I’ve been playing the diatonic harmonica since the late seventies. In the early years of my guitar playing I sometimes used a harmonica to add instrumental breaks to songs in a style something like the iconic playing of Neil Young. For this I used a neck rack in order to play guitar and harmonica at the same time. But one of the best things about the harmonica, and the reason that this instrument has always been a part of my musical journey, is the fact that a harmonica fits easily in your pocket and can be pulled out whenever you have time to play. My first Marine Band harmonica was a constant companion when I hitchhiked around the U.S. in 1979, for example. And I never minded standing on a secluded road side, no matter how many hours I waited, when I had a harmonica to play.
As my musical journey progressed, I was soon writing chord changes and melodies for songs that were not playable on a diatonic harmonica with its simple seven tone scale. So for a time I worked with the chromatic harmonica in order to be able to hit all of the notes. But I found that I really preferred playing the diatonic harp because it was so much nicer for bending notes. It was an interesting trade off: I could play all twelve tones in all keys on a chromatic harmonica but not bend notes; or I could wail and emote with bent notes on a diatonic harmonic but I could not get all of the tones needed to play chromatically. Both instruments can be used to play great blues, but each has its own style, something like comparing a piano with its fixed strings to a guitar with strings that can be bent.
So I decided to stick with the diatonic harmonica and I began looking for ways to get around it’s restrictions. At one point, I played around with the idea of switching between two or more diatonic harmonics “on the fly” as a way to change keys or hit accidentals with-in a song. I made a special box that held twelve Marine Band harmonicas, one for each major key, arranged in the circle of fifths so I could quickly grab the key I needed to follow the changes in a song. One song that I was working on at the time that gave me a challenge was Bluesette by Toots Thielmans, a jazz standard which progresses through at least five key changes in less than eight bars. Playing Bluesette required me to grab a different harmonica for nearly every measure and sometimes for a single note. Playing multiple harmonicas like this was a fun exercise and I seriously considered the possibility that this “method” could have some pizzaz as a funny show stunt. But in the end, it was not a satisfactory solution to my desire to be able to improvise freely on the harmonica.
Around 2010, I became obsessed with the idea that there must be a way to play all twelve tones on a diatonic harmonic even though the instrument was designed to play only the seven tones of a major or minor diatonic scale. The reason I thought this had to be true was the fact that there are several places on the diatonic harmonica where a tone can easily be “bent” to yield a different tone. For example on a C diatonic harmonica the 4th hole draw reed which is supposed to be a D note can easily be bent to yield a C#/Db tone. So I figured that it should be possible to bend a C reed “down” to yield a B tone or an E reed “down” to yield an Eb tone etc. Based on that idea, I spent many hours trying to bend various reeds “down” to find the missing tones, but I made no real progress. And I continued to be mystified as to why some accidentals like Db in the 4th hole and Ab in the 6th hole were easy to play while Eb, F#, and Bb in the same region of the harp were apparently unattainable.
My big breakthrough came around 2012 when I heard about a harmonica player named Howard Levy who had figured out how to play a diatonic harmonica chromatically. When I heard what he had to say about how the reeds in a diatonic harmonica interact with each other and what really happens when you bend notes on a harmonica, I was amazed and realized that the reason that I could not find the missing notes that I was looking for was that I was looking for them in the wrong places. I now know that the fourth hole of a diatonic harmonica, for example, can yield four tones: C; C#/Db; D; and D#/Eb. It is not possible to get the B note that I was trying to bend “down” to but it is possible to get an Eb above the D (which I had never tried to bend “up” to).
Once I understood how the harmonica really works I began learning how to produce all of the missing notes: C#/Db and D#/Eb with the 1st hole, F# with the 2nd hole, G#/Ab and A#/Bb with the 3rd hole, C#/Db and D#/Eb with the 4th hole, F#/Gb with the 5th hole, G#/Ab and A#/Bb with the 6th hole, C#/Db with the 7th hole, D#/Eb with the 8th hole, F#/Gb and G#/Ab with the 9th hole, and finally A#/Bb, B and C#/Db with the 10th hole.
Now that I am able to play chromatically on a diatonic harmonica a whole new world has opened up for me with this instrument. It is very exciting to be able to play any song, any scale, any chord, and in any key on a single Golden Melody or Marine Band harmonica.
I’m not sure how to best describe my style at this point but I like to think of the harmonica as a miniature saxophone and I am striving to play jazz standards and improvise just as a saxophonist would. Chasing Charlie Parker on the harp.