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Harmonica Jargon Simplified and Explained

Cross Harp, Solo-Tuned, Bending, Octaves. Eagle Music demystify the jargon in simple terms and explain all the most important things that you need to know about your harmonica.

You will hear a lot of jargon relating to harmonicas. We shall simplify all this ‘Harping on’ in the following notes, please excuse the pun! Eagle Music explains here with simple explanations of all the most important things that you need to know about your harmonica. The list is written down in alphabetic order.

ABS

A moulded plastic type material that is often used for making the comb of a harmonica.

Airtight

When a harmonica is built, a vast amount of precision engineering is needed in the assembly to stop air from leaking out from between the reed plates and the comb. Reed plates that are ‘screwed on’  work better and are more airtight than reed plates that are nailed or pinned on.

In an ideal situation, air blown in or drawn out of the harmonica by the player should activate the reeds being played and leak out nowhere else. If air is leaking from some part of the structure of the harmonica it can be said that the harmonica is not ‘airtight’ and is ‘leaking’ air.

A harmonica that is airtight will be more responsive to the player and will not require excess amounts of air to play it. A bad embouchure (The use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips when playing) however, can be a problem that a player has to work on in order to develop a reliable playing technique.

Amplify – (Miking up)

There are some dedicated ‘electric’ harmonicas on the market but it is more common to play into a microphone and connect to a amplifier. Eagle Music Shop offers various solutions in amplification. The Micro Vox system is widely used for harmonica and also check out dedicated harmonica microphones like the Hohner Blues-Blaster.

Bending (Notes)

You will hear notes being ‘bent’ when you listen in particular say to a blues player. This note bending is achieved by altering slightly the pressure of the breath passing over a harmonica reed, the note of that particular reed can in this way be lowered in pitch. This works on a ten hole diatonic for draw reeds one through to six and blow reeds seven through to ten. Blow reeds one through to six and draw reeds seven through to ten cannot be bent down in pitch on a normal diatonic. Reeds on chromatic and tremolo harmonicas can also be bent down. On chromatic harmonicas  all the reeds can be bent but only by one semi-tone at the most and although it is possible to bend reeds down on a tremolo harmonicas, it is tricky to do and not widely used by players.

Comb

A harmonica is built around what is called a comb. The comb is the central part of a harmonica. The comb can be made of wood, metal or a type of plastic. The comb is the part that has the holes in it that you blow thorough!
Wooden combs can be affected by moisture. Some modern harmonicas have encapsulated wooden combs that are not affected by moisture. Metal combs are the most airtight. Some players say that wooden combs give a mellower tone to their harmonica.

Cover Plates

These are the outer parts of a harmonica. If you remove the cover plates you will be able to see the reed plates and reeds. The cover plates protect the reeds but are designed to allow sound and air to pass by them. Cover plates can be made of polished stainless steel or metal that is chrome or nickel plated or blackened. There are many designs in cover plates, and some are reputed to have better airflow profiles and ‘ergonomics’ regarding the ‘feel’ of the harmonica.

Chromatic Harmonica

A chromatic harmonica has all 12 notes of the chromatic scale available enabling the user to play in any key. On a C chromatic harmonica the button operated slide mechanism allows the player to alternate between the scales of C and C# – in effect it is like alternating between the white and black notes of the piano.

Cross Harp

This is the most commonly used ‘position’ for playing harmonica in rock, blues and Country and Western music.
When you play a C harmonica over a piece of music in the key of C this is termed First Position harmonica. If you play a C harmonica over a piece of music that is being played in the key of G this is termed Second Position harmonica or ‘Cross harp’. This position is the most user-friendly for playing melodies, riffs, effects and chordal accompaniment in rock, blues and blues-related music. To work out which harmonica you need to play in Cross Harp find out the key of the piece of music that you wish to play, then work out the fourth note of the scale of that key-that will dictate the key of the harmonica you need to play Second Position  cross harp.
eg.
G A B C D E F# G 4th is C
C D E F G A B C 4th is F etc.

Here is a chart that you can read to work out which harmonica to choose for playing in cross harp Second Position.
(coming soon)

Diatonic Harmonica

The key of a diatonic harmonica will be printed on its side/end, also on some diatonic harmonicas the 2nd position is also printed on its side/end. Diatonic harmonicas are available in all major, minor keys. eg. a C diatonic harmonica will only have the notes of the key of C, a G diatonic harmonica will only have the notes of the key of G etc.

High Harmonicas

Some of the diatonic harmonicas that we offer can be purchased also as HIGH models These are tuned an octave higher than the standard pitched models. eg. ‘High G’

Low Harmonicas

Standard diatonic harmonicas go from the lowest in pitch-G through to the highest in pitch-F#. It is possible to obtain versions of the normally high-pitched harmonicas that are tuned an octave lower in pitch. Low C, D, Eb, E and F harps are readily available, others can be made as custom instruments. High G diatonics can also be found. Hering make a low-tuned or ‘baritone’ C chromatic and the Suzuki Humming Tremolo in D is an octave lower in pitch than ‘normal’ D tremolos.

