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Why are chromatic harmonicas made in several different keys?

As it has all 12 notes of the Western scale in each octave, it is possible to play a tune in any key using a single chromatic harmonica. Despite this, many models of chromatic harmonica are available in several different keys and this may seem a little strange.

Certainly, there are players who learn to play everything in the key of C and if they need to play a tune in a different key, they merely pick up a different key of harmonica. Of course, this means that in order to cover all 12 keys, a player would have to have 12 different chromatic harps, which is quite an expensive collection to maintain, to say nothing of being quite a weight to carry around with you! There are some who use this approach and they tend to be treated with some disdain by other players, but there are certain advantages to having chromatics in more than one key.

For a start, how can you play an E and an A at the same time on a C chromatic? Answer - you can't, but you can on a chromatic in G or A. How do you play an Fm chord on a C chromatic? You can't do that either, but you can on a chromatic in D or Eb. What happens if you want to play a tune that was originally written for violin that uses low notes not available on a C chromatic, as well as higher notes that are not available on a 12-hole in Tenor C? I suppose you could play the tune on a 14 or 16 hole instrument, but the G 12-hole chrom covers the typical violin range rather well.

Even Robert Bonfiglio uses a B chromatic from time to time. He's not exactly a beginner player who needs to use "crutches" to make up for lack of technique! He uses his B chrom to enable him to play legato phrases which are not practical on a C chromatic. "Legato" means to play a series of notes "in a smooth and connected manner". Having to change from an outbreath to an inbreath breaks up the flow of a phrase, so careful use of a slide can make certain runs easier to play in a legato fashion. For example, to go from E to F requires you to go from a blow to a draw, but if you play an E# instead of the F, you merely push the slide whilst blowing, so you get a smooth transition between the two notes, without that tiny pause as you change from blow to draw.

As a further example, take this simple phrase:

If you play this on a C chrom, you can play the C as B# and use the slide to play C B C without changing breath direction.:

However, for the rest of the phrase, you will have to change the breath direction twice for each group of three notes. OK, with a lot of practice you will be able to get the phrase reasonably smooth, but if you play it on a B chrom, you can play all the notes with one long outbreath, making the phrase flow smoothly with almost no effort:

Of course, each key of chromatic will have certain things it does well and certain things it does less well, but for me at least, selecting the appropriate tool is the most important part of the job.

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