The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #47624   Message #2724031
Posted By: Artful Codger
15-Sep-09 - 08:11 AM
Thread Name: How to play the 'Blues Harp'
Subject: RE: How to play the 'Blues Harp'
Most books on harmonica discuss playing minor tunes in the expected fourth position, and even in third and fifth, though there are "avoid" (unavailable) notes to deal with in these other positions.

Here are some difficulties you might run into playing minor tunes on a standard diatonic (Richter tuning):

(1) The tonic in the lowest full octave falls in a gap--you have to double-bend draw-3 to get it. Not especially hard, but its a bad sound for a tonic note.

(2) Minor tunes tend to have accidentals, particularly major 6ths and 7ths. Most of these are only achievable with overblows and triple bends; one is entirely missing.

(3) Some of the expressive bends you might want are impossible. Even if you have the skill to overblow/draw for missing notes, you can't do a partial overblow/draw, you can only bend a note higher after the first semitone.

(4) Chording is limited; you have the IV chord (D456 and D890), but only 3rd-5th dyads for I and 1st-3rd dyads for V/V7.

There are a couple alternatives:

(1) Get a harp with a "natural minor" or "harmonic minor" tuning. Natural minor tuning is like diatonic with the 3rds and 7ths (but NOT the 6ths) flatted--essentially Dorian in first position, Aeolian in crossharp. Harmonic minor tuning has the 3rds and 6ths (but NOT the 7ths) flatted, and you play it in first position; 7ths are bendable to minor in the lower and higher octaves, but not in the middle octave. Both Lee Oskars and Hohner Marine Bands are easily available (online) in both these tunings. Hohner Special 20s are also available in natural minor tuning. I've never tried either tuning, but the natural minor seems more generally useful, and I believe it supports chord vamping (but since it's played crossharp, you'd best check).

(2) Get a Lee Oskar Melody Maker (designed for playing major melodically in cross position) and play in fifth position. The Melody Maker tuning has fewer diatonic gaps than the Richter tuning--all fillable by single bends--and the bendable notes tend to fall in more usable places. Using bends, you can also play minor in 4th or even 3rd position--the other modes are similarly flexible. You sacrifice chording, but you don't have to buy a harps especially for minor, and you gain the ability to modulate on the fly.

IMPORTANT: Lee Oskar Natural Minors, Harmonic Minors and Melody Makers are labelled with the crossharp key (the key you'll mostly play in), while Hohners are labeled according to the first position key even when the tuning is designed for crossharp playing. Also, all Lee Oskars are designed with replaceable and interchangeable reed plates. Hohner doesn't yet offer harps with replaceable reed plates in altered tunings.

Now, strictly Aeolian melodies pose little problem for either the Richter, natural minor or Melody Maker tunings, though the last has the edge due to its relative lack of gaps and the ease with which they can be filled. The real choice depends on other aspects: which accidentals and bends will you most need, how much chording will you do, do you need to modulate on the fly, can you adapt quickly to new positions and tunings...