Which Harp Should You Use for Playing Folk and Celtic Music?

By Winslow Yerxa

How do you choose harmonicas for playing traditional music? Different traditions use different types of harmonicas, and each type has strengths and weaknesses in adapting to existing styles. Here are some considerations for using the three main types of melody harmonicas in traditional music.

The simple ten-hole diatonic is the most widely used type of harmonica in North American music and is often found in English and Celtic music as well. However, the diatonic sometimes runs into a problem: Some tunes have notes that aren’t built into the harmonica. In earlier times, people adapted tunes to fit the limitations of instruments. Nowadays, people are more inclined to adapt the instrument to the music.

You can make these adaptations in the following three ways:

  • Play the harmonica in a position to change the available scale. When you play a harmonica in its labeled key, you’re playing in first position. If you play the harp in any other key, you’re playing in a different position. Each position has its own unique scale, called a mode.

    For instance, if you take a C-harmonica and play it in G, you don’t get a G major scale. Instead, you get the key of G flavored by the notes of the C scale. Many folk tunes use these modes, so playing harmonica in positions is a natural fit for folk tunes.

  • Use note bending to create missing notes. When you bend a note, you raise or lower it to a different note by shaping your vocal cavity. Note bending can be useful for supplying missing notes on the harmonica and can even change the mode or scale

  • Use harmonicas with alternate tunings. You can permanently retune individual notes on a harmonica to change the available notes. For instance, as you may know, the note A is missing in Hole 3 on a C-harp.

    To supply this note, you can retune the note G in Blow 3 to play A instead (you still have G in Draw 2). This particular alternate tuning is known as Paddy Richter, and some harmonica manufacturers, such as Seydel, are beginning to offer this tuning for sale.

The tremolo harmonica

The tremolo harmonica is a type of diatonic harmonica that uses two reeds to play each note. One set of reeds is tuned slightly higher than the other, and when the two are played together, the difference in fine tuning creates a quavering pulsation in the sound of the note. This quavering sound is called tremolo.

Tremolo harps are rarely used for traditional music in the United States, but they’re part of the characteristic sound of harmonica music in Scotland, Ireland, Québec, and many Asian countries. Tremolo harps are available in a few alternate tunings, such as the minor-key tremolos made by Suzuki and Tombo, and the Hohner Highlander, designed by Donald Black for Scottish bagpipe music.

The chromatic harmonica

The chromatic harmonica has the advantage of allowing you to play in any key without any missing notes. Chromatic harps aren’t widely used in folk music, but there are a few Irish-style players doing some cool things with them. For instance, check out Brendan Power or Eddie Clarke if you get the chance.