The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Hello everyone,

I was wondering if anyone could recommend a good make of harmonica for Irish music? Chromatic or diatonic? Any information on price etc. would also help.

Thanks

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Thank you, Robert.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Will Pound

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Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

The glib answer is that any harmonica can be used to play Irish tunes, but having said that…

Until a few decades ago, the tremolo harmonica would have been the obvious way to go. In my opinion, solo-tuned tremolos are by far the most practical. Solo-tuned means that the harp has all the notes of the diatonic scale (no sharps and flats). If you want to play in the keys that you’ll hear in Irish sessions, you need harmonicas at least in D and G. An A harp comes in handy too. Always go for decent quality, which means forking out a bit of money. I love my Tombo Band harps, which cost around forty quid each. I get mine from the aforementioned Dave’s Harmonicas. Hohner Echo harps are widely available, but they are not solo-tuned, which means that the important bottom octave has missing notes.

These days, a good few harmonica players are using ten-hole blues harps for Irish. Again, you need the "right" keys, as above, in order to join in. One issue is that standard D harps are very high-pitched, so I prefer to use low D harps to keep me at fiddle pitch. A big issue with blues harps is that the bottom octaves has missing notes. This can be quite a problem, especially with harps in G and A, which are often used in tunes with one of those missing notes, the sixth in the scale. A solution is to retune the 3-blow reed up by a whole tone. That note duplicated the 2-draw reed in any case, so you’re not losing a note. I do this retune myself with a file and a cheap tuner. A harmonica tweaked this way is said to be in Paddy Richter tuning. If you don’t want to do this yourself, you can buy Paddy Richter harps these days. I haven’t found an off-the-shelf one that I can recommend, unfortunately.

If you want to play all the tunes that have sharps or flats (a minority of Irish tunes), you can perfect your note-bending technique on your blues harps (impossible on tremolos), or you can use chromatic harmonicas. Chromatics in Irish music are a big topic. You might think that a chrom in C, the most widely-available key, would be able to play any tune, and you’d be right. But if you’re playing tunes in D, G and A, the commonest Irish keys, on a C chrom, you’ll be pushing the button quite a lot to get the notes and this will interfere with your ability to ornament tunes, which somewhat defeats the object of using a chrom in the first place. A better solution would be to get two chroms, in D and G. Brendan Power has written an excellent tutor for anyone going down that path. Other people turn the chrom’ s slide upside down in order to better ornament the tunes, but you have issues with which keys to get if you want to play in sessions. There are other ways of modifying chromatic harmonicas for playing Irish. Brendan Power is a specialist in the field and will make you up a harp to suit, but this is not a cheap option. Take a peek at his website.

I use all three kinds of harps in sessions. Most nights, the chromatics stay in the harmonica case. You can join in on almost all Irish tunes without resorting to a chrom, though they do have their uses. I’d say I use blues harps about 70% of the time and tremolos for most of the rest, but we’re all different. If I shoved blues harps in low D, G and A, and tremolos in D and G, in my pocket, I’d have a great night every time.

Recommending brands of harmonica as is somewhat invidious. I haven’t tried anything like everything that’s available, and I’ve had some poor experiences with harps that other people rave about. I’ve mentioned the Tombo Band tremolos and I recommend those without reservation. My favourite ten-hole harps, both for quality and longevity, are Suzuki Promasters (thirty-something quid) or Suzuki Bluesmasters (twenty-something, same reeds but plastic, not metal, bodies). Low Ds are an issue. My very favourite Hohner ones were phased out. There’s the expensive Hohner Thunderbird (I haven’t got one) and the somewhat cheaper Seydel Session Steel, which I don’t get on with at all (they’ve let me down). Many other people like them. If you don’t fancy these options, and you don’t care for playing high-pitched, you can always just play your tremolo for D tunes!

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

That’s a really informative post Steve. I’m not a harmonica player, but I’m always interested to learn about other instruments, and on that basis could I ask acouple of questions:
1. tremolo harmonicas - what makes them ‘tremolo’ and what are the alternatives?
2. Blues harmonicas - you mention missing notes in the bottom octave - I assume that means either a pentatonic or blues scale? And are they then diatonic in the higher octaves?

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Thanks to everyone that has contributed, some fascinating stuff!

