas back-to-back. I have two of ‘em ,one in D/G (by far the more useful) and one in D/A. Be warned that both Echos and Comets come in the same tuning layout as blues harps, meaning that they have missing notes in the lowest octave. If I had my time again, or when those damned Echos of mine finally wear out, I think I’d go for Tombo tremolos.
Apropos of Paddy Richter retuning, I’ve always retuned all my harps that way, though, as Al says, it’s more important with G harps than D. Having said this, Brendan Power prefers to play some tunes on a Paddy D harp at regular pitch (as oppposed to low D) in the bottom octave. Not for me - I play low D harps mostly from hole 4 up.
Alex is not really correct to say that "minor" tunes are hard on diatonics. Almost all the "minor" tunes in Irish are either Dorian or Aeolian mode tunes which are perfectly playable without bending on diatonic harps. You really don’t need to buy those esoteric minor-tuned harps to play Irish tunes.

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Thanks, Steve. I was thinking of the Echo model nos. 1493-1496 in octave tuning, but jumped on an older Echo in good condition on eBay last night. Double sided in G and C for only $20. Hope t’s in tune! Comet’s net, I’m sure.

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Steve, I just had a look at the C&F discussion. Can you go into a little more detail about regapping reeds? What is required, when it is needed, how it is done, etc. Looking through the Harp-L archives right now.

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Reeds do not sit flush with their slots (the holes they sit above). In order to respond to your stream of air they have to be at a slight angle to the reedplate. Unscrew the covers from a harp and you’ll see what I mean. The draw (suck) reeds can be seen standing slightly proud of the plate they’re riveted to. The blow reeds are under the plate but you can still see a gap at the free end of each reed. Here’s how it goes. No gap (=flush reed), no sound. Large gap, a lot of air needed to make a sound, and the sound is weak and breathy. Small gap, reed responds quickly but will "choke" if played hard or with sudden attack. Choking means a momentary delay before the reed starts to sound, which messes up your playing. A correct gap for your style of playing (we’re not all the same) means good, quick response without choking. I can’t really describe how big a gap should be. Best look at a harp that plays well for you and get the idea that way. If gaps are wrong for you (typically, on a new harp, too small, meaning too small an angle), you can adjust them. This means gently bending the reed with a suitable tool. Pushing at the tip won’t achieve what you want. You need to get under the reed and gently prise it up (or push it down), working somewhere around the middle of the reed. Practise on an oldie or a cheapie. You have to be careful but not so careful that you do nothing at all! One more thing is that reeds share holes on the harp, and what you do to one reed will affect the response of the other in that hole to some extent. The gaps of reeds sharing a hole should be similar. In fact, a well-gapped harp gives the visual appearance of a smooth progression of gaps from low to high, with nothing looking anomalous.

Note: If you are into overblowing you need small gaps. The above may not apply to you.

Most harps are mostly gapped OK for most people most of the time. Generally I find I have to open up one or two at the most on a new harp. My harps are mostly Special 20s, Lee Oskars and Suzuki Bluesmasters.

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From low notes to high notes I meant to say, to be clear.

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Crystal clear, thanks. I should have known: this is like adjusting the height of reed tongues in an accordion for easy speaking. I can import some of those skills from my other affliction 🙂 I’m taking apart a junker right now (C Hohner "Pocket Pal…")

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I should have added that a good tool for gapping comes in the Lee Oskar maintenance kit, which, last time I looked, cost about the same as a harp or just a touch more. You could easily cobble together a toolkit yourself. Rocket science it ain’t. The gapping tool is a thin brass rod about six inches long which is flattened out at one end (for getting under reeds to lift them) and pointed with a slight hook at the other. The blunt heel of that hook is good for massaging a reed to lower the gap. The pointy end is good for probing deep into holes to manipulate reeds or clear out any pubic hairs, etc., that you may have trapped under a reed. As with pubic hairs and sharp objects anywhere else, be sure to go ever so gently.

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A Lee Oskar harp kit sounds interesting, but I have assembled a pretty diverse kit of odds and ends I use for accordion reeds: funny flat metal bits with few other purposes, sharpened dental tools (thanks, Kathy!), tiny screw drivers, blunt rods, tiny files, etc. I guess there could be some overlap between the two disciplines and it might be worth having.

I opened up the cheapo Hohner and found most of the reeds were either too tall or too flush, and it’s playing quite a bit better now (for such a piece of junk). The first thing I noticed is how brass is very quick to bend compared to steel accordion reeds which require far more coaxing… and also when adjusting the heights of the reeds of the blow plate, I’m using a chopstick. Anything metal I’m afraid would scratch the reed and detune it.

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Good post! Cheap harps are a great place to start, not only because you’re not losing much if you wreck ‘em but also because they are very likely to be set up so badly that they give you plenty of practice material for your tinkering. You do need to use something blunt on brass. The back of the bend on the LO gapping tool is pretty blunt! Tuning harmonica reeds is a whole nother issue…

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Has anyone used tunings other than ‘Paddy Richter’ on a 10-hole diatonic?

With Paddy Richter tuning you’re one note short of a full scale on the lowest octave. for example on a D paddy-tuned harmonica you can play D E F# A B C# D E on holes 1 to 4. But there’s a G missing…

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Seydel harmonicas are the best. I play a diatonic plastic combed 1847 with stainless steel reeds and a tremelo fanfare which is great for irish music. I’m yet to try the saxony. These harmonicas are available from eagle music or thoman.de

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Suzuki harmonicas are the best and have the longest lasting reeds. I’ve been playing a promaster in c

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Have you tried Danneckers?