I don’t want anyone to confuse this topic with the topic of alternately tuned chromatics like a paddy richter or diminished tuning. In this article I am discussing standard tuned harmonicas pitched in different keys. For instance you can pick up a G chromatic and use the same breath and slide patterns but it will sound a 5th lower than on a C harmonica. I suppose there are a few elitist players who consider this cheating but when you have top-level talent playing instruments in other keys I really think it shuts down that elitism and opens the door for the rest of us to explore and experiment.
I know a professional woodwind player in Nashville who has been a top studio player for decades. He says he owns a clarinet in the standard key of Bb but he also owns an A clarinet. He uses the A clarinet to improvise in the sharp keys because it’s a lot more comfortable. Why not? This is the basic principle for using harmonicas tuned in other keys. To me this is also similar to what guitar players do when they use a capo. They can use familiar finger patterns for open chords but move the capo up and down the neck as needed to play in different keys.
What Other Keys are Available?
First of all 14 and 16-hole chromatics are only available in the key of C unless you have a buddy at the factory or you hire a customizer to retune a factory standard instrument. So this discussion of harps in other keys is focused on 12-hole instruments.
Different manufacturers have various key options avaliable. Let’s look at Hohner, Seydel and Suzuki. On the Hohner website for the Super Chromonica Model #270 I see F, E, Eb, D, C, B, Bb, A, G, LC . Seydel Saxony and De Luxe Steel both have key options of G, Bb, C, D, E, F, and high D. The Suzuki SCX-48 comes in D, F, G, A, Bb, and C.
The Key of C is the Usually Highest Pitched of the Various Keys
This was something that I was not always aware of. Especially coming from the world of diatonic harmonicas where the key of C is in the middle of the other key options. But with the chromatic all of the other key options will be pitched lower than the C instrument. It makes sense if you have spent any length of time playing the notes in holes 11 and 12. Those are really high notes. The one exception is Suzuki offering the high D tuning which they alternately call D3.
If you can play in all keys on a C harmonica why would you want other key options?
I’m going to talk about three elite harmonica artists and why they are using other keys. We will look at the opinions of Robert Bonfiglio, Filip Jens, and Antonio Serrano.
I was fascinated by a video on YouTube where Robert Bonifiglio plays Thai’s Meditation with the RCA Studio Orchestra. The video shows a handwritten score while the music plays. At the top of the score you see “B Plates”. I realized he was using reedplates tuned down a half-step from C. The key signature indicates the key of Eb major but you can hear the orchestra playing in D. This is an example of one of the best harmonica players in the world opting to play a song in Eb rather than D. I’ve heard him talk about this in interviews. There are some trills that you just can’t do in some keys. If you know anything about the mechanics of the key of D on the harmonica you know playing a trill from C# to D is a whole lot more difficult than going from D to Eb. I loved discovering this because there is another classical player who insists on only playing a C instrument no matter how awkward and difficult it is. It sort of set me free in a way and gave me permission to explore other options. I could be wrong but because Bonifiglio is a 16-hole harmonica player I’m going to go out on a limb and say he probably only goes back and forth with these 2 keys of B and C.
Filip Jers has been talking about this topic lately. He really enjoys the feel and experience of playing chromatics in different keys. He also mentioned some Swedish folk songs that are in the key of D and there were certain slide ornaments that were not available. So he feels completely free to switch around and play instruments in different keys as the need arises or his whims dictate. He also just likes the feel of playing the lower key harmonicas. It’s sort of like a flute player enjoying the rich mellow sound of an alto flute (which is pitched down a 5th from the standard C flute).
I heard Antonio Serrano in an interview recently where he talked about how sometimes he wants to use double stops (2 notes at a time). This technique works very well in the key of C and Db or even G and Ab but try to play harmonious double stops in F# or E and you won’t be able to. You need notes that are next to each other, a third apart, and in the same breath direction and slide position. This is completely impossible in other keys unless you switch harmonicas.
Why is Ross Walters only Playing C Chromatics?
Me? It is mostly related to finances and not wanting to spend hundreds of dollars needlessly (I don’t NEED a set of multi-key chromatics right now. I don’t need to play Thai’s Meditation on a B harmonica in the Eb position with the RCA orchestra playing in the key of D. I don’t need to play Swedish folk tunes. I don’t need to play double stops in multiple keys.) Also I made a commitment to not buy new harmonicas until sales of my teaching materials increased. So, if you’re reading this and you haven’t purchased my method you should go ahead and put the card down because it will help me with my new harmonica fund! I am very interested in trying other keys mostly to have a lower pitched instrument to practice. I think I would enjoy that. Also I think I would like to have an E harmonica just in case I need to play something in F# I think I would rather do that in the “D” position (3rd position). Probably top of my list is a B harmonica actually (for those times when I’m just a half step away from a more comfortable key).
What About the Blues Guys?
Oh yes I almost forgot that not everyone is all about playing in all keys on one harmonica. Blues players almost exclusively play chromatic in 3rd position so having multiple key harps just like having multiple keys of diatonics is a neccessity for that kind of player to produce that Chicago sound in different keys. It makes sense.
What Other Famous Chromatic Players Used Other Key Harps?
Tommy Morgan the king of studio harmonica players in Hollywood and has played on over 500 feature films has a set of all keys. Winslow Yerxa says Norton Buffalo had a custom tuned 16-hole CBH model tuned up a half step. Winslow also claims that Stevie owns 16-hole chromatics in Bb, B, and Db in addition to the standard C. I did hear a live performance of Brand New Day with Sting on YouTube where it is evident to me that he is playing a chromatic tuned down a half step judging by the slide turn between C# and B which would be impossible on a C harp. Also Toots Thielmans recorded some on a G harp according to walking harmonica encyclopedia Winslow Yerxa. William Galison confirmed that Toots used other keys in another interview I listened to.
I Still Think You Should Study the Instrument in All Keys
Really it’s the only way to discover what your favorite key positions are. You may fall in love with Db, Ab, and B! You may find that you really love the oddball keys. My other argument is that if you are playing jazz harmonica there are many jazz standards that go through several key centers and you don’t want to be changing harmonicas! All the Things You Are goes through 5 key centers!
So Why the Tyrannical Reign of the C Harmonica?
Well it does make sense as far as being straightforward. There is no transposing. If you play a G then a G comes out. So if you are a reader of standard notation and you want to read a flute part in a wind ensemble then this is actually kind of a big deal.
Also the range of the instrument makes sense. It really is the same range as a concert flute. Notes below the middle C (the bottom note of a 12-hole) can start to sound muddy on the harmonica. In my opinion the 12-hole C instrument sings well throughout the entire range. There is a reason that we have so many super great jazz harmonica players that are content playing a C chromatic and nothing else. When you see them with multiple harps they are usually switching to a backup instrument that is also in C rather than switching to a different key harp.