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I don’t play Irish music on the harmonica - but I do play other music on it, and I have to say I would never buy a Seydel harmonica again. Dodgy tuning, blowing out in a matter of days …. no thanks! The Thunderbird Low D is a good instrument, but pricey. Despite the name, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly loud (at least when it’s me playing).

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Everything you need to know is in this document, The Harmonica and Irish Traditional Music by Don Meade: http://blarneystar.com/HARMONICA_030912X.pdf He lists a bunch of players in the back so you can hear it done. Here’s Tom Clarke, for instance. wailing away on some hornpipes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFa88XfB8h8 Eddie Clarke was a fantastic player on the chromatic, you can get 3 cds of him playing the harp and one of him singing too: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/EddieClarke


I have a chromatic harmonica as I have to be able to play rolls, or some semblance thereof. Forget if they’ve figured out how to do that with the little harps. I just mess around with the harmonica from time to time.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

On almost all harmonicas, you have the major chord of the harmonica’s key on the blow notes.
On a solo tuned harmonica, so that each octave is the same, you have two of the root notes side by side, as so:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solo_tuning
On the standard diatonic, or blues harmonica, the root note is not repeated. So the scale plays a bit different in the different octaves of the instrument. That results in some missing notes in the top and bottom octaves. And on the bottom octave of the harmonica, one of the reeds is tuned differently so that you have the V chord on the draw, which is used by people who play not only one note at a time but also play chords on the instrument. This is called Richter tuning:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richter_tuning
This leaves you without the low VI note of the scale. On a D harmonica, that does not make much difference, as most Irish tunes don’t go below low D, and flute and whistle players, who don’t have any notes below that D, can show you cheats to get around on tunes that go lower than D. On a G harmonic, however, that missing low note is the low E, which is pretty central to many G tunes. So harmonicas are adjusted to what is called "Paddy Richter" tuning, where one of the draw notes is replaced by that note you need.
(And for those of you interested in accordions, lots of what I have discussed above applies to diatonic button accordions as well, which are basically a giant harmonica with a bellows attached instead of a human windbag.)
Steve’s advice above, is as always, excellent. Myself, I prefer diatonic harmonicas. The one that gets the most work is my low D, with my G and my C also getting some work. I carry a case with Bflat, F, C, G, lowD, highD, and A harmonicas in it, but most only get used when accompanying the songs in the group I play in, or in non-Irish playing. My favorite, like Steve, was the LowD Hohner Special 20, and when it was discontinued, I went out and bought as many LowD Hohners as I could find, and I am still playing from that stash. Their new Hohner Thunderbird line of low harmonicas is supposed to be really good, but the LowD costs over $120, and that is a pill I refuse to swallow until I absolutely have to.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Kevin, I myself have never found a way to produce a decent roll on a diatonic harmonica. I usually put a triplet where a roll might appear. You can produce a pretty credible triplet without tonguing by raising your tongue on the middle of the three notes, creating a oo-ll-oo kind of a sound which breaks the three notes apart.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I like the effect of tongueing .
Paul Davis the musical instrument dealer used to use rolls on a chromatic and it was very effective.
I think it was done by flicking the slide in and out.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Whilst I try to ornament the tunes to the best of my ability, it’s something that doesn’t worry me too much. You can buy harmonicas from Brendan Power that are specifically set up to play "authentic" ornaments; you can play them slightly better than on a blues harp with a ordinary chromatic; or you can flip the slide on a chrom so that the note goes down instead of up. Or you can just do your damnedest with what you’ve got. Noel Battle plays only standard Tombo Band tremolos, yet his ornamentation is the best I’ve ever heard on harmonica. On the other hand, I’ve heard some buttock-clenchingly awful ornamentation played on supposedly well-adapted harmonicas. Typically, the ornaments sound like conspicuous bolt-ons, played lumberingly and as heavily as the main notes, often exactly the same every time around. It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. Best to play the harmonicas you most like playing, get the music under your belt and play with really good rhythm and lift. Let the ornamentation look after itself, which it will if you listen to enough Irish music and learn by ear. There are little cuts, triplets, bends (easy, tiger…) and even a half-decent fake roll that will eventually come naturally, even on a blues harp. Integrate them into the tune-learning process and you’ll never look back.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Al dealt with the tunings, so just to answer the question about tremolos. A tremolo harmonica is double-reeded: every note you play sounds a reed at the appropriate pitch, simultaneously with a reed tuned slightly sharp. The effect is the warbling, tremolo sound, with "beats", just like the accordion sound. The holes on a tremolo are in a double row instead of the single row of holes on a blues harp, and there is only one reed in each hole. This makes a slight difference to where your lips go when you’re playing. If you’re used to blues harps, initially you’ll play a few wrong notes because you’re a hole away from where you should be, but, once you’ve played a tremolo for a little while, getting it right becomes second nature and it’s nothing to worry about. The degree of tremolo varies according to make. Cheap tremolos will have inconsistent tremolo up and down the scales, whereas a quality tremolo will be nicely graduated, from a slower tremolo at the low end to faster as you go up the scales. If you’re used to tuning reeds, it’s easy enough to set the degree of tremolo to your own taste. But that "if" is quite important!

