Chromatic Blues Harmonica is Easier Than You Think.
I've been playing blues harp for 35 years. I've also played folk songs on the diatonic harmonica. Like many harp players I had a Hohner 64 chromatic sitting around. It always seemed to me a bit mysterious and intimidating. I never much used it. I always enjoyed hearing guys like James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite and George Harmonica Smith pick one up for a song and I thought it sounded great, but it was too difficult to get involved with. I wished I could get that kind of sound going.
Then I discovered something! Most blues guys are just playing the chromatic in what is known as third position. Let me explain. On a diatonic harp songs in major keys, folk songs like The Times They Are A Changin', are played in first position. Most blues harp players play in second position, that is, say, for blues in the key of G you use a C harp. Now if you are a better harp player, and you really should have this in your repertoire, you can also play blues in D on a C harp, which is called third position. It isn't hard. Try it.
For third position first draw on hole 4 and then draw on hole 5 and then blow on 6 and draw on 6 and blow on 7 and draw on 8 then 9 and then blow on 9 and draw on 10. You've just played D blues on a C harp! Congratulations. That is the secret to playing chromatic blues harp folks! Now just do the same thing on a chromatic! On a chromatic you can do that pattern all the way up from bottom to top. Try and push in the button on the 7 blow for a bluesy note. (Also you can take the wind saver, that little plastic flap, off of the outside of the reed for the 7 hole and then it will draw bend like a diatonic, but take it easy! Don't blow out your reed by over bending!) You can also do the same thing with the slide in and play Eb on a C chromatic, as the whole harp goes up one half step with the slide in and so it is in Db. Now you can get a bluesy note by letting the slide out on draw 7. So just count up one whole step for the blues key you are playing in. C plays in D and Eb, a Bb chromatic plays blues in C and Db, and so on. (Of course, there are other positions that involve more use of the slide. The next one to try is blues in A with a C chromatic, for instance. That is called fourth position and it requires using the slide a little, but it isn't that hard if you want to go even further!)
Now that you see how easy it is to play blues on a chromatic, and you have learned about third position and tried it on your diatonic, why not try a chromatic? It opens up a lot more music, is great fun, gives you several more octaves than a diatonic, and can also be used for a great folk or classical sound. Hering puts out some great chromatics. I prefer them personally to Hohners, but Hohners are great, too. See my guide to harp brands. I have many new ones for sale on ebay! So give the chromatic a try for blues and join the ranks of Little Walter, George Smith, Rod Piazza, William Clarke, Dennis Gruenling, and Mark Hummel, who all do blues on chromatics --as well as diatonics!
One of the top chromatic players, and a nice guy, Dennis Gruenling, has a great web site that has all the harps and positions used on his recordings. I suggest if you want to play chromatic you buy his Jump Time cds and then look at the charts with keys and positions. He also has some free music on the site and what harp and position he is playing for these free selections on the site, too, if you look. You absolutely must check out www.dennisgruenling.com!
If you want to try out third position blues on a C chromatic or even just on a C diatonic, also get a copy of George Harmonica Smith's Harmonica Ace. That is a great place to start. Or if you want to try this out a bit first without spending any money, play some sample tracks on Amazon.com by doing a search for: George Smith Harmonica Ace. Then try to play along with Oopin' Doopin' Doopin' on a C chromatic or a C diatonic. This is in D and you are playing in third position. Next, with the button in, (or alternately using a Db diatonic) play along with Blues in the Dark or Hey Mister Porter. These songs are in Eb and you'll be playing a C chromatic in tenth position (third with the button in). Now you're really rolling, man! You've moved up to third position and are ready for blues on a chromatic harmonica!
Another free way to go is to check out these videos on youtube.com:
These all involve third position blues and are a great help. If you have a C diatonic harp or C chromatic harp, try to play along.
Be aware that blues guys sometimes use different key chromatics, not just chromatics in C, so if you get really hooked, you may find yourself buying more harps!
Harmonica aficionado Pat Missin has a great article on Chromatic Harmonica Blues that goes into playing other keys on a C chromatic. See: http://www.patmissin.com/articles/misc1.html
So, since you now know where to begin, why not buy yourself that chromatic on ebay and get started playing some blues?
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