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Guide to Harmonicas

Harmonica : What is it?

Harmonicas

Harmonicas are free-reed instruments consisting of several reeds that vibrate to produce sound. They are made up of cover plates, reed-plates, and a main body called the comb. The reeds are bolted or welded onto the reed-plate, which is housed inside the comb. The reeds may be made of brass or bronze, and are laid over an airway slot through which the air passes. The cover plate is placed over the reed-plate and may be made of wood, metal, or plastic.

Harmonicas are distinguished from other free-reed instruments by their lack of a keyboard, which is replaced by a series of small airways touching one or more of the reeds. This arrangement allows the user to adjust pitch and volume by blowing in different directions.

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Types of Harmonicas

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Kinds of Harmonicas include the following:

Chromatic harmonicas

Chromatic harmonicas use button-controlled bars to direct the blow to specific airways. They usually play a full range of keys from a single reed plate. They are commonly used in blues, classical, jazz, and Celtic music.

Diatonic harmonicas

Tremolo harmonicas


Tremolo harmonicas play each note with two reeds – one playing a sharp note and the other sounding flat. This produces a distinct warbling sound with a tone midway between the two discordant notes. The most commonly used form is the Asian tremolo, which contains all possible notes.

Ten-hole harmonicas

Ten-hole harmonicas have ten reed holes, each connected to two reeds. One reed vibrates during exhale, while the other vibrates on inhale. Also called blues harps, they have a range of three octaves and can play 19 notes, although some specialized varieties have up to 42 notes. They produce notes in specific keys without the corresponding flats and sharps.

Octave harmonicas

Octave harmonicas have the same reed arrangement as blues harps, except that both reeds are placed side by side on a single reed-plate. The two reeds in each hole are tuned exactly one octave apart. They are usually tuned in traditional diatonic scales, although some musicians tune them after Asian tremolos.

Orchestral harmonicas

Horn harmonicas

Horn harmonicas have large combs holding individually mounted reeds, which vibrate only on exhale. They are tuned after standard pianos or mallet instruments. The lower reed-plate holds the diatonic C scale natural notes, while the upper reed-plate holds the sharps and flats in the same scale. They come in different octave ranges. The highest pitched varieties start on the middle C, while the lowest pitches start two octaves below.

Polyphonias

Polyphonias have a blow and draw reed, which are tuned to identical tones. They contain all 12 chromatic notes in a single line, allowing users to play notes in rapid succession without redirecting airflow. They are also capable of playing glissandos, a technique where successive notes are played seamlessly to create a sliding sound.

Bass harmonicas

Bass harmonicas have two combs arranged on top of each other, joined at the ends with movable connectors. They also have two reeds in each hole, one playing a bass note and the other playing the corresponding note an octave higher. They have a very low pitch range, usually serving the function of a double bass in an orchestra.

Chord harmonicas


Chord harmonicas have 48 chords consisting of major, minor, seventh, diminished, and augmented chords. In most models, each hole is connected to two reeds tuned one octave apart. Cheaper models only have one reed. They are arranged in clusters of four chords, which produce different notes on blow and draw.

ChengGong harmonicas

ChengGong harmonicas have movable mouthpieces that slide along the body. The mouthpiece has eleven holes that redirect air to different reeds, providing up to 24 distinct chords spanning three octaves. The same note is produced on inhale and exhale, making them very similar in tuning to polyphonias and Asian tremolos.

Pitch pipes

Pitch pipes are mainly used as pitch reference for tuning other instruments, often as alternatives to tuning forks They usually produce a limited number of notes specific to the instrument being tuned. They are also used to determine pitch standards in a particular piece and to guide a cappella singers. 

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Choosing Harmonicas (Buying tips)

Cover design: Make sure the harmonica’s cover plate feels comfortable inside your mouth and that all holes are accessible for tongue blocking. Look for one that allows you to blow from the sides of your mouth while allowing you to reach the holes with your tongue.

Action: This refers to the how fast the reeds bend when you blow. Choose a fast-action reed for better response. High-action reeds are also ideal for beginners because they are easier to control and require lighter breaths.

Construction:
Choose a harmonica with an airtight construction to make sure that no air escapes when you blow. Avoid wood cover plates because they are easily damaged by heat and moisture from regular blowing. Plastic cover plates are usually the most reliable. 

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