Microphone

There are some dedicated ‘electric’ harmonicas on the market but it is more common to play into a microphone and connect to a amplifier. Eagle Music Shop offers various solutions in amplification. The Micro Vox system is widely used for harmonica and also check out dedicated harmonica microphones like the Hohner Blues-Blaster.

Octaves

An octave is the interval from one note to its respective note either higher or lower.(an octave above or an octave below) For example …The seven notes in the music alphabet for are A B C D E F G When all these notes are repeated eg  A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G
all the C notes that I have highlighted in bold are an ‘Octave Apart’. It doesn’t matter what note you start on …the same principle applies. eg. here are D octaves A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G

Twelve hole forty eight note harmonicas have three octaves (Which id sufficient for most players) Sixteen hole chromatics have four octaves and you can buy special harmonicas that have more octaves.

Paddy Richter tuning

A type of tuning developed by Brendan Power …This tuning of say a diatonic harmonica gives two octave scales and makes the harmonica  better suited for playing tunes and melody.  It was developed with Irish music in mind and for playing Irish reels, jigs and hornpipes. this tuning is also suitable for other melodic music.

Plates

These are what the harmonicas reeds are fixed to (See Reed Plates below)

Reeds

Reeds are what produce the note/sound of a harmonica. reeds are made from brass, bronze or stainless steel. brass is the most common material for making reeds. Stainless  steel reeds can be found on higher prices instruments. Brass is a soft material and produces a sweet tone. Bronze reeds produce a brighter tone than brass reeds.Stainless steel reeds are stronger than brass and bronze reeds and have a longer life span, harmonicas fitted with these reeds also tend to be more expensive due to their longer life. Reeds are ‘tuned’ at the time of manufacture and in some cases can be re-tuned.

Reed Plates

Reed plates are generally made from brass plate that is machined / ground very flat and square. they have little slots milled out of them to house the individual reeds. Each individual reed has its own slot. Reeds are riveted onto the reed plate. The reed plates are screwed or nailed onto the comb. The best and most airtight harmonicas have ‘screwed-on-reed-plates’.

Re-tuning

You can’t mend reeds …but you can re-tune them. Tool kits can be bought for this purpose.
You tune reeds by gently removing material from the top surface of the reed. If you scrape/scratch near the tip of a reed, this will raise the pitch. Likewise if you do the same near the base of the reed (the riveted end) this will lower the pitch. A great amount of developed skill is required in knowing how much material to remove! Tool kits contain small, curved needle files etc. You can also use very fine emery paper wrapped around a matchstick or fine flat Swiss file.

Richter

The tuning system that is used on diatonic harmonicas. Named after its inventor Joseph Richter, a Bohemian instrument maker.

Riveted

Reeds are riveted onto the reed plate. The reed plates are screwed or nailed onto the comb. The best and most airtight harmonicas have ‘screwed-on-reed-plates’.

Slider Mechanism Button

This is the part that is activated by pressing a button on the end of chromatic harmonicas.
The sharp and flat notes are accessed by pressing in the button operated slider. When the slider is fully pressed in, it re directs air into a second set of reeds that are tuned to the sharps and flats of the scale and pitch that the harmonica is tuned to. So, when the lever is pressed in, each note in each hole of the harmonica is raised by one semitone.

Solo-Tuned

The note layout of a normal diatonic harmonica omits the fourth and sixth notes of the scale in the first octave and the seventh note of the scale in the third octave. Solo-tuning replaces these missing notes so that there are three complete octaves available. Solo-tuned diatonics tend only to be available in C. The Suzuki and Tombo tremolos are solo-tuned which makes the ideal for playing melodies.

Tremolo harmonica

Tremolo harmonicas have two reeds for each note. One of these reeds is tuned slightly sharper than the other giving a waving, tremolo effect when they are played simultaneously. Octave-tuned harmonicas are similar in construction but the two reeds for each note are tuned an octave apart.

Valved

Chromatics have small flaps of plastic called valves covering the reed slots (on the opposite side to the reeds obviously!). These maintain the air-tightness of the instrument. They also mean that that reeds can be blow and draw bent. Suzuki do a valved version of their Promaster. This tends to be a more responsive and louder instrument than the un-valved version and has the added bonus that blow reeds in holes 1-6 and draw reeds in holes 7-10 can be bent down in pitch thus increasing the range of notes available.

Wooden body

A wooden comb this is the central part of the harmonica upon which the reed plates sit-the bit with the holes in it! It can be made of wood, plastic or metal.

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