Chromatic Harmonicas


Doctor Harmonica's
Chromatic Harmonicas

Defining the Chromatic Harmonica

When I first learnt about chromatic harmonicas I found it confusing as to what harps did what and worked in what way. My first "chromatic harmonica" was a Hohner Koch which strictly speaking is a slide harp. I bought it as a result of asking the shop keeper for a chromatic harmonica. What's more it was in key of G which only confused matters for me.

I made the same mistake again because I wanted a chromatic harmonica in C and I still didn't know the difference between a slide harp and a chromatic harp. But this time around I also got Mel Bay's "The Complete Chromatic Harmonica Method" by Phil Duncan and compared the Koch against the book and realised my mistake. I took both the book and the Koch back. I said "I just bought this harp, I want to exchange it for this." and pointed at the cover of the book. At which point the shop attendant produced a Hohner Super Chromonica in key of C, I paid the difference and walked away a little wiser.

I now want to share what I have since learned for those who are as confused as I was.

Typical Chromatic Harmonica

Larry Adler

By Typical Chromatic Harmonicas I am talking about a harmonica that has a full chromatic scale repeated every octave and employs a slide to play some of the notes. Stock chromatic harmonicas normally come with Solo tuned where the full scale in the key of the harmonica is laid out over 4 holes for every octave and by pressing the slide in the pitch of each hole is raised by a semitone. The most common key available for a chrom is key of C, the same as the white keys of a piano. To continue the comparison by pressing the chrom's button you can then play the black keys on the keyboard along with a couple of the white ones, namely notes F and C. This website is primarily focused on this type of harmonica. However a lot of the material in this site is appropriate for diatonic harmonica, and chromatic harmonicas with altered tunings.

The Bass harp & Chord harp can be considered chromatic harmonicas. And there are other harmonicas which could be considered chromatic harmonicas which I will cover and why I don't consider them typical chromatic harmonicas.

Despite the fact a chrom can be played in any key some are available in different keys.

There are a few reasons why:

A key of C chromatic harmonica is a satisfactory instrument in itself.  Its like a piano or wind instrument; by sticking to one layout you can ingrain where all the notes are and go on to learn how to play in any key on that same instrument.  Eventually with lots of practise and experience you will be able to work out how to transpose a tune into the key you want to play in without having to reach for another harmonica.

However if you enjoy playing chords or should you find it easier to play on different key harps in your favorite keys, you may consider what other chromatics are available.

I give a broad outline of chromatic harmonic brands and models on this page but you may also be interested in other player's reviews. And there are some good shops from which to purchase them.

The 12 hole Chromatic Harmonica

Hering 1148
Velvet Voice

This is probably the most common chrom available. They have a 3 octave range with 48 tones. Most models are available in a number of keys. With practise these harps are reasonably easy to hold, cup and play.

Hohner offer a wide range of 12 hole chromatic harmonicas: The cheapest is the Chrometta 12; the Super Chromonica 270 is the most common and well known chromatic harmonica in existance at a reasonable price, available in all popular keys; Toots Theilemans' favourite the Mellow Tone as well as the Hard Bopper are 270s with plated reedplates & covers, the Hard Bopper has stiffer reed material and longer reeds giving a different response than regular 270s; the modern CX12 with integrated covers and mouthpiece into a single shell with quick disassemble/reassemble design. Hering offer their 5148 range which is a good instrument for a beginner to start out on, available in all keys; the 1148 and the 7148 vary in their cover & comb design but share the same reeds, mouthpiece and slide assembly as the 5148. Huang and Suzuki offer a virutally identical chinese made instrument Huang #1248 or Suzuki Leghorn SC-48, the only difference is the covers, it is reasonably leaky which can be corrected, and has relatively quiet soft tone which cannot overcome. Suzuki also offer the SCX-48. Seydel offer a 12 hole chromatic harmonica very similar in design to the Hohner Super Chromonica 270 except the covers are made of a thinner metal, and are similar in cost. They are available in key of C with promises for other keys to arrive in stock in due course [C.2003]. There are a number of Chinese brands and models available, they are attractively cheap, their reviews are very mixed.

Solo Tuned 12 hole Chromatic Harmonica in key of C

Hole           10 11 12
Blow, Slide In   C# G# C# C# G# C# C# G# C#
Blow, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide In   D# F# A# D# F# A# D# F# A#

With regular key of C, blow hole 1 is middle C. However when playing songs that go below middle C, it is common practise to use the lowest octave on the harp as the lowest octave in the song and work up from there, effectively playing the song in a higher octave. Of course the harp has a three octave range, so if your part extends passed this then you simply need to substitute lower or higher octave notes which is reasonably acceptable to the ear.

