If you have ever played guitar, you are probably familiar with this diagram:
This is the fretboard layout of one of the first scales typically learned by aspiring blues and rock guitarists, known as the minor blues scale, the classic blues scale, or simply the blues scale. This is how the PentaHarp is tuned - simply blowing and drawing from the first hole to the tenth hole gives you all the notes of this scale, with no bends or overblows required. Each octave gives you the same arrangement of notes, so that a lick you play in the lowest octave can be played in the middle or upper octave without having to learn a new pattern. Although this is the first time such a tuning has been used on a commercially produced harmonica, the tuning itself is not new. I retuned a harp to this layout more than twenty years ago and I know at least a couple of other people who came up with the same idea independently. I had fun with it for a while, but it never became a regular part of my kit. However, I am very grateful for Hohner releasing the PentaHarp and prompting me to revisit this tuning, as I think I may have underrated it back then.
More about the tuning later, but first, some comments on the harmonica itself. The PentaHarp is part of Hohner's Progessive Series. This means that although it is being marketed to people who are new to the harmonica, it has the same build quality as harps such as the Special 20, Golden Melody and the various Rocket models. The comb, covers and reedplates are like those used on the Special 20, except that the comb is a dark blue colour, as befits a harp tuned to the blues scale, so if you like the way the Special 20 plays and feels, then you will feel very much at home with the PentaHarp. The reed adjustment is extremely consistent on the one I have here, with easily playable bends across the full range of the harp. With the exception of holes 2, 5 and 8, each draw note can be bent by two semitones. The sample I have is in the key of G, so overblowing the lowest couple of holes is a bit challenging, but the rest of the harp overblows quite well right out of the box, although this harp is not really aimed at the serious overblower. The quality of the tuning is also excellent - 5 Limit JI at about A=443Hz, giving pure minor triads on the draw notes and pure fourths, fifths and octaves on the blow notes. It comes in a hard plastic case (blue, of course), with a multilingual guide to basic harmonica dos and don'ts, along with a coupon for free online harmonica lessons with bluesharmonica.com courtesy of David Barrett. It is also available in the keys of Low Fm, Gm, Am, Bbm, Cm, Dm and Em. All in all, a professional quality harmonica of the standard we have come to expect from Hohner's recent production. The RRP in the US is $49.99, the same as the Special 20.
So... on to the tuning. Here it is in the key of Am for ease of explanation:
The classic blues scale is the minor pentatonic scale (in A minor, that would be A C D E G A) with the addition of the flat fifth (in A minor, that would be Eb). To play that scale on any other diatonic harmonica would require bends and overblows/overdraws. On this harp, the only technique you need to play that scale over three full octaves is the ability to hit single notes. The flat fifth is what gives the characteristic flavour to classic rock riffs such as "Smoke On The Water", "Sunshine Of Your Love", "Heartbreaker", etc. However, you don't always have to play that note - omit it and you get the plain minor pentatonic, an extremely useful scale in its own right, the backbone of riffs from "Black Night" all the way to "Funkytown". In fact, if you're new to the harp, take up bluesharmonica.com's offer of free lessons and learn how to play octaves, then use that technique to play, for example, the "Knock On Wood" brass riff - you too can be a horn section!
So, just using the built in scale can give you a lot of cool stuff, but... there is always a but. Many beginner guitarists learn the blues scale and then complain that their solos don't sound very bluesy. The usual solution to this is to add some string bending, typically bending the minor third, fourth and minor seventh upwards. Unfortunately, those notes on this harmonica do not bend the same way as on a guitar. So while the PentaHarp is certainly more than capable of belting out some solid riffs, as well as being an easy way for the guitarist to take what they already know and apply it to a harmonica, it could also wind up being disappointingly lacking in bluesiness.
However, in the same way that the standard major diatonic tuning became really interesting when players began to play them in keys other than the one stamped on the box, the PentaHarp also has hidden possibilities.
The minor pentatonic scale rooted on A has exactly the same notes as the major pentatonic scale rooted on C - C D E G A C. This means that as well as minor blues riffs, you can play all those time honoured major pentatonic tunes such as "Amazing Grace", "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", etc. That's kind of fun in itself, but it becomes even more fun when you consider that Eb note on our Am Pentaharp. Just like it adds the flat fifth to the minor pentatonic, it adds the flat third to the major pentatonic, creating what is known as the major blues scale - in the key of C, that would be C D Eb E G A C. This scale is not quite as famous as its minor relative, but it is an extremely useful scale, especially in jazz and R&B flavoured blues. As with the minor blues scale, the PentaHarp gives you three full octaves of the major blues scale, again without needing bends or overblows. Starting to sound a little more interesting to the harmonica player? Well, there's more...
As well as being able to play the C major blues scale on our Am PentaHarp, with just a few draw bends, you can also play the C minor blues scale:
The entire scale is made up of draw notes. This might be a bit of a workout for your lungs, but it means that you can create perfectly flowing blues phrases, with no changes of breath direction. Three full octaves of classic blues scale with perfect legato - no other diatonic harmonica offers that. Things can get even more interesting when you mix the major and minor blues scales - in fact that is a key way to jazz up your blues and someone even wrote an entire book about it.* Strictly speaking, playing an A harp in the key of C is tenth position, but it feels much more like third position on a standard major diatonic, as you have 1 draw and 4 draw as your root notes, plus a minor triad on holes 4, 5 and 6 draw, so if you are familiar with third on a standard diatonic, you should be able to adapt to this position on the PentaHarp quite easily. If that weren't enough, playing in this position also gives you the major scale, dorian, lydian and mixolydian modes, ascending melodic minor and lydian dominant scales, etc., all with just basic draw bends, no overblows required. That's enough to add a lot of variety to your playing, but if you do need more, it just takes two overblows per octave to make this harp fully chromatic. There are also other positional possibilities on the PentaHarp, but I'll leave you to explore them yourself. I just wish I'd spent more time exploring this tuning twenty years ago.
So, is this the harp for you? Well, if you are a guitarist and you want an easy way to get into playing harmonica, the PentaHarp is definitely worth a look. If you just want to play like Sonny Terry, Little Walter, Charlie McCoy or Bob Dylan, then you should probably pass. However, if you are a harp player with a decent command of bends, perhaps some experience playing third position and you'd like to add some jazz and R&B touches to your blues playing, but don't really want to get seriously into jazz, overblows, custom harps, etc., then the PentaHarp is certainly something you should consider. Will it make it into my regular kit of harps? I'm not sure, but this time around, I will at least spend more time with it before deciding.
My only quibbles are relatively minor (pun not intended). It would be nice if the Em PentaHarp were in Low E, rather than the standard E range. Also, because there are only six different keys available, some of the relative major keys are not blues/rock friendly - for example, the Fm PentaHarp gives you Ab major, the Bbm PentaHarp gives you Db major, etc. Ab and Db are keys that would probably make you unpopular if you called them at your local blues jam. However, I think Hohner should be commended for taking a step off the beaten path and it should be very interesting to see where this leads.
Hohner have set up a site dedicated to the PentaHarp, at PentaHarp.com, where you can find an online tool for converting notes on a fretboard to tab for the PentaHarp, along with some other cool stuff.
* The book I mentioned that covers mixing the major and minor blues scales is The Blues Scales: Essential Tools for Jazz Improvising, by Dan Greenblatt. (This is an Amazon Affiliate link - for more details, click here.) I would recommend this book to any harp players wanting to expand their improvisational vocabulary, whether they play the PentaHarp or not.
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