Re: [Harp-L] Bluegrass Chromatic Harmonica

I started off playing chromatics in different keys, but fell into a rut. My improvised lines starting sounding too similar. A jazz musician friend urged me to force myself to play every tune on a C chromatic, regardless of the key. This was the best advice I ever received.

It was very challenging at first, and I had to practice scales in various keys. Eventually, however, I learned that each key has its own strengths and weaknesses; each key suggests different riffs as being more natural than others. Then I learned to “cross-pollinate”-- translating what I learned in one key to others, making a few natural modifications. As a result of playing all keys on a C chromatic, my improvising became far more interesting, and my musical vocabulary greatly expanded. Don’t know if this approach will work for everyone, but it sure worked for me.

Today, I rarely switch chromatics and often attend jams with only a C chromatic. The only time I consider switching to other keys this is when I’m trying to play the head to a tune that is played very fast and in an awkward key. The bluegrass tune, Rebecca, for instance, is usually played in the key of B and is typically played ridiculously fast. Unless I’ve just consumed a Doppio Macchito, I’ll switch to a B chromatic.

Best regards,

David Naiditch,

On Nov 7, 2008, at 12:10 PM, Winslow Yerxa wrote:

David -

Glad you've joined us. It's great to have another trad-oriented harmonica player with a unique approach on the list.

Jimmy Riddle didn't always play a C chromatic. He had 12-hole chromatics in several keys, allowing him to use, say, an A chromatic to play in Bb. And sometimes he played in the slide-out home key. It didn't hurt that he could record with some heavy Nashville session cats who could play in any key he wanted.

Of course string-friendly (and bluegrass) keys tend to be the open strings on fiddles, guitars, etc - G, D, A, maybe E. On a C chromatic, these keys have major scales that require a lot of breath changes and can't take advantage of the alternate slide-in Draw C and Blow F. Keys like F, Bb, Eb, and Ab all use C and F and can be played more smoothly - with fewer breath changes and more neighboring-note ornaments (because the neighboring notes are on the same breath and you can move between them smoothly). But, as you note, such keys don't find much favor in bluegrass circles.

So let's say you're playing in string-friendly keys and are not particularly interested on chordal playing (like that of Riddle, or of David Payne, whose efforts started this discussion). Melodic flexibility and neighboring-note ornaments may still be of interest, and using chromatics in keys other than C can help here.

Irish accordionists figured this out several dacades ago, and I stumbled on it myself early in my investigation of traditional music. They often play instruments with one row of melody buttons tuned like a B harmonica and the other like a C harmonica. On such a B/C instrument, G plays like Ab, D plays like Eb, and A plays like Bb. These scales require fewer changes of air direction and offer more neighboring notes in the scale (and therefore ornaments) in the same air direction.When I made myself a B chromatic, I retuned an E chromatic (which is pitched lower than a three-octave C chromatic) so that I could cover notes all the way to (and slightly below) the bottom end of a fiddle.

Simiilarly, Don Wessels plays Scottish music on an F# chromatic (which he bought stock from Richard Farrell, who used to offer them for Irish music). On an F# instrument, G plays like Db, D like Ab, A like Eb, and E like Bb. Don has a nice CD out; you can hear samples at CDBaby.

Of course, most keys of chromatic come only in a three-octave range, which can be limiting. Four-octave instruments, on the other hand, come only in C. However, you can always re-tune . . .


Winslow Yerxa
Author, Harmonica For Dummies ISBN 978-0-470-33729-5

--- On Fri, 11/7/08, David & Jackie Naiditch <french10@xxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:
From: David & Jackie Naiditch <french10@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Subject: [Harp-L] Bluegrass Chromatic Harmonica
To: harp-l@xxxxxxxxxx
Date: Friday, November 7, 2008, 11:03 AM

Mark Panfil, Tony Eyers, Richard Hunter, Bob Loomis, Winslow Yerxa, Michael

Sorry it took me so long to respond to the bluegrass chromatic harmonica
message thread of October 27, 2008. (I joined Harp-L after this thread was
created, and it was Michael Polesky who pointed the thread out to me.) I really
appreciate the kind words from all of you harmonica greats about my bluegrass
chromatic playing on my new CD, the “High Desert Bluegrass Sessions.” I’m
that you agree that the chromatic harmonica can sound good in bluegrass.
As you know, the harmonica isn’t commonly played in bluegrass, and the
chromatic is extremely rare. I hope this changes. My next CD will probably be
gypsy jazz, another genre where harmonica is rarely used (but where accordions
are established).


Like you, the late David McKelvy reminded me of Jimmy Riddle’s bluegrass
harmonica playing. I heard Jimmy’s record many years ago. The only tune I
can remember is “Stony Point” where, as you mentioned, he used the slide-in
blow chord, thus playing in Db on a C chromatic. As you point out, my approach
is very different, partly as a result of all the jamming I do with musicians who
aren't harmonica players. Bluegrass musicians, who tend to be wary of
harmonica players, wouldn’t take kindly to a harmonica player requesting that
they get out of their standard key and
play in some weird key like Db! And
thanks for noticing the jazz-sensitive tones that I sometimes throw in. This
jazzy approach to bluegrass came from listing to folks like Jethro Burns and Pat


Yes, Pat Cloud is “a banjo god,” and I’m really fortunate to be his
friend and have him record with me. He has taught me a great deal about
bluegrass as well as jazz.

Best regards,
David Naiditch

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