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Why do chromatic harmonicas have valves?

If you peer inside most chromatic harmonicas, you will see little strips of something lying over the reeds. These strips (usually some sort of flexible plastic material, often comprising two layers) are also known as windsavers, which gives you some sort of clue as to their main function. They are also called flaps or leathers, as they were originally made from leather.

Like single reed diatonic harmonicas, each chamber in a chromatic harmonica usually contains two reeds - one blow reed; one draw reed. The reeds on chromatic harmonicas are often slightly longer and wider than the corresponding reeds on diatonics, so there is more space around where air can leak when you are sounding the opposing reed in a chamber. Add to this the additional leakage you tend to get from the typical mouthpiece and slide assembly and the chromatic can be a very "windy" instrument to play. To make the instrument more efficient, valves are added over the reeds - when you blow, the pressure of your breath closes the valve over the draw reed and when you draw, the suction pulls the valve against the blow reed, preventing loss of air through the inactive reed.

The idea was borrowed from the accordion and introduced on the double reed diatonic harmonicas to reduce leakage caused by the sheer number of reeds, but are now used on almost all chromatic harmonicas, on all but the very highest reeds. In addition to reducing wastage of air, they help shape the tone of the instrument, but they also have some other effects worth mentioning.

As is mentioned elsewhere on this site (and on many others) the typical blues-style bend on a diatonic harmonica involves an interaction between the two reeds that share the same chamber. Placing valves over both reeds in the chamber prevents this interaction, so the typical blues-type bends are not possible. However, it is now possible to bend the notes produced by both reeds in the chamber, although the type of bend is somewhat different. Whereas the dual-reed bend is limited by the pitch of the lowest reed in the chamber, the single-reed bend has no lower limit, although the further you bend it, the weaker the note becomes. Depending on how the reeds are adjusted, it is usually difficult to lower a valved note by more than a few semitones without the note choking completely. It is these extra bending capabilities that lead players such as Brendan Power to experiment with removing selected valves from their chromatics and adding some valves to diatonics.

Brendan Power worked as a consultant for Suzuki harmonicas and one of the results was the Suzuki ProMaster 350V diatonic, which is semi-valved. This means that all the usual dual-reed bends are available, but the addition of valves over the lower 6 draw reeds and the top 4 blow reeds means that the first 6 blow notes and the top 4 draw notes are all capable of single-reed bends. The Hohner Slide Harp was a 10-hole chromatic using the same tuning as a standard diatonic and was similarly semi-valved, although it is now no longer in production. Of course, it is possible to add valves to or remove them from your own favorite harps to achieve similar results.

There are also some chromatics which have no valves at all. Often these are cheaply made instruments where certain things have been omitted in the interests of cost control. However, there are also some valveless chromatics that lend themselves to some interesting effects. Some of the Chinese-made chromatics marketed under a variety of names such as Hero, Tower, Lark and others. They feature a similar note layout and slide to the usual chromatic harmonica, but they have a plastic mouthpiece resembling like a tremolo or octave harp. The lack of valves and the separate chamber for each reed allows you to do dual-reed note bending in a similar manner to that used on octave and tremolo harps (see FFAQ16).

Tombo also make a few valveless chromatics, these being of a much higher quality than those previously mentioned, the Folk Young (#1334), the Unica (#1244) and the Unica Formal (#1844). The Unica and Unica Formal have 44 reeds, rather than the 48 you would expect from a 3-octave chrom, but that is because it lacks the paired C and C# that would be found in holes 4/5 and 8/9. They have 22 holes, because each hole contains one reed per slide position, rather than four, as on a 270-type chrom. To explain further, you play a C by blowing into hole 1; a C# by blowing into hole 1 with the slide in; a D by drawing on hole 2; a D# by drawing on hole 2 with the slide in; etc. Make sense? To a player who has started out on a tremolo harp (the commonest form of diatonic in the Far East) it feels more familiar than the typical Hohner-style chromatic. The Folk Young is laid out similarly, but with a slightly shorter range. Again, you can get a nice variety of bent notes by carefully selection of which holes you cover. For example, position your mouth to cover a C blow note and a D draw note and you can draw bend the D down to Db; move up so that you care covering a D draw note and an E blow note and you can blow bend the E down to Eb; and so on. By placing your mouth so that you are covering just a single hole, you can also get single-reed bends almost as though there were valves present. These types of chromatics require a little adjustment to your technique if you are more familiar with the Hohner Chromonica-style chromatics, but they are capable of some unique effects.

Finally, for more information about valves, including how to make them, how to fit them and how to fix them when they misbehave, see here.

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