Note that every 4 holes has the same pattern, except for the last hole. This means that when you have mastered playing one octave, the rest are the same. So if you learn one octave, you have the lot as it's just a matter of moving along 5 holes either way.

The only trick with chromatic harmonica solo layout is the highest note. For key of C, draw hole 12 with the slide in instead of being C is D. This gives just that bit extra range to the harp, and from experience I can say I am glad that this has been included. It only takes practice to get used to it being there.

Regular Solo Layout stock 12 hole chromatics are available in a number keys and/or registers, you can refer to Chromatic Harmonica Layouts on this website to see the note layout in all available keys. The range of keys generally available on the market is from the lowest C Tenor, D, Eb, E, F, G, A, Bb, B to the highest regular key of C. Diatonic harmonica players will recognise that the chromatic harmonica keys of Tenor C, D, Eb, E and F have the same range as their respective Low key short harps. Hohner CX12s and Super Chromonica 270s are available in all these keys. The Hering 5148 is available in almost all these keys, bar Tenor C which comes in the form of the 6148 Baritono.

The 12 hole chromatics tuned an octave lower than regular key of C, like Hering's Baritono or Hohner's Tenor C CX12 and Super Chromonica 270, have the first 12 holes of a 16 hole chrom. The Hering Baritono lacks the extra 'D' note usually found on draw 12 slide in, whereas the Hohner models have the regular layout.

The note range of a 12 hole chromatic harmonica is pretty much on a par with a lot of woodwind instruments. Regular key of C has the same range as a flute. Key of F has the same range as a Soprano Saxophone. Tenor C starts a semitone lower than the Alto saxophone and covers the same range.

NB: Notes Lower than middle C on chromatic harmonicas tend to be a little more tricky for beginners to play, their tone and pitch is much more easily changed by one's embouchure and the attitude of the players mouth, tongue, throat and so forth, and their response is quite different from higher pitched notes, moreso for notes lower than G below middle C. Bare this in mind when looking to buy your first chromatic harmonica.

The 16 hole Chromatic Harmonica

Hering 6164

These big animals are similar to 12 hole chroms, their advantage is they have an extra octave below middle C.

Because of their size it takes more practise and attention to get a solid hold and cup around these harps. Also with the extra holes and octaves to switch between they require more practise to automatically know where all the notes are.

Hohner offer a range of 16 hole chromatic harmonicas from the Chromonica 64 with classic covers (my favourite, 2011), Super 64 which is highly regarded by Franz Chmel, to the expensive gold plated Super 64X with double reedplates for improving the tone and response of the bottom octave. Hering offer the 5164 which is an excellently priced beginners instrument and the pricier 6164 with similar covers to the Hohner Super series. Suzuki offer their Japanese model SC64 and the less expensive SCX64. There are a number of cheap Chinese brands that offer 16 hole chromatics, but their reviews have generally been quite mixed.

Solo Layout 16 hole Chromatic Harmonica in key of C

Hole            10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Alternative     °1 °2 °3 °4 10 11 12
Blow, Slide In   C# G# C# C# G# C# C# G# C# C# G# C#
Blow, Slide Out
Draw, Slide Out
Draw, Slide In   D# F# A# D# F# A# D# F# A# D# F# A#

Hole one blow is C below middle C, so the next set of C's are middle C. On some 16 hole harps the first octave holes are numbered 1 to 4 with dots above them, then the remaining holes are numbered 1 to 12. Other 16 hole chroms are numbered from 1 to 16. It depends on the make, model and release date.

The 10 hole Chromatic Harmonica

There are but a few solo layout 10 hole chroms on the market. They have a 2 1/2 octave range. They are the same as 12 chromatic harmonicas however their note layout finishes at different point due to the incomplete octave at the top. They are small and appealingly portable, and the note range is musically practical for a wide range of songs. The Saxophone's natural range is 2 1/2 octaves after all.

The Hohner Chromonica 260 is a 10 hole chromatic harmonica available in keys of C & G which are exactly the same in design and quality as the Hohner Super Chromonica 270, they start on the usual note expected but finish half way through the top octave effectively missing the top two holes.

Solo Layout 10 hole Chromatic Harmonica in key of C
Hohner 260

Hole           10
Blow, Slide In   C# G# C# C# G# C# C#
Blow, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide In   D# F# A# D# F# A# D# F#

The Hohner Chrometta 10 is an inexpensive plastic shell & comb 10 hole chromatic harmonica in key of C which has a different layout like removing the bottom two holes of a regular 12 hole key of C Chromatic harmonica.

Solo Layout 10 hole Chromatic Harmonica in key of C
Hohner Chrometta 10

Hole           10
Blow, Slide In   G# C# C# G# C# C# G# C#
Blow, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide In   A# D# F# A# D# F# A#

The 8 hole Chrometta Harmonica

There is also the cute Chrometta 8, Hohner model HH250 C, which only has a two octave range C4 to C6.

Solo Layout 8 hole Chromatic Harmonica in key of C
Hohner Chrometta 8

Blow, Slide In   C# G# C# C# G# C#
Blow, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide In   D# F# A# D# F# A#

The 14 hole Chromatic Harmonica

Hohner Meisterklass

A nice compromise in size and range between a 12 and 16 hole chromatic harmonica, they have a musically practical range of 3 1/2 octaves for the harmonica, and yet there are are fewer 14 hole models around than either 12 or 16 hole versions.

Their size is only slightly more cumbersome than a 12 hole chromatic, but hardly worth thinking about. They require a some getting used to if you have previously learnt to play chromatic harmonica on a 16 or 12 hole chromatic.

The Hohner Meisterklasse is a pricey metal comb 14 hole harmonica available only in key of C which starts on the G below middle C, it features extended mouthpiece on both ends facilitating comfortable tongue blocking. Suzuki offer moderately priced Japanese SC-56 and slightly cheaper Chinese made SCX-56, both features extended mouthpiece on both ends facilitating comfortable tongue blocking. The Hohner Chrometta 14 is an inexpensive alternative with plastic covers and comb. There are a number of cheap Chinese brands that offer 14 hole chromatics, but their reviews have generally been quite mixed.

A 14 hole Chromatic Harmonica in key of C major has the following note layout

Hole            10 11 12 13 14
Alternative     °  °° 10 11 12
Blow, Slide In   G# C# C# G# C# C# G# C# C# G# C#
Blow, Slide Out
Draw, Slide Out
Draw, Slide In   A# D# F# A# D# F# A# D# F# A#

Hole one blow is G below middle C, so the first set of C's are middle C. On some 14 hole harps the first two holes are not numbered at all, then the remaining holes are numbered 1 to 12. Other 14 hole chroms are numbered from 1 to 14. It depends on the make & model.

Customising Chromatic Harmonicas and Altered Tunings

A number of people customise and/or custom tune their own harmonicas, improving or replacing the comb, the mouthpiece, and possibly retuning it to an altered layout and/or fine tuning to change the way the harmonica plays which they find suits their musical purposes better. You can find chromatic harmonica customisers on this site who offer some or all of these services for people who want better instruments than is offered on the general market.

An example of an altered tuning is C/F Bebop layout where the blow 4 hole is retuned from C/C# (slide out/slide in) to Bb/B which makes certain keys a lot easier to play with minimal disadvantage.
Flat slide layouts are where when you press the slide the note goes down a semitone, combined with Solo layout this is a popular choice for Irish music.
There is a growing list of online resources about altered tunings for harmonica including an article Pat's Musings on Altered Tunings on this website.

Customisers can usually improve the overall performance, comfort, feel and possibly the longivity of harmonicas, as well as altered tunings. As you gain experience & wish to invest more in your instrument, this is definitely worth investigating.

Other Harmonicas

The remaining harps are not what I consider typical chromatic harmonicas, but I think they need to be included because of their chromatic ability.

Slide Harmonicas

Slide Harmonicas are designed with a slide that selects between two sets of reedplates enabling the use of four notes per hole (or more or less depending on the design and layout of the instrument). Chromatic Harmonicas are slide harmonicas by definition.

When someone refers to a Slide Harmonica without qualifying what they mean, usually they're referring to a 10 hole, Richter Layout slide harmonica. IE with the same note layout as a regular diatonic harp, where pushing the slide in raises each note by a semitone which almost gives a full chromatic range of notes. They are generally the same design as chromatic harmonicas although valves may or may not be installed for some or all of the reeds.

The reedplates are the same design as a chromatic harmonica, this combined with the slide, mouthpiece and typical lack of valves gives the instrument quite a different feel from regular diatonic harmonicas. For Richter layout slide harmonicas, to get the full chromatic three octave range you need to know how to draw bend to find the few missing chromatic notes.

Examples of slide harmonica are the Hohner Koch and the Hohner Slide Harmonica both of which are both available in keys of C and G. The Koch is not valved and the stock instrument usually seems leaky, but can be fixed by diligent reed adjustment and possibly some work around the slide assembly and comb to ensure better air tightness. The Slide Harmonica is half valved to improve air tightness meaning in stock form it suffers less from the issues the Koch does, without losing the ability to draw and blow bend notes typically found on diatonic harmonicas. The Hohner Slide Harmonica has plated reedplates which look nice.

Richter Layout 10 hole Slide Harmonica in key of C

Hole           10
Blow, Slide In   Db Ab Db Ab Db Ab Db
Blow, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide In   Eb Ab Eb Gb Bb Eb Gb Bb

There are also variations on the Richter layout slide harmonica called "flat- slide" harmonica where pressing the slide lowers the note by a semitone. This has the advantage of simulating bends on a standard short harp.

All this said and done, as mentioned before you can also find 10 hole chromatic harmonicas with solo layout such as the Hohner Chromonica 260 which also comes in keys of C and G fully valved. And with altered tunings and half valving regularly available from harmonica customisers the line between any of these instruments is increasingly blurry.

Playing 10 Hole Diatonic Short Harps Chromatically

This is beyond the scope of this site, however it is possible by using overblows and overdraws to play diatonic harps in a chromatic fashion. If I am going to make a site about chromatic harmonicas I have to at least mention this.

Some skilled harmonica musicians, especially Howard Levy, have mastered overblows and overdraws on the diatonic harmonica to give them the full 12 semitones on every octave of the instrument. For the neophyte playing an overblow generally generates a note a semitone above the highest pitch reed in the hole, but with diligent practice a master of the technique can bend the overblow note a wholetone above the highest pitch reed in the hole.

However the quality and accuracy of these notes is very dependant on the ability and experience of the player. Some players prefer the tone of overblows than valved bends or chromatic harmonica. Overblow technique requires regular practise to maintain consistantly accurate pitch and note precision. The advantage of using this playing method over using a chrom is the range of expression and tone of the natural bends, various chordal options, and the compact size of a diatonic harmonica and the absence of a slide assembly. That said its best to restrict your use of bends and overblows for passing notes, or expressive blue notes, rather than key guide tones such as the tonic, third & fifth of the key you're playing in.

One of the common uses is using holes 4, 5 & 6 overblows for playing the m3rd (or #9th), b5th & b7th respectively in first position blues,, which coincidentally are all blue notes where their expressive tone is welcome. And overblow hole 6 gives you the missing minor third in 2nd position.

To use this technique generally the short harp being played needs to be set up with the low reed gapping which means the average harmonica stock harmonica needs adjustment before being practical for this approach. Tinus has written an excellent website on how to go about doing this, as well as overblow technique.

Key of C Richter 10 Hole Harmonica Layout

Hole   10
Wholetone    E A Db E G B Bb
Semitone    Eb Ab Eb F# Bb ~B Eb Gb B

Semitone   Db Gb Bb Db ~E Ab Db Ab Db
Wholetone   D F# B D
Minor 3rd   Ab
Hole           10
Natural Bend Overblow

Light background means natural blow & draw notes.
Dark background means bend.
Regular background means overblow or overdraw.

For further information about playing short harps with overblows visit Ten Hole and visit The Diatonic Reference. You can do a search on the internet using "harmonica overblow" as the search text. Or join either Harp-L, HarpTalk or Harp On! email groups and ask about this technique of playing harmonica.

Valved Diatonic Harps

A valved short harp in the hands of an experienced player becomes a chromatic harmonica of sorts. It is simply an ordinary 10 hole diatonic short harmonica with some holes valved. Using the same windsavers used in chromatic harmonicas.

Article on valved diatonic harmonicas (AKA diatos) by Patrice Leclerc author of The ALBUM and an avid valved harmonica player.

Unlike chromatics the windsavers are only added to draw reed slots 1 to 6 and blow reed slots 7 to 10. By doing this and using a slightly different bending techniques, a practised harpist can play more notes than are normally available on a standard short harp. The advantage over a chrom is the range of expression and tone of the natural bends, as well as the compact size and absence of a slide assembly.

Key of C Valved Richter 10 Hole Harmonica Layout

Hole   10
Wholetone    Bb D F Bb D F Bb
Semitone    B Eb F# B Eb F# ~B Eb Gb B

Semitone   Db Gb Bb Db ~E Ab Bb Db E Ab
Wholetone   A C Eb G
Minor 3rd   Ab
Hole           10
Natural Regular Bend Valved Bend

Light background means natural blow & draw notes.
Dark background means regular bend.
Regular background means valved bend.

However the clarity, quality, accuracy of pitch of any bent note is highly dependant on the ability and experience of the player. To acheive all the bends on a valved diatonic requires a lot of work and practise.

(Thanks both to Ironman and BrassHa'per for this information.)

In addition you can visit BrassHa'per's the diatonic reference. Or feel free to pay IronMan's site a visit and if you ask him nicely he may be able to give you more information. Or join one of the harmonica email groups and ask for information.

Just like chromatic harmonicas, diatonics can be retuned to altered tunings. Its considering what notes are naturally available without valving with these layouts. Its also possible to extend altered tuning diatonic's using valves, although their placement and resulting available notes will vary depending on the layout of the instrument because of the relationship between the pitch of the blow and draw reeds in the same hole.

Suzuki sell valved Promaster harps. Refer to the links page for online harp shops.


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