Although Hohner had introduced the chromatic harmonica some decades earlier, it didn't really catch on with blues musicians until the early 1950s and blues played on the chromatic is an area that has still not been fully explored. The most popular chromatics with blues players are the 16 hole four octave models, such as the Hohner 64, although some players prefer the three octave 12 hole harmonicas such as the Hohner Super Chromonica. The advantage these have is that they are available in several keys, where the 64 and Super 64 are usually only available in the key of C. Most chromatics are solo tuned, that is, each group of four holes covers one complete octave of the C major scale, or whatever key the harp is tuned to, as follows:
Pushing in the slide lever raises the scale to C#:
(E# and B# are to all intents and purposes the same as F and C.)
In theory it is possible to play in all keys with a chromatic instrument, but in practice, only a few keys are commonly used. Just as most blues on the diatonic is played in the key of the draw chord (cross harp), most blues on the chromatic are played from the draw chord. Probably 90% of the blues numbers recorded using the chromatic are played in the key of D. The draw chord on a C chromatic is Dm6, but this can be used as a substitute for a I chord (as an implied D13#9 chord) in a blues in D. It can also be used as a substitute for a IV chord (as a G9 with no root) in a blues in D and the blow chord can be used to suggest the V (implying an A7#9). (These substitutions work in a blues, but not necessarily in other forms of music.) Those of you who play third position on the diatonic harp will find that many licks can be transferred directly from this style to the chromatic. The D minor pentatonic scale can be played without using the slide and with one slide jab to add the flat fifth note, the classic blues scale in D can be played. Little Walter played many tunes on the chrom in this key and on many of them he alternated between chromatic and diatonic, for example "Blue Lights"1, played on a 64 in C and a diatonic in G. Many players use different key harmonicas to be able to play this style in a variety of keys - Rod Piazza and Paul Oscher are fond of Bb chromatics, as was the late William Clarke.
The key of Eb can be played in much the same way, by just holding in the slide button. The Eb minor pentatonic can be played without slide movement and the blues scale in Eb with just one slide dip. Little Walter plays in Eb behind Muddy Waters on "I'm Ready"2. He also plays in Eb on Muddy's "Don't Go No Further"2 and on "Diamonds at your Feet"2, both tunes uncharacteristically featuring quite a lot of use of the slide button. George Smith also plays in Eb on his classic "Blues In The Dark"3, but my favorite Eb performance comes from Kim Wilson on The Fabulous Thunderbirds' "In Orbit"4. Here Kim swaps between the chromatic and an Ab diatonic.
Little Walter plays in the unusual key of B on the Muddy Waters tune "My Eyes Keep Me In Trouble"2. This key still manages to keep some of the most important notes as draw notes. Many of these licks could be transposed to the key of C by merely playing them with the slide button held in, as George Smith does on the tune "Monkey on a Limb"5. Walter Horton displays a distinctive approach to playing in the key of C on the tune "Blues"6, mostly using the blow chord as his starting point. George Smith also uses this approach on tunes such as "Boogie'n With George"7 - a style which was heavily influenced by The Harmonicats and which in turn was quite influential on West Coast players like Mark Hummel.
The E minor pentatonic scale can also be played without slide movement. Again, it is easy to add the flat fifth of the scale and to transpose it easily to the key of F, but neither of these keys have been used much by blues players. The F major pentatonic scale requires no slide work and can be raised to F# by holding the button in. Stevie Wonder has recorded many solos in these keys
The G major pentatonic scale can be played without slide work and the G blues scale is not too difficult. Those of you who play any second position on the diatonic above hole four shouldn't have too much difficulty in playing in this position on the chromatic. Listen to Toots Thielemans play his version of the Sonny Rollins blues "Tenor Madness"8 to see what can be done with this key. Also, many of these ideas can be transferred to Ab by just holding in the button.
Another key which has proved unpopular with blues players has been the key of A, even though the A minor pentatonic (the same notes as the C major pentatonic) is also built into the instrument. Johnny Mars plays chrom in Am on "I Can't Take A Jealous Woman"9. Again the flat fifth can be added easily and the whole lot can easily be raised to Bb. The Bb major pentatonic scale is also quite easy to play.
As I said, the vast majority of blues recordings featuring the chromatic harmonica are in the key of D, with a few in the key of Eb and little has been done to expand the blues chromatic style since the early 1950s. Although it is a tricky instrument to master, it has a few advantages over the Marine Band type harp. Although bent notes work very differently on the chromatic, all the notes will bend to some degree. Also, the note arrangement is constant in each octave - a lick that works in the lower octave can be played with exactly the same phrasing in the upper octave. The blues chromatic style deserves to be better explored - players such as Dennis Gruenling, Sugar Blue, Charlie Musselwhite and Paul deLay have all added their own touches to the foundations laid by Little Walter, Walter Horton and George Smith: maybe you can bring a few ideas to the style yourself.
1. Reissued on Best Of Little Walter (Chess/MCA CHD 9192). Click here for more details from Amazon.com, or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
2. Reissued on The Anthology: 1947-1972 (MCA 112 649). Click here for more details from Amazon.com, or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
3. Reissued on Harmonica Ace: The Modern Masters (Ace Records CDCHD 337). Click here for more details from Amazon.com, or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
4. Butt Rockin' (Chrysalis CD 41319). Click here for more details from Amazon.com, or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
5. Arkansas Trap (Deram SML1082) - none of the tracks from this LP seem to have been reissued on CD.
6. Solo Harp 1963/1965 (Document DLP575), is sadly no longer in print and none of the track seems to have been reissued on CD.
7. Now You Can Talk About Me (Stony Plain/Blind Pig BPCD-5049) Click here for more details from Amazon.com, or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
8. Compact Jazz (Verve 845592-2). Click here for more details from Amazon.com, or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
9. Life On Mars (Beat Goes On BGOCD159). Click here for more details from Amazon.com, or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
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