2002 P.Missin - Details

Why is it impossible to bend notes on a double reed harmonica?

It isn't!

It really is surprising how little information is available about the double reed harmonicas, especially when you consider how many of them are produced. In fact, the double reed diatonics are probably the most popular type of harmonica in terms of units sold, being by far and away the most commonly used harmonica in the Far East. The only English language book I know that deals specifically with the double reed harps is Sully's "Traditional Mouth Organ", focusing on traditional British music.

To most Western players, the term "diatonic harmonica" usually denotes something along the lines of a Marine Band. However, the tremolo and octave tuned instruments are diatonically tuned harmonicas which use a pair of reeds where the Marine Band type would use only a single reed. In the tremolo tuned harps, the pairs of reeds are tuned a fraction differently from each other, giving a wavering effect, almost like the use of an electronic chorus unit, or an accordion with a musette voicing. The octave tuned harmonicas use a pair of reeds tuned an octave apart, giving a full rich sound, often described as "organ tone".

Many blues harp books tell you to avoid these harps as they are not suitable for cross harp, note bending is not possible, etc. Don't believe any of this. Although to play traditional blues harp you would want a Marine Band type instrument, all the modal positions that are available on a single reed 10-hole are just as practical on these harps and note bending merely requires a different approach and a little practice. In fact, there are more bent note possibilities on these than on a regular Richter-tuned harp, as well as some other striking effects and I am surprised that more harp players don't use them. Mickey Raphael (who plays with country legend Willie Nelson) uses tremolo harps now and then for a little contrast in his playing and blues rocker Mel Melton uses Auto-Valve-Harps to add a little Cajun spice to his music, sounding almost like a zydeco accordionist.

By learning to play either just the top row of holes or just the bottom row, you can play each row just like a single reed diatonic. It takes a little practice to block off the upper or lower row of holes with your lip, yet still allow the other row to sound cleanly, but once you are able to do it, by switching between playing a single row and then both rows together, you can alternate between a thin reedy sound and a full tremolo sound, a little like adjusting the stops on an organ or accordion, or switching on and off a chorus unit. Likewise on an octave harp, you can go between the single note sound and the big full sound of the octaves.

As for bending notes, once you have learned to play the rows singly, note bending becomes no problem at all. On a Marine Band Full Concert, this technique enables you to play over a four octave range, as well as being able to play the typical blues harp bends in two different octaves. In order to do this on the Auto-Valve-Harp, you will need to remove the valves - this can be done by removing the covers to allow access to the external valves and by using tweezers to remove the valves from inside the reed chambers. (Be warned - this will permanently invalidate your guarantee from the manufacturer!)

On the Wiener tremolo and octave harmonicas, there are even more note bending possibilities. I'll use Hohner's Golden Melody tremolo harp as an example, although the following principles can be adapted to any of these kind of harps. First of all, practise playing just one row of holes, so that you no longer get the tremolo sound (either the top row or the bottom, whichever you find easier). Next, place your mouth over the first and second holes of that row. When you blow, you should hear a C and when you blow you should hear a D. With this mouth position, using the same technique as you would on a blues harp, you can bend the D down to Db. Now, still playing just one row at a time, move your mouth up the harp so you are covering holes two and three. This time when you draw, you should still hear the D, but when you blow, you will now hear an E. You can blow bend this E down to Eb. Get the idea? By covering holes three and four, you can draw bend the G down to F (just like hole two on a blues harp). Covering holes four and five gives you a G as both blow and draw, so no bending here. Holes five and six allow you to draw bend the B down as far as Ab; holes six and seven give you B and C - again, not a lot of bend; holes seven and eight let you draw bend the D down to Db; holes eight and nine allow you to blow bend the E to Eb; and so on, up the range of the harp. I'll leave you to work out the rest for yourself.

One thing to note, some models of Wiener tremolo and octave harps have holes in certain parts of the divider between the upper and lower rows. These will need to be blocked in order for the note bending techniques to work. A little layer of tape, or a plug of wax will do the tick.

In addition to these dual-reed blues harp type bends, if you learn to isolate individual reed chambers it opens up a whole range of possibilities much like Winslow Yerxa's Discrete Comb harmonica. For example, by narrowing your embouchure so that it is focused on a single reed, you can bend that note in the same way as on a valved harmonica. You can also overblow or overdraw a single reed much more easily than you can with a harp that has two reeds in the same chamber. For example, if you pucker up really tightly so that you can play a D draw note with no leakage into any of the other holes, you should also find that you can overblow that note to Eb and bend it upwards by several tones. Likewise, by isolating a C blow reed, you will be able to overdraw it to Db and bend it upwards.

One of the standard techniques amongst Far Eastern players is to use more than one harmonica in order to have access to notes that may be unavailable otherwise. Huang produced both the Cathedral and the Musette harmonicas in pairs of one C harp and one C# harp (and other makers have similar pairings). By holding the two instruments, one above the other, a complete chromatic scale may be played. This may sound clumsy, but I have heard Asian players using this technique (often with three, four or more harmonicas stacked) to play some very impressive music indeed. It may require a little experimentation to find the best way to hold them, although perhaps those of you with some experience with the standard bass and chord harmonicas may find that you take quite quickly to this technique. For more advice, I recommend Cham-Ber Huang's excellent article on this topic, published in Harmonica Educator Vol. 4 #1.

The double reed diatonic instruments are a rather neglected area of the harmonica world, at least in the West. Any of you who have had the chance to visit harmonica events in the Far East, will have seen people playing the double reed harps to a far higher standard than we have in America or Europe, where they usually seem reserved for simple folk music. It is my hope that some of their playing techniques will become better known over here, as I firmly believe that the full potential of these instruments has yet to be explored.

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