© 2004 P.Missin - Details

What are the different types of diatonic harmonica?

First of all, let's define "diatonic"

To put it simply, the term diatonic refers to a selection of notes having no sharps or flats other than those prescribed by the key signature. For example, something that is diatonic to C major has the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B, but no sharps or flats; something that is diatonic to C# major has the notes C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A# and B#, but no flats or naturals; and so on.

In the case of the harmonica, it usually means that the instrument's layout has the notes of a particular major scale, some of which may be omitted and/or repeated, but has no notes from outside of that scale. For almost a century after it was invented, the harmonica was nearly always a diatonic instrument and several varieties of the diatonic harmonica evolved over the years.

Richter or Haidaer System

The Richter harmonica is what most people mean when they use the term "diatonic harmonica". In fact, the term Richter seems to be most commonly used to describe the tuning layout of the typical diatonic harmonica, although strictly speaking it actually describes the way the harmonica is constructed. The Richter System harmonica is a single reed diatonic, which means that each note on the instruments is sounded by one reed, as opposed to double reed diatonics such as the various octave and tremolo instruments where each note is sounded by a pair of reeds. The Richter harmonica has between four and sixteen holes in the mouthpiece, each hole being more or less square in shape and leading to a chamber which supplies air to two reeds, one blow reed and one draw reed:

Richter harmonicas usually have some sort of "sandwich-style" construction with a comb placed between two reedplates, one reedplate (usually the upper reedplate) carrying the blow reeds the other (usually the lower one) carrying the draw reeds. The name comes from the person said to have invented it, either Anton Richter or Joseph Richter (or perhaps neither!) who either came from Haida or Haidau, hence the alternative term Haidaer (or Haidauer) System. Several dates are given for his invention and he is credited with adding draw notes to the harmonica and establishing the familiar tuning system most commonly used on this type of harmonica. However, solid historical evidence for this is lacking. Draw reeds were being used on aeolinas before the modern harmonica types were invented and the so-called "Richter tuning" was used on diatonic accordions and several other free reed instruments devised in Europe during the 1800s. In fact, the tuning of the Richter harmonicas has varied slightly over the years, although it usually has a pattern that gives repeated triads rooted on the tonic as blow notes and an extended 7th chord rooted on the fifth as the draw notes:

BLOW C E G C E G C E G C
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
DRAW D G B D F A B D F A

On larger harps, this pattern could be extended at each end:

BLOW C E G C E G C E G C E G
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
DRAW D G B D F A B D F A B D

BLOW C E G C E G C E G C E G C E
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
DRAW D G B D F A B D F A B D F A

BLOW G C E G C E G C E G C E G C E G
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
DRAW B D G B D F A B D F A B D F A B

On smaller harps, just a section of the pattern is used:

BLOW C E G C
HOLE 1 2 3 4
DRAW D F A B

Sometimes the root of the draw chord is replaced with a seventh:

BLOW C E G C E G C E G C
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
DRAW D F B D F A B D F A

Sometimes the pattern is shifted one hole to the left:

BLOW E G C E G C E G C E
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
DRAW G B D F A B D F A B

Sometimes different notes are omitted:

BLOW C E G C E G C E G C E G
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
DRAW D F B D F A B D F B D F

In the late 1800s, a minor tuned version was devised:

BLOW C Eb G C Eb G C Eb G C
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
DRAW D G B D F Ab B D F Ab

All of the above variations were based around being able to play a simple diatonic scale in the mid-range of the instrument, with simple accompaniment chords in the low octave. In the early 1900s, another layout was developed which repeated the complete major scale in the low, mid and high registers with the idea of being able to play melodies over a wider range, without having accompanying chords built into the instrument. This later became known as Solo Tuning and is now the most popular arrangement of notes on the chromatic harmonica:

BLOW C E G C C E G C C E G C
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
DRAW D F A B D F A B D F A B

Some Richter harmonicas have combined elements of the solo tuning with the older chord-based tuning:

BLOW E G C E G C C E G C
HOLE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
DRAW G B D F A B D F A B

Of course, in more recent years, companies such as Lee Oskar, Hohner and Huang have brought out even more specialised tunings for the Richter System harmonica, but most of them follow the basic idea of repeated triads on blow notes and some sort of 7th chord for the draw notes. The Little Lady, the Oskamonica, Lee Oskar, Hohner Marine Band and Special 20, Suzuki ProMaster and Overdrive, Hering Master Blues and Black Blues, Huang Silvertone and Star Performer, Weltmeister Blackbird, Seydel Favorit, etc., etc., are all examples of Richter System harmonicas.


