Harmonica Terminology

Harmonica Terminology: Introduction

The harmonica is unique among musical instruments in that the techniques used to play it are executed inside the body of the player and aren’t visible from the outside. Harmonica players use a range of terms to describe what they do when playing, but their meaning isn’t always self-evident and they can be confusing for beginning players.

This post is the first in a series which will explain the most commonly used terminology. It’s primarily directed at diatonic harmonica players who want to play pop, blues, rock, folk or jazz, using 10-hole instruments such as the Hohner Blues Harp, the Marine Band series, Special 20 or Rocket. Harmonicas of this type are often generally referred to as “Blues Harps” or just “Harps” and are the most widely used harmonica instruments.

These 10-hole diatonics contain only the natural notes of the major scale in the key to which they are tuned. They appear simple to the uninitiated, but can actually be the most complex and demanding type of harmonica to play. This is because their construction permits many notes to be modulated in pitch through the techniques known as bending and overbending, which I shall deal with in a later post.

In addition to diatonics, there are two other main categories of harmonica:

Chromatic Harmonicas

Distinguishable by the slide button on the side, these are generally larger than diatonics. As the name suggests, they offer a full chromatic scale and are mainly used for single note playing in jazz, classical music, pop and folk. They are also sometimes heard in blues and related styles.

Tremolo and Octave Tuned Harmonicas

These are also generally larger than diatonics and have two rows of holes, one above the other, so that notes always sound in pairs. Like diatonics, they are tuned to a single major scale, but unlike diatonic models, they do not permit note bending and are mainly used in traditional folk music. With tremolo instruments, the notes of each pair are tuned slightly apart, so that they create interference beats when played together, giving a pulsating tremolo effect. With octave tuned harmonicas, the notes of each pair are tuned exactly one octave apart, giving a fuller sound.

To be continued…


So true about happening INSIDE the body. Many of the traditional styles which may rely completely on the tongue blocking embouchure can often be most difficult to make sense out of due to ones inability to actually see the gymnastics of the tongue. Joe Filisko

Great post! This is most welcome for us new ones :slight_smile: Looking forward to the coming posts!

Thanks Joakim. Next episode on cross harp / straight harp / positions is coming soon. Don’t hesitate to ask if there are any topics you want explained!

That’ll be great. I look forward to that. Maybe you can mention how the positions and keys relate to the song’s (or guitar’s) key also? I’m a bit unsure about that. :slight_smile:

I’m surpised you keep these two types of harmonicas in the same category. And, aren’t there more types?

Thanks for presenting this topic.

Although tremolo and octave tuned harmonicas are not the same, they are both 2-row instruments where the sound is produced by pairs of reeds, rather than single reeds. For this reason, they’re often lumped together.

As well as diatonic, chromatic, tremolo and octave tuned harmonicas, there are also a number of specialist instruments designed for accompaniment in harmonica ensembles ranging from trios to full harmonica orchestras. Chord and bass harmonicas are the most common ones, they date back to the tremendous popularity of harmonica groups in the mid-20th century. The photo shows a Hohner Chord 48, the largest harmonica in the world.

Thanks Steve! I’ve only seen videos of trios playing, but will look for images and videos of larger ensembles. I guess the SPAH convention might include an ensemble with bass and chord harmonica ensembles.

Yeah, you can experience harmonica groups of various different kinds at the SPAH convention and other harmonica festivals. It’s well worth attending if you have the opportunity.