Kinds of harps

Q: What kind of harmonicas are there?

A: Basically four kinds. The diatonic-, the chromatic-, the chord- and the bass harmonica. However, there are several types of diatonic and a few variations of the others also -- BB

>From : "Jason's Questions" 09 Jul 94 WY:


These are all types of harmonicas. As one respondent showed, they are also general musical terms. (unfortunately, his answer was full of confused and erroneous information. I'll be glad to give him remedial theory lesson when I get back from Memphis).

DIATONIC is the basic inexpensive harmonica used by most players. It is commonly used for blues, folk, rock and country. It is even used for jazz, now that Howard Levy and others have advanced its technique enough to handle the demands of more harmonically complex music.

Diatonic means, roughly, something in only one key, and that's the meaning applied to the harmonica. A C harmonica is tuned to the C major scale, and plays the two most important chords in C (C Major chord and G 7th chord). If you want to play the same song in another key, let's say D, you'd pick up a D harp and play it the same way you did in C. It's a little like using a capo on a guitar.

Funny thing is, diatonic players are more likely to play a C harp in G and a D harp in A - five notes up the scale. This makes the instrument bluesier and more expressive. On a C harmonica, the blow notes form a C chord when played together, and the draw notes form a G7th chord. The draw notes can bent (you can lower the pitch), allowing you to wail, cry, choke and generally be very vocal-sounding on the notes of the G chord. This is called second position, or cross harp. Playing the C harp in C would be first position, or straight harp. A diatonic can be played in twelve positions - one for each note of the chromatic scale, meaning, that with advanced technique, you can play one diatonic in all keys, thereby defeating the name go this type of harmonica. Howard Levy is the main pioneer of this recent development.


Chromatic (literally, in Latin "colored") means anything that goes outside the boundaries of one single key. Chromatic harmonicas come in several different keys, with a tuning that is adapted from the middle octave of the diatonic, and can be played in any key with sufficient skill. however, some players treat their chromatics like diatonic - learn to play in one or two positions, then just switch to a different key chromatic to play in a different key.

The chromatic is actually two harps in one body. A C chromatic contains a complete C harmonica and a complete C# harmonica. It will play the notes of C major unless you press in a sliding lever at the right side, which blocks out the C harp and exposes the notes of the C# harp. Using the slide like this gives the chromatic all kinds of possibilities not found on the diatonic, but the chromatic can't get quite the same juicy wail that the diatonic can, and it's not as versatile for playing chords.

Some blues players play chromatic for variety, usually in third position (D on a C harp) because the draw chord on a C chromatic is a d minor chord. The sound of this chord and the big, ominous tone of the extra-large chromatic favored by blues players combine for an effective, eerie sound that is unique.

However, the chromatic is a very different instrument to play, and much more expensive than the diatonic - price start at around $50 - so most diatonic players never go too far with it.

Almost all classical harmonica playing is done on the chromatic (Larry Adler, Tommy Reilly, Robert Bonfiglio, Cham-ber Huang). There are several excellent jazz players on chromatic (Toots Thielemans, Hendrik Meurkens, Mike Turk, William Galison). Stevie Wonder is somewhere between jazz and popular music. Chromatic is also used in harmonica bands (see below).


These are DOUBLE REED instruments, meaning that every time you play a note, two reeds are activated instead of one, which augments the sound.

The AutoValve harp is a diatonic harp, tuned like a standard diatonic, except that it is two harmonicas, one above and one below, mounted in the same body. The lower harmonica gives the sound warmth and depth, while the upper one gives it brightness and snap. You can play both harps together (which is the intended manner) or separately (this takes some practice). I wrote an article about it in HIP No. 2 and demonstrated it on a companion cassette.

The BASS HARMONICA and CHORD HARMONICA are also double reed instruments (SEE BAND INSTRUMENTS below).


Tremolo harmonicas, like octave-tuned instruments, sound two reeds for one note, except that both reeds play the same note - almost. One reed is slightly detuned, giving the sound a certain warmth and body. Accordions also have tremolo tuning, and the sound is similar. The more out of tune with each other the reeds are, the 'wetter" the sound is said to be. Gordon Jackson, who is on this list, is something of an expert on tremolo instruments, which are primarily used in folk music of Europe and Asia. They don't seem to have much currency in North America, except in French Canada. Most tremolo harmonicas are diatonic. Some models come with several keys mounted on a spindle like a corncob - rotate it and eat another row in a different key. If a harmonica has Echo, or an alpine scene on the box, it's probably some kind of tremolo.

