Re: [Harp-L] Bluegrass Chromatic Harmonica

Dave Payne,

By "standard notation" I assume you mean standard harmonica notation. I'm not a good person to ask because I never use harmonica notation.

Although I haven't examined them, I am aware of 2 bluegrass harmonica instruction books:

"Bluegrass Harmonica" by Mike Stevens


"Bluegrass & Country Music for Harmonica" (Mel Bay)

Mike is a fine bluegrass diatonic player. It would be unlikely, however, that either of these books contain transcriptions of Bill Monroe's mandolin playing.

David Naiditch

On Nov 8, 2008, at 7:55 AM, David Payne wrote:


Maybe you can help me on this. I can't find any Bill Monroe in standard notation, I'd like to play stuff like Bluegrass Stomp and Bluegrass Breakdown note for note. The only thing that seems to be out there is mandolin tab and heck, I can't even play mandolin tab on the mandolin, I need standard notation there, too. Right now, I'm figuring out stuff on the mandolin by ear, then playing it on the chrom. That is a very slow process.I need to get some notation.
You would not believe how long I've been working on that opening riff Monroe does on Muleskinner Blues. That is a hard one to figure out. Notation would make that a heck of a lot easier.

Dave Payne Sr.
Elk River Harmonicas

----- Original Message ----
From: David & Jackie Naiditch <french10@xxxxxxxxxxx>
To: winslowyerxa@xxxxxxxxx; harp-l@xxxxxxxxxx
Sent: Friday, November 7, 2008 4:49:38 PM
Subject: 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

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>
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,

  Sorry it took me so long to respond to the bluegrass chromatic
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
chromatic playing on my new CD, the “High Desert Bluegrass
Sessions.”  I’m
  that you agree that the chromatic harmonica can sound good in
  As you know, the harmonica isn’t commonly played in bluegrass, and
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
are established).


Like you, the late David McKelvy reminded me of Jimmy Riddle’s
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
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
bluegrass as well as jazz.

Best regards,
David Naiditch

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