Single Harmonica

Single harmonicas are quite often used for music education in the Far East, but are not at all well known in the West. They have square holes in the mouthpiece arranged in groups for each octave, with each hole leading to a chamber that contains a single reed, either blow or draw, with all the reeds mounted on a single reedplate:

Usually each group begins with a B and ends with an A, with a slightly thicker vertical divider before the start of the next octave. In the case of the of the instrument pictured above (a Suzuki S-15), the first hole is a blow G and the second hole a draw A. Then there is a spacer, followed by B draw, C blow, D draw, E blow, F draw, G blow, A draw. Another spacer, then a partial octave B to G. I have never seen examples of this style of harmonica in keys other than C, although I would not be too surprised to learn that they exist. Examples of the Single Harmonica include the Suzuki S-15 and S-22, the Tombo Single 22 (1122), the Yamaha YH-15SN and YH-15T, the Leo Shi Bass and Cello harmonicas and many others. Leo Shi also make some double reed versions of this style of instrument (in both tremolo and octave tunings) and I believe Yamaha also make a tremolo version (the #220). Not surprisingly, these double reed versions use a similar layout with both an upper and lower row of holes:

There is also a style of harmonica called the Chromatic Single, which is essentially two diatonic singles built into the same comb, with the lower row giving you the note of the C scale and the upper row giving you the notes of the C# scale (with a somewhat thicker horizontal divider between the two rows than is found on the tremolo and octave singles). The Tombo S-50 and 1577 and Yamaha SS-220 and SS-440 are examples of this style of harmonica. Suzuki make something they call the Alto Single and the Soprano Single, but these are somewhat different, the notes being arranged after the fashion of a piano keyboard. For more on these instruments, please refer to this page.


Wiener or Viennese System

This was developed by Wilhelm Thie of Vienna and is also known as the Thie-Harmonika. It is probably the next most well known type of diatonic harmonica after the Richter System and in some parts of the world it is even more popular than the single reed diatonics. The typical Wiener System harmonica also has square (or squarish) holes, but they are generally smaller than those found on the Richter harmonicas and they are arranged in two rows along the front of the instrument, the comb being essentially divided horizontally with reedplates both top and bottom, each set of reedplates carrying both blow and draw reeds:

Each hole leads to a chamber that contains a single reed, either blow or draw. The Wiener harmonica is most often a double reed diatonic, which means that during normal play, the mouth covers both rows of holes so that each note is voiced by a pair of reeds. The most popular voicing of these pairs of reeds is the tremolo or musette tuning, where one set of reeds is tuned to concert pitch and the other set is tuned slightly higher. When the two reeds are sounded together, this creates a wavering vibrato-like sound:

Examples of this type of harmonica include the Hohner Echo models, the Weltmeister Wanderer series, Hering Vencedora and Seductora series, Huang Musette and many, many Asian-made harmonicas. Typically, Western made tremolo harmonicas use tunings similar to those of the Richter harmonicas, although most of the Asian-made instruments use a variation of solo tuning (for more details, see this page).

As well as tremolo tuning, many Wiener System harmonicas use octave or organ tuning. In this case the pair of reeds are voiced an octave apart, giving a strong rich tone like this:

Examples of the Viennese octave harmonicas include the various Hohner Comet models, the Hering Sonhadora and Serenata series, the Tombo Octave Melody, etc. In the case of Hohner Wiener harmonicas, usually those with tremolo voicing have a flat front to the instrument, whereas those with octave voicing have a curved front. However this is not always the case with all brands. Some Wiener harmonicas have been made as double octave instruments, where each pair of notes is tuned two octaves apart, such as the old Hohner El Centenario (the harmonica currently made under that name is a rather different instrument).

Both the tremolo and octave versions are commonly available as Wender models, which are essentially two instruments back to back, usually in related keys such as C/G and D/A, etc., also as Kreutzwender or Carambola models where several instruments are mounted radially, such as the Hohner Tremolo Sextet and Hering Melodiosa Quartet.

Another variation of the Wiener System is the Terz Stimmung or thirds tuning. In this case one set of reeds is tuned normally, with the other set tuned to harmonise with them in thirds and sixths. The only currently made examples of this type of tuning of which I am aware are the Hohner Johnny and the Seydel Hochlandsklšnge.

There is also a single reed version of the Wiener System, which could be called Halb-Wiener, or half-Viennese. These feature just a single set of reeds, often mounted on just one reedplate. Sometimes the comb is like the typical Viennese harmonica, but with half the chambers empty; other examples have just a single row of holes in the mouthpiece. Over the years, many examples of this type of instrument have been made by Seydel, Hohner and others as bottom of the line instruments, but the only currently made examples of which I am aware are the Hering Gloriosa, Collegial and Yara models.


Knittlinger System

Also known as the Konzert or Full Concert harmonica, this was developed by the Friedrich Hotz company of Knittlingen. Like the Wiener system, it has a pair of reedplates each with both blow and draw reeds, mounted on a horizontally divided comb giving two rows of holes at the mouthpiece. However these holes are rectangular in shape, each delivering air to a pair of reeds, one blow one draw:

Examples of this type of harmonica include the Hohner Marine Band Full Concert, the Hohner Auto-Valve Harp and the Seydel Concerto. These harps almost always use the same arrangement of notes as Richter harmonicas, with each pair of reeds tuned in octaves, although a few of them have been tuned in double octaves, ie each pair of reeds being tuned two octaves apart, such as the Hohner Orchester III. I have read of so-called Band Tuning, where each pair of reeds is tuned to exactly the same pitch, but I have never actually encountered one of these. I have also seen a patent (US pat# 364610, from 1887) for a Knittlinger-type harmonica with reeds tuned in harmonies very much like the terz tuning of the Wiener harmonicas, but I don't know if these were ever commercially produced.

There is a variant of the Knittlinger System called the Halb-Konzert or Half Concert harmonica. This has the horizontally divided comb and the rectangular holes, but only a single reed for each note. Hohner used to make at least one version of the Marine Band in this style, as well as some of their Second To None and Up To Date series.


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