(FMI: "Re: Echo model" 6 Jan 94) (FMI: "Re: Hero harmonicas./REPLY." 2 Mar 94 GJ) (FMI: "Re: TREMELO" (sic) 17 Jun 94 FJM, GJ)


In the 1920's harmonica bands arose, first as an educational activity in the east coast, with huge student harmonica orchestras, and then as a type of vaudeville act, with up to eight or nine players and lots of slapstick comedy - along with some very fine playing.

Chromatic usually played the lead in these groups, but the supporting roles were given to BASS HARMONICA and CHORD harmonica, playing roles similar to bass and rhythm guitar in most other kinds of bands. these are both double reeded instruments, and are usually two large instruments, one fastened on top of the other. The bass can play 48 different chords, while the bass has a two octave range, starting from the same bottom E note as a string bass or bass guitar.

Additional instruments used in the harmonica bands include the polyphonia and chromatica, which are chromatic instruments with a twist. Instead of having a blow and a draw reed tuned to different notes, these instruments had either all blow notes, or a blow and a draw note tuned the same - and in tune. If Hole 1 was C, then Hole 2 was C# and Hole 3 was D and so on -
each successive hole was another note in the chromatic scale, so that you could slide around from note to note just by moving the harp from side to side. These instruments give a sort of gliding sound, and are used for variety, playing perhaps one chorus in a song.

The better known harmonica bands include Borrah Minnevitch's Harmonica Rascals, and the Harmonicats. Harmonica bands, both professional and amateur, continue to be very popular in many harmonica clubs throughout the U.S. and around the world -- "Jason's Questions" 09 Jul 94 WY

(FMI: "Re: help" -- 18 May 93 JE)

>From "Re: Sugar Blue's weapon of choice" 30 Nov 94 CH, FJM:


Sorry if my original message wasn't clear. The harp in question as very accurately described by Barry is a number 7 polyphonia. I have one at home and both the box label and bottom cover plate describe it as a #7 polyphonia (and it matches the description perfectly). I called it a "bass" poly because it goes down to the D two octaves below middle C (I checked last night).

The 263 poly is a bigger beast, covering 3 octaves. It is called a "Chromonica" by Hohner on the cover plate and in the price list, but I've always heard these harps referred to as polyphonias or polys (just like the 270 and 280 are called by Hohner "Super Chromonica" and "64 Chromonica" respectively, but most people just say "Super", or "64").

And perhaps they are referred to as "zip-zip"s in the UK (though it sounds like a David Michelsen term to me!).

What ever your preferred name, Kim Field's book has a nice paragraph on these harps (found under "polyphonias" in the index, p.48)

---------- Forwarded message ----------

> Recently the question was asked as to what the heck was in Sugar Blue's
> hand on the most recent album cover. I for one am very curious. It has
> 25 holes. Yes 25. It's huge. It has note names starting with D on the
> left and they keep going up. The front notes are the unflatted or
> sharped notes and the back has the sharps and flats. The back note names
> are in raised square shaped boxes that are stamped into the cover plate.
> The covers appear to be held on by 2 screws per end. If this question
> was already answered and I missed it my apologies. FJM >

It's a number 7 bass polyphonia. It goes down to the D two octaves below middle C, I believe (I have one at home but didn't bring it along with me to school). No longer made by Hohner, I bought mine about 10 years ago when Hohner sent a sale list to all the harmonica clubs. Cost me a mere $35. A great harp even if I don't find much use for it. Polys are a dying breed of harmonica as there aren't many harmonica bands around and Hohner only makes one now (the 263, or is it 267, or ?). All polyphonias are chromatics (with out the lever) and were most commonly used for the trombone parts or glissandos in harp bands. The #7 is all blow, and has a great low end. It's not a harp to just pick up and jam along but it's fun to fool with. The #263 is blow/draw and often used to play "Flight of the Bumble Bee".

Ok, probably more than you wanted to know... -- "Re: Sugar Blue's weapon of choice" 30 Nov 94 CH, FJM

(FMI: "Types of harmonica" 23 Dec 92 SJ) (FMI: "Re: New Harp" 25 Jun 93 JE (Tombo S-50 Chromatic))


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