2005 P.Missin - Details

Use of multiple harmonicas

The use of more than one harmonica to play a single piece of music is a somewhat neglected art in the West, although it is standard practice for Asian tremolo players to use two or more harmonicas at a time. It is not totally unknown in the West, however, with one famous example being Norton Buffalo's playing on Bonnie Raitt's version of "Runaway", where he uses four harps to play the solo. Charlie McCoy also uses two or more harps on one tune from time to time. Multiple harps allow the player to do things that are simply not practical or possible with a single instrument, such as more varied chordal accompaniment and doublestops, improved legato of certain phrases and cleaner, more accurate chromaticism whilst taking full advantage of the tonal qualities of diatonic instruments.

Chordal accompaniment

The simplest use of multiple harmonicas would be expand the range of chords available for accompaniment, after all the usual chord harmonicas are essentially just a set of diatonic harmonicas joined together into one instrument. As a simple example, if you are playing a blues tune using a harp in second position you have the tonic chord (I) available as the draw chord and the subdominant (IV) available as the blow chord. However, there is no dominant chord (V) available. Most harp players would simply use either a 1-4 octave to suggest the V chord, or perhaps use the 4/5 draw to suggest a 7#9 chord rooted on the V. However, adding a second harp is a simple and more flexible solution. If you are playing a blues in G, your basic I, IV and V chords are G, C and D. You can cover these with a C harp (draw for the I, blow for the IV) and a G harp (draw for the V and blow for the I). Obviously, you could also use a C harp, an F harp and a G harp to play a simple second position riff against each chord.

For more complicated chord structures, simply add more harps to the mix. For example, here are the basic chords to a "Sweet Georgia Brown" progression in the key of Bb:

G7 / / / G7 / / / C7 / / / C7 / / /
F7 / / / F7 / / / Bb / / / Bb / D7 /
G7 / / / G7 / / / C7 / / / C7 / / /
F7 / / / F7 / / / Bb / / / Bb / D7 /
Gm / / / D7 / / / Gm / / / D7 / / /
Bb / / / Bb / G7 / C7 / F7 / Bb / / /

A simple but effective accompaniment can be played using a Bb harp, a C harp and a harmonic minor harp in Gm. For the G7, use the draw chord of the C harp; for the C7 substitute the blow chord of the C harp; for the F7 use the draw chord of the Bb harp; for the Bb major use the blow chord of the Bb harp; for the D7 use the draw chord of the GmH harp; for the Gm use the blow chord of the GmH harp.

It is also possible to play two harps literally at the same time to give complex chord voicings. Here is an E7#9 played by drawing on the lowest three holes of an A harp and a C harp:

Here is a DM9 to GM9 vamp played on a G harp and a D harp:

There is probably a limit to how many of these chords you can play before you start to hyperventilate!

Melodic variation

As well as simple accompaniment, using different harps allows you to use different harmonic possibilities to thicken up melodic lines. As an example, here is a simple blues intro:

I am playing this in first position on an A harp and third position on G harp:

Even with strictly single note lines, you can vary your melodic playing by swapping between different harps played in different positions. This is something Charlie Musselwhite does a great deal to add variety to his solos. For example, even though the sequence of notes might be identical, a G blues riff played on a G harp has a very different sound to the same G blues riff played on a C harp, or the same riff played in third position on an F harp, or in fifth position on a Bb harp, etc..

Chromaticism

The standard chromatic harmonica is really just a pair of diatonic instruments, one in the key of C and the other in the key of C#, housed in the same body with a mechanism to swap between them. A "poor man's chromatic" can easily be achieved by using two diatonic harps tuned a semitone apart and this is, in fact, a standard Asian harmonica technique. Here is an example of a chromatic scale played on an A major diatonic and a Bb major diatonic:

Obviously if you add bent notes and overblows, there are many different ways to play chromatic phrases using a pair of diatonic harps. Although in many cases the chromatic harmonica might be a more practical choice for highly chromatic music, using a pair of diatonics can be surprisingly flexible and allows you to take advantage of the tone of the diatonic, as well as its note bending and chordal possibilities.

Handling multiple harmonicas

In order to get the most of the use of multiple harmonicas, being able to move smoothly from one harp to another is essential and the key to this lies in how the instruments are handled. There are various holding methods that are commonly used, each with their advantages and disadvantages and I encourage you to experiment to find what works best for you. My own preferred method is to stick the harps together using Blu-Tack (or Stik-Tak, or Fun-Tak), the reusable sticky putty used to hang posters. This gives you the tremendous advantage of being able to handle several harmonicas as a single item, making it easier to apply hand effects, or cup them to a microphone. Simply roll a cylinder of Blu-Tak, layer it between each pair of harps, then squeeze them together. You can adjust them to give you the most comfortable playing angle and distance between the mouthpieces. The Blu-Tak also cushions the harps to prevent the covers clanking against one another.

One more tip - don't get Blu-Tack on your lips. It's not poisonous, but it will do little to enhance your playing skills...


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