Techniques for the harmonica

Techniques for the harmonica

Hi, just wondering if there’s anyone who knows some really good techniques for the harmonica (especially diatonic) in Irish traditional music?

Re: Techniques for the harmonica

1. Breathe out.
2. Breathe in.

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Re: Techniques for the harmonica

Great advice there lol 🙂

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Re: Techniques for the harmonica

If you’re playing ten-hole blues harps you will be greatly helped if your harmonicas are modified slightly in order to replace the missing sixth note of the bottom octave. You can do this yourself by tuning up the 3-blow reed by a whole tone as long as you know what you’re doing (it isn’t hard). Your harmonica is then said to be in the Paddy Richter tuning, a term coined by Brendan Power. Some brands actually make them in that tuning, but I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of different brands right now. If you buy tremolo harps all the diatonic-scale notes are there, so no problem. I strongly recommend the Tombo Band models. You can play vamping-style to "accompany" yourself if you tongue-block but you need to be able to play clean single notes quite fast as well. Rapid changes of air-direction are vital so you need to practise smoothing that out. A great tune to test your mettle at hitting the right note when you’re leaping around the mouthpiece AND at rapidly changing air direction is the Belfast Hornpipe. The majority of Irish tunes work best if you play them in first position (for example, in G on a G harmonica), but a good few work best in second position (for example, in A on a D harmonica). Lots of polkas work well in second position. A good tune to try that way is Red-haired Boy - and any other tune that is in mixolydian mode. The great thing about having a few tunes under your belt that are in second position is that you can put sets together that have a key-change (down, purists!) without having to switch harmonicas. Though there’s nothing wrong with a deft switch of harmonica either!

Re: Techniques for the harmonica

And if you’re playing diatonic harmonicas in sessions that use traditional keys and you don’t want to be left out, you’ll need harmonicas in D and G at the very least, and in A when the money runs to it. All my D blues harps are in low D. A standard D harp is quite high-pitched. Low D harps put you at the pitch of the fiddles, which is what I always prefer.

By the way, most of the time you’ll get away with a standard-tuned low D harp, as opposed to a Paddy Richter-tuned one, as very few tunes in D go below the D at 4-blow, in order that the poor old whistles can play them! There are exceptions but you can always go up for another pint…

Re: Techniques for the harmonica

The "uh-duh-luh" tongue roll for making triplets, and nice clean cuts using your lower jaw movement. I’d say those are by far and away the neatest tricks in the box. All the rest - breath control, clean single notes, rhythmic playing, etc. - is necessary for being able to play a tune cleanly, but that’s the same for any instrument. Those two techniques for ornamentation really make the difference, imho.

Re: Techniques for the harmonica

I forgot about those tongued triplets. A very useful technique. Brendan said that he learned the jaw-flick method of doing the cuts from the Murphys of Wexford. It’s far better to do them that way and it’s a technique well worth practising. Very judicious use of bending can be very expressive too.