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I just bought a low D harmonica. It takes my breath away. Literally.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Which one did you buy?

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

The seydel, nice tone, comfy etc but uses a lot of wind.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

The Seydel Session Steel low D is quite loud and it does take a lot of puff. A less kind way of putting it is that it isn’t ideally responsive, so it needs playing quite hard. I suppose stainless steel reeds are stiffer than brass ones. The Hohner XB40 had the same issue (i.e., needing to be played hard) but you did get used to it eventually, and the extra volume was a brilliant bonus. Unlike the XB40, which was built to take good, hard playing, the Session Steel seems to be a more fragile beast, unfortunately. If that’s the one you bought, good luck with it.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I started with Lee Oscars then progressed to Suzuki Promasters and have toyed with Seydel Session steels . Would have to say the Suzuki promasters are tops but the Seydel Session steel are only marginally behind .
A D and a G in either make will see you through most sessions

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Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I used to get Anthony Dannecker to make my Special 20 low Ds and he was a genius. Sadly, they are no longer available. His prices have gone up quite a lot, but he does produce superb harmonicas and he’ll customise them for you. But he only does Hohners. Highly recommended.

I agree that Promasters are really good. For a bit less money you can have Suzuki Bluesmasters, which have exactly the same reeds but a plastic, not metal, body. That is not necessarily a disadvantage at all.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I believe he makes his own is that correct? are you a wizard player Steve?

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Yes he does. What I meant, and what I didn’t make clear enough, is that he does not work on major harmonica brands other than Hohner. The second part of your short post is unworthy of a response from me, I’m afraid.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I heard you were a brilliant mouthie.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

If it’s OK with you I’d rather stick to the point.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Danneckers Paddy Richter tuning anyone?

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

He’ll do that for no extra cost. For 10-hole harps, you also need to tell Anthony whether you want straight tuning (equal temperament) or intonated tuning (which I believe is the compromise tuning used by Hohner for their MS range and Special 20s). He does a great job.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

can’t someone make a two row diatonic harmonica? have it tuned C/C# and problem solved! I am sure I have seen pictures of them on various websites.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Er, that’s exactly what a C chromatic is…

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

B C or C#D, would be useful for Button Accordeon players,do they exist already.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I use a C#/D chromatic.

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Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I’m not really much of a chrom player, but I imagine a B/C would not be as useful as it sounds. Unlike with a B/C box, on which you can simply cross rows, you have to push the slide in on the "equivalent" harmonica just to get a lot of the notes if you want to play in the usual keys. At any given time, a lot of the notes you may want are not available to you for use in ornamentation. You’re much better off with chroms in D and G.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

The crossing row style of a B/C is pretty much the same as playing a C chrom for Irish music.. it doesn’t really work unless you’re a virtuoso on the chromatic.

C#/D or D/D# is quite doable though, can play in major keys of D/G/A quite easily as you only require one note per octave from the other "row".

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Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

That’s right. But even a virtuoso would struggle a bit with ornamentation on a C chrom, if the usual keys were being employed. It wouldn’t matter if you just wanted to play everything in C. Whatever stirs yer loins!

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a post saying that F#/G is most practical, and the argument was something like "because you don’t have to blow or draw too long sequences in the common ITM keys".

Is there a harmonica player who can confirm this?

