What Is a Chromatic Harmonica?

By Hal Walker

Written by Hal Walker on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, Hal Walker, Harmonica Lessons

Chromatic Harmonica vs Diatonic Harmonica, the low down…

For most of my life, I’ve been playing the 10-hole diatonic harmonica. I’m a solo player. That means I play driving rhythms, tongue-blocked harmonies, and soaring melodies — all at once on one of those pocket-sized 10-hole wonders. I’ve always known that out there in the harmonica stratosphere was something called a “chromatic” harp, but I figured I’d go through my life as a diatonic player. That was up until about a year and a half ago, when I walked into my first harmonica convention. I was introduced to a community of great musicians playing monster-sized harmonicas — 12- and 16-hole chromatics, two-foot-long chord harmonicas, and 3-1/2 lb. bass harmonicas. To say the least, I was intrigued.

It was at this festival that I first met Al Smith — a legendary chord player and harmonica historian. It turns out that Al lives just forty minutes from my house, and he was excited to guide me into the world of chromatic playing. The first time I played one of these beasts, I was befuddled … 16 holes seemed never ending; the layout was completely different from my friend, the diatonic, and I had to press this little bar in order to play sharps and flats. A lifelong harmonica player, a professional harmonica performer, and a master harmonica teacher, I had become a brand-spankin’ newbie.

Fortunately, I’m a fast study. A year and a half later, I find myself the leader of a new harmonica quartet. Al Smith, his wife Judy, Dave Watt, and I make up “Reed City.” Our first show is in Kent, Ohio on this January 21st. We’re playing cool arrangements of the old favorites, Moonlight Serenade, East of the Sun, and Sweet Georgia Brown. If you’ve never heard a harmonica quartet before, this video of “Harmonica Express” is a fine introduction:

Back in November, I was invited to my second harmonica festival. I knew I was ready to make my first major chromatic purchase. During the festival, I stopped by the store probably twenty times to play the chromatics that were laid out to sample. After much back and forth indecision, I chose the 12-hole Suzuki GW-48. With rosewood cover plates and a chromed-brass mouthpiece, this solid block of real beauty weighs in at almost 11 ounces. After I made the purchase, one of my new friends commented, “That’s a nice horn, Hal.” A few minutes later in the reverberating stairwell of our hotel, I found out what he meant by that. Playing a chromatic is like playing a horn: it’s part saxophone, part trumpet, part oboe, and part trombone. But also, it sounds sweet, like an extension of my own voice. When I draw those low notes with this new gutsy vibrato that I’ve learned, the sound touches my soul, and I love it.

These days, I play mostly chromatic. In my solo performances, of course, my box of diatonics will always be there. But it’s the fascinating patterns, the shapes, the sounds, and the challenge of this chromatic instrument that have me on a musical high. When I get it figured out, I’ll put together some beginning chromatic lessons, so that I can share with you the joy that I’ve found. Stay tuned. Your harmonica “other-buddy,” Hal

P.S: Chromatics are most often used to play the standards … or the American Songbook. Jazz and classical players are kind of the elite of chromatic players. The late Michel Adler is probably the most well known chromatic player. Here’s a video of Harmonica virtuoso Michal Adler (no relation to Larry) performing a beautiful Haim Hefer song at Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem on the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day 5771-2011.

Here’s what the professional chromatic harmonica manufacture Hohner Harmonica says:

Chromatic Harmonicas: Endless Potential for Expression

Play in all keys on just one instrument.

Chromatic harmonicas are designed to play every complete scale in any key — major, minor, pentatonic, blues, etc. — all on one instrument. Additionally, all accidental notes are available at any time for any situation.

Each single hole contains four reeds; two natural notes and two chromatic notes. The reeds for the chromatic notes are enabled by pushing a slide button on the side of the harmonica. Most chromatics are solo tuned, which means each group of four single holes covers a complete octave.

This design offers a wealth of new musical options to the player. Most commonly chromatic harmonicas are heard within the classical and jazz scenes, but often these harmonicas are used for blues, folk, rock, and pop as well.

Please share your comments below, I’d love to know what you think of the amazing chromatic harmonica!

Hal Walker

Hal is a singer, songwriter and musical explorer. Hal Walker, the educator, enjoys ongoing collaborations with Ohio arts organizations. Hal has also released 3 albums of his songs and one CD of instrumental music. Hal Walker, the multi-instrumentalist, composes and improvises on the guitar, piano, harmonica, the khaen, jew’s harp and concertina. In collaboration, he has developed a modern version of a traditional African instrument called a “Banakula.” New! Hal Walker harmonica lessons for beginners, click: Music That Fits in Your Pocket

Comments (6)

  • Mike Wilbur

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    Hal I will see you Saturday nite @UU
    I’m flying up from Key West just for your show!

    See you in Kent and introduce myself…..m

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      I’m sure he’ll be stoked to hear that Mike,
      jp

      Reply

  • ElizabethGS

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    Hi Hal: I’m a member of the Garden State Harmonica Club – likely where you bought your new ‘horn’. :) I also adore Al & Judy. Congrats on your new gig playing with them – They’re very special people. I hope you don’t mind my making one correction? Michal Adler has absolutely NO connection to Larry Adler. She’s not his daughter –or related to him in any way. I’ve no idea how this idea got started, but she lives in Israel, is the daughter of Danny Adler who with his brother Dror began the Adler Trio (they even came to SPAH years ago to perform both with her father in the lead and later with Michal). Michal took over her father’s role as lead chromatic when he became a Judge in Israel. I imagine the coincidence of the Adler name and both playing chromatics is what was the trigger, but trust me – there is no connection. She’s married to Shlomo Gronich (the most famous musician in Israel) and has two daughters. Shlomo writes music specifically for Michal and the Adler trio to perform.

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Hello Elizabeth!

      Thank you so much for your response. I’m not sure where I got that Michal and Larry Adler were related! I’m afraid I may have just made it up after seeing there names. I appreciate the correction. I’m fairly new to the larger world of great harmonica players and I’m so glad for the education. I’m discovering that Al Smith knows just about every harmonica name out there. Its been a real pleasure learning the ropes from Judy and Al.

      Again. Thank you for your response and I hope to see you in the Garden State sometime. Are you going to SPAH this summer?

      Sincerely, Hal

      Reply

  • ElizabethGS

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    Hi Hal: A lot of people have made the same assumption, so you’re certainly not alone.

    Yes. So far. I’m scheduled to (assuming my back problems are a bit better by then). I was very interested in attending your Khaen presentation in November but wasn’t able to get there in time. At SPAH I’m going to do a wee Seminar (my first ever) on the newer Suzuki Melodion with George Miklas as my co-presenter –he dismantled it and tuned many reeds for me at GSHC . Hopefully we’ll work out something interesting enough. It’s another ‘free-reed’ instrument.

    Al IS a font of wonderful harmonica information. Since you’re playing chromatics more now, you might want to try Slidemeister as well. Great website with lots of good people posting. AJ Fedor is the head Slidemeister. Not sure the link will post but it’s: slidemeister.com/forums/

    Sincerely, Elizabeth

    Reply

    • JP Allen

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      Thanks, Elizabeth!

      I hope to see you in Dallas with a strong back and a Suzuki Melodion! I am a
      “member” of Slidemeister, though it’s been a while since I’ve logged in. Next time
      I do, I’ll look for you. Enjoy the Spring. Hal

      Reply

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