The harmonica surprises many the first time they try to play it. Blowing and humming aren't enough. Rather, this deceptively small instrument using one or two reeds to generate a pitch requires the player to use their lips or tongue to access a full range of notes.
About the Harmonica
What we perceive as the modern-day harmonica has its origins in 19th century Germany. At that point in time, Christian Friedrich Buschmann created a flute-like instrument featuring a reed intended to help him tune organs. Yet, unlike a set of modern-day pitch pipes, you could play a melody on it, and over time, its design was refined for better playability and to reach a wider spectrum of notes.
Today, "harmonica" refers to two types of instruments: a glass instrument or a mouth organ with a metal frame and reeds. Modern-day instruments feature two sets of parallel wind channels designed to reach all notes of the scale. To divert the wind into each channel, the player either angles and puckers their lips into the hole, or learns to cover the other, unused ones. A chromatic harmonica reaches all notes of a scale; a diatonic harmonica, offering access to seven pitches, requires the player to blow or suck out the air to access all notes.
Types of Harmonicas
In general, harmonicas are single-reed instruments, which vibrate when the player blows into the instrument, or use a double-reed design, with reeds placed on the top and bottom.
Within this basic arrangement, types of harmonicas include:
- Diatonic Harmonica: This harmonica features a 10-hole design that lets you play a seven-note major scale. Players can bend or suck out certain pitches to reach notes outside of this range. Generally, you'll see diatonic harmonicas in folk, rock and country music.
- Chromatic Harmonica: This type of harmonica features a button on the side. When the button isn't pressed, players can access all notes of a scale. Pressing the button helps the player reach the half-steps in between the whole tones. As the biggest difference, players don't have to bend pitches on a chromatic harmonica, although some still learn this technique for the effect it produces.
- Tremolo Harmonica: A type of diatonic harmonica, tremolo models have double to more than 10 sets of holes, with two reeds - one tuned at a higher frequency - for each note. This creates more of a vibrato effect. Because of the novelty factor, tremolo harmonicas are only used for tonal purposes.
- Octave-Tuned Harmonicas: Similar to the tremolo harmonica, this instrument features pairs of reeds with one tuned an octave above the other and tends to have a bigger, more expansive tone.
Find a Harmonica at Alamo Music Center
Whether you're looking to begin, perfect your technique or expand your set of instruments, Alamo Music Center carries a selection of chromatic and diatonic harmonicas from Hohner, Suzuki and other brands. We support all purchases with no-interest, 48-month financing, extended warranties and optional trial lessons.