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Not really a harmonica player myself but Meade points out that a G instrument has the same range as the fiddle, also 1st position is in G if you’re playing from the bottom plate - i.e., with the slide pushed in, or with the slide flipped. Also the chords work. Nothing about ease of breathing, mostly they say you want a tuning that doesn’t make you push the slide in and out constantly, like B/C, which might be a good idea for a button accordion, harmonica, not so much.

If I were serious about harmonicas I think I’d just pack around a C#/D and an F#/G. They’d together weigh about as much as my banjo’s headstock and cost about as much as an old flute.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

That’s a sound plan, Kevin, but you could consider reversing the slides on those two so that they’re in D and G slide-out. You’d then be using the much-admired Eddie Clarke method but without the sweat of holding the slide in all the time in order to play in the usual keys. By the way, and no barb intended, you can be perfectly serious about the harmonica without ever resorting to chromatics. 😉

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Oh yeah, I know about flipping the slide. I’d like to know how to make it a titch easier to push the thing in too. All I have is a 270 in C, I just practice a bit at home with the slide flipped, thus in C#. If I wanted to venture out in the world I’d want something in D. Agree that chroms aren’t the be-all and end-all, I just like having something on hand where you can throw in a grace note. Doesn’t stop me from playing the banjo though, where we can’t really do rolls.

Also, you should know, having taken a crack at about everything you can play Irish music on, that I can say that by far the most confusing instrument in terms of model choice is the harmonica. ;) The whole barrage of terminology, Paddy Richter Country Blues DeTuned Custom Diatonic Slide Blah Blah Blah holy crap what a mess, and I’m still damned if I know which is which!

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

You’ll get by nicely with solo tuning (chroms and most tremolos) and Paddy Richter (standard 10-hole with just one reed retuned). All the rest can await your long-term self-education. They’re still awaiting mine!

The 270 slide should be working fine. I can advise! 🙂

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Thanks for all the advice Steve, not just here, there’s been a lot of very helpful stuff in discussions over the years about working that moothie. I’ll carry on with the 270 as it is for now, it’s just fun to try and play along with songs on the thing.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Which companies make C#D harmonicas?

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Dunno. Guess you could cobble one together from a 270 in C, using the button-in plate, and one in D, using the button-out plate. If you really want to. I haven’t researched other companies’ products. I’m sure someone else may have a better idea.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

A quick shufty around various websites seems to indicate that you won’t get one off-the-shelf. You may have better luck. On the whole, if you want a chrom that does tricks or is in a funny key (i.e., not a model that the companies think they could sell at least a few of), you’re going to have to pay big mazumas and, quite likely, do a bit of construction work.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

I got mine from Seydel, they have harmonica configurators that allow you to setup your harmonica exactly as you want it. It does cost a little extra compared to stock however..

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Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Thanks for all the good information, folks. Has anyone tried the Lee Oskar Melody Maker, or similar? I’ve used his "D" model quite a bit. It’s basically a G diatonic with a low E, and the C’s tuned to C#. It won’t play everything, but it has a nice range for session tunes and handles the keys of D, E minor, A mixo and B minor okay. I have to replace them every few months; I’d like to try some of the sturdier harmonicas mentioned above.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

My advice to people just "fooling" (as I do) around with harmonica, is don’t really shell out the money for a chromatic. Get solo tuned Seydel’s in D and G and you will be happy for a long time. and in the U.S. you can get them from musicians friend for $60- cheaper than their Paddy Richters and you have an extra low note.

I saw something above saying that ornaments on a diatonic are difficult- just do a triplet- you can get something respectable by just jumping to the hole on either side and back- but you just figure out which combinations- this works on solo tuned too

As for bending notes on a diatonic- why do people always suggest or do that? It just doesn’t sound right. There- I said it.! It starts sounding bluesy, and it’s like piano and guitar players who throw in weird chords. Especially if you draw-3- that note really sticks out..

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

Banjoloon said- ‘As for bending notes on a diatonic- why do people always suggest or do that? It just doesn’t sound right’ I can bend but don’t because I read that it can damage the reeds eventually and many harmonicas can’t handle it.

Re: The Best Harmonica for Irish Music

banjoloon said: "As for bending notes on a diatonic- why do people always suggest or do that?"

Because it is a way to get the notes in the major scale that are missing in the standard suck and blow of the diatonic harmonica.