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What is a slideless chromatic?

(Tombo S-50 and Victory Chello)

Most players of the chromatic harmonica if they were asked what is the least reliable feature of the instrument, would probably name the slide. It sticks, it clicks, it leaks and it generally misbehaves at any given opportunity. Perhaps valves (AKA windsavers) would come a close second, but if there were some way to get rid of the slide assembly, the valves would be a lot less necessary, as the whole instrument would be a lot more airtight. It would also be possible to play it in a rack, as you no longer need your hands to push the button.

Well, there are chromatic harmonicas that do not have slides or valves. For a start, there are the Polyphonia and Chromatica types. These are either all-blow instruments, or the draw notes and blow notes in each hole are the same pitch. Each adjacent hole contains a reed one semitone higher than the reed to its left. Although there have been a few talented players who are able to utilize them well, they are mostly relegated to the role of special effects instruments (often being used to accompany a cartoon character falling downstairs!), as melodic phrases are quite difficult to play cleanly. Besides which, I think the only instruments of this type currently in production are the Hohner 263 Chromatica and the Tombo Glissando. (You may be lucky to pick up an old Chromatica 261 or 262, or the Polyphonia V, VI or VII at a garage sale, or perhaps on eBay.)

Related to the Polyphonia and Chromatica types is what I call the simple wholetone harmonica. In this instrument, adjacent notes are tuned a wholetone apart and draw reeds are tuned a semitone higher than the corresponding blow reeds. This layout has several advantages, but as there are no commercially made models like this, there's not too much point in discussing them here.

Then there are the Pipe Horn harmonicas made by Tombo. These are all-blow instruments with two rows of holes, laid out somewhat like a piano keyboard. The lower row plays the notes of the C major scale and the upper row adds "the black notes" (but not the E# and B# like the solo tuned standard chromatic). They are made in Alto and Soprano models, as well as what Tombo call a Contrabass, although it is actually a baritone instrument. They are extremely well made instruments that are used quite a bit in the Far East, but which are somewhat expensive and quite hard to find over this side of the world. Suzuki have recently introduced the SS-37 Soprano Single and the AS-37 Alto Single which are essentially the same basic idea as Tombo's Pipe Horn harmonicas (see this page for reviews of these instruments).

Hohner also made some some similar instruments as part of their Educator series some years ago, including bass, alto and soprano models (the bass covered the same range as the Tombo Contrabass, the alto and soprano the same ranges as the Suzuki versions). They are long discontinued, but again you can sometimes find them in garage sales, or on eBay and other online auctions. The basic idea, however, dates back even further. In 1898, Christian Weiss was awarded German Patent 95610 for such a design, although he placed the sharps and flats on the lower row:

The next option for a slideless chrom is simply to remove the slide assembly from a standard chromatic. I first read about this in Richard Hunter's book "Jazz Harp", where he suggests that the loudest way to play a chromatic is to take off the slide and mouthpiece of a 64. It should be noted that if you do this with any of the currently produced Hohner 64s, you will find that the cross tuning makes it very difficult to play the thing, as the alternating layout of the notes will seem somewhat illogical. Of course, this isn't a problem with older straight tuned 64s, the current Hering four octave chroms, or standard three octave chromatics. However, you might need to do some smoothing of the exposed surfaces before the instrument is comfortable to play. The basic technique of playing then becomes a matter of learning to play one row of the instrument at a time swapping between the rows as needed to get the sharps and flats. On a regular C chrom, the upper row of holes gives the C major scale and the lower row gives the "slide-in" notes.

However, there are several instruments that have been purposefully designed to be played in this fashion and they also offer some other advantages. In the Far East they are often called "chromatic singles" and are often used in music education, as well as in harmonica ensembles. Tombo produce one called the S-50:

This harp covers a three octave range starting on middle C, but Tombo also make one called the Violin Scale 1577, which has an extended range starting from the G below middle C, giving it a compass the same as a violin. However, I have never yet seen one of these for sale outside of Japan. Yamaha make make similar instruments including the SS-220, SS-440 and AS-440, the first two covering a three octave C to C range like the Tombo S-50 and the latter covering a range an octave lower.

In all of these harmonicas, each reed is given its own chamber. The lower row covers the C major scale and the upper row the C# major scale (although it doesn't have the repeated Cs and C#s of the typical solo tuning, it does have the E# and B#). The mouthpiece of these harps is slightly convex and you can switch between rows by tilting the harp very slightly. It takes a little practice to get used to this, but when the Harp Start Scheme was running in the UK, students who started on these harps gained proficiency at least as quickly as those who started on standard slide chromatics. The fact that each reed has its own chamber allows certain things that are impossible on other instruments. If you isolate each reed, you can get bends similar to those obtainable on valved harps, as well as being able to get overblows on all the draw reeds and overdraws on all the blow reeds. Also, if you position your mouth so that you get a C when you blow and a D when you draw, you are able draw bend the D down to Db, just like 4 draw on a blues harp in C. If you now move your mouth so that you still get the D when you draw, but now get the E when you blow, you can blow bend the E down to Eb (see FFAQ16). Similar possibilities lurk all over the instrument and make it well worth exploring.

Another variation of the slideless chromatic is the Victory Chello harmonica. This is a somewhat different instrument to the previous ones, tuned an octave lower (hence the name "Chello", which I assume is a phonetic rendering of "cello") and looking something like an overgrown tremolo harmonica. In fact, as the tremolo is by far the most popular type of harmonica in the Far East, this is no coincidence. The lower row of notes gives the C major scale in a typical tremolo-style layout, however instead of the upper row adding the same notes tuned slightly higher, it adds the sharps and flats.

My only previous experience of Victory harmonicas was their cheap tremolo harps, so I was not too sure what to expect from this one. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was in fact very well made. The tolerances of the reeds are pretty good, the reeds are all nicely adjusted and the tuning is accurate, equal temperament pitched at A=443 (despite the accompanying leaflet claiming A=440). The tuning work has been neatly done along the length of the reeds, leaving no nasty file gashes, but it's too early to say what the reed longevity is going to be like. The reedplates are secured to the body in a sandwich fashion, using 13 brass screws - in fact, the only steel used in this harmonicas are the rivets used to fix the reeds, so corrosion is not going to be much of a problem. The covers are plated brass and attached using brass nuts and bolts. The comb is black plastic (looks like ABS to me) and the harp weighs in around 320g (about 11.5 oz) and measures 235mm x 42mm x 14.5mm (about 9" x 1.75" x 0.5"). It comes in a nice zip-up black nylon carrying case, but I'm sorry to say I can't translate the Chinese characters that appear on it!

The harp has two rows of twenty holes each, covering a range of three octaves, starting on the C below middle C (the same note as the lowest note of a 64 chromatic). However, unlike the Tombo and Yamaha slideless chroms that use exactly the same note layout in each octave, this one has a layout very similar to the typical Far eastern tremolo harps, where the upper and lower octaves are laid out a little differently from the middle octave. If you have played any of the Suzuki or Tombo tremolos, it should be familiar to you, but if you are new to this kind of harp, it may take a while to get used to it. Thankfully, it comes with a leaflet with a diagram of the tuning layout. In trying to keep this layout regular, there are a few compromises made, which means that the lowest octave has no F or Eb. The F is playable as E#, so that is no problem, but the lack of the low Eb could be a little inconvenient, although you could bend the E down a semitone if you needed it.

The holes on this harp are much larger than on the Tombo or Yamaha, measuring 8mm wide by 6mm high and unlike the Tombo and Yamaha slide chroms that use a slightly thicker vertical partition to mark the start of each octave, all the vertical partitions on this harp are the same thickness, about 1mm. The partitions between the upper and lower holes are about 2mm, which is thinner than the Tombo or Yamaha, but I didn't have any problems isolating a single hole using either pucker or tongue-block embouchure, but again, if you are new to this type of harp, it may take a while to get the hang of it. The tone is nice and rich, the lack of valves making it sound more like a low-tuned diatonic than a standard chromatic. Using the techniques described above, the bends came in quite nicely. Not surprisingly, it is difficult getting dual-reed bends out of the very lowest notes, but the single reeds bends work well over the full range of the harp, although they can be a bit squeaky on the very highest notes (see FFAQ17).

If I were forced to make some criticisms, I would say that I would have preferred the lowest octave to be juggled to give a low Eb instead of the low B#. I may even make that alteration myself. Although the front edges of the reedplates are nice and smooth, there are a few rough bits at the ends of the harp, but no worse than you would get on a Marine Band or similarly constructed harp. Of course, it's easily fixed with a bit of abrasive paper. Finally, the upper cover on the sample that I got had a slight air leak, but this was easily fixed by twisting the cover slightly, so that it fitted perfectly into the slot along the top of the reedplate. Aside from these points, I have to say that I am quite impressed with this harp and that any of you who are interested in alternative harp designs should think about investigating it.

The US distributor is J.L. Dyer Music. Victory also makes a bargain price bass harp and several different chord models - if they are as well made as the Chello, they might also be worth investigating.

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