My first Musical instrument was a Hohner harmonica, key of C. I did not know what
the phrase, “key of C”, meant. All I knew was that harmonicas came in specific keys and if one were try to play a tune they had learned on the “C” harmonica, they would
not necessarily be able to play the same tune on a harmonica for the key of G for
As I explained my plight to a real musician, the person explained to me that what I
probably needed was a “chromatic harmonica”. I had no idea what that was. I was informed that such an instrument would make it possible for me to play any note within the given number of octaves present on that particular chromatic harmonica. Cool!
I still had no idea what that was.
However, I counted out my “pop bottle money” (Some of you know what that was) and rode my bicycle down to Edgington’s music store in Salina and purchased a chromatic harmonica. I recall that I was in a great hurry to get home, sequester myself in my basement bedroom and began to play any song I wanted to play because now I had all of the notes! It didn't work! Well, it did work but it was terribly awkward.
As my musician friend explained, the white keys on the piano could be played on the chromatic harmonica by simply blowing or drawing through the regular holes on the instrument. The Black Keys on the piano could then be added by pushing a button on the end of the harmonica which opened up holes to the necessary sharps or flats.
I still had no idea what that was all about!
But I did get good use out of this great harmonica because it had at least three octaves which I always played without messing with that pesky sharp/flat button. This was of course like only playing on the white keys.
Whereas my original harmonica in the key of C only had one octave, this instrument was quite exciting because I could play all of the songs I had already learned; but now in three different places on the same harmonica! Cool!
What I did not know at the time and what I did not come to understand until about five decades later, was that the harmonica is normally a “diatonic” instrument. This rudimentary understanding of music served me well and allowed me to transition to playing a mountain dulcimer which is also normally a diatonic instrument.
Since almost all harmonica music is played by ear it was very easy for me to learn to play the mountain dulcimer by ear as well.
But, once again my frustration from half a century ago reared its ugly head! I discovered that unless I had matching tablature written for the song and I knew the proper tuning, I was still missing notes that I wanted. Frustration!
I have since discovered that the transition from a diatonic to chromatic dulcimer is not nearly as complicated as pushing a button on the end of the instrument to blow or draw through a different hole. In fact, there is “tab” written chromatic dulcimers as well. There are now good courses available to learn chromatic and good publications available as well. Chromatic dulcimers are relatively easy to acquire these days.
Our very own Erin Mae regularly offers Chromatic classes (shameless plug) Other instructors do so too!
Check it out. It is not that tough! And you will find more notes!
Keep on pickin’