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       About Celtic Harmonica
       By Glenn Weiser

Glenn Weiser is the author of Irish and American Fiddle Tunes For Harmonica.

The diatonic harmonica was invented in Germany in the 1820's by clockmakers and first went into commercial production there in 1857. It is not clear when the instrument was first used in Ireland, but my Uncle Harold told me he remembered hearing dance tunes played on harmonica by Irish musicians as a boy before leaving County Down  late 1920's. Irish musicologist Brendan Breathnach later classified it as a traditional Irish instrument in his landmark tune collection Ceol Rince Na Eirren.

In Scotland, it also has also been used for a long time for traditional music and is called the "moothie", according to Norman Kennedy, a traditional singer from  Aberdeen. 

Many diatonic Celtic tunes can easily be played on the standard 10 hole harmonica, particularly those in the key signature of 2 sharps, which in Celtic music are D major, E Dorian, A Mixolydian, and B Aeolian. But because the 10 hole model lacks the sixth step of the scale (as well as the fourth)  in the low octave, many tunes in the key of 1 sharp, which are G major, A Dorian,  D Mixolydian and E Aeolian, present difficulties if the tune in question contains this note. The layout of the reeds in the lower register also limits the harmonica's ability to play many tunes played in the key of A, or 3 sharps.

There are some ways around this obstacle, all of which are problematic. First, the 3-draw note can bent from the seventh step down a whole step to the sixth (ti to la). However, this is not easy to do accurately in the first place, and the difficulty can be compounded by the fast tempos required for jigs and reels. The second way around the gapped scale in the low octave is to use a 12 or 14-hole extended range G scale Marine Band (model #364 or #365). Here, though, the reeds crisscross in the upper register in such a way as to sometimes require either jumps over a hole or doubling back from a higher to a lower reed when going from a lower to a higher note or vice versa. This can be awkward, and getting the hang of the 12 hole's upper register can take time.

The best approach the problem of tunes in one sharp requiring the E on the first line of the treble clef staff is to get a harmonica made with an altered tuning known as "Paddy Richter" invented by New Zealander harmonicist Brendan Power in the early 1990s. In this tuning, which could also be called Em7 tuning, the 3-blow note is the sixth step of the scale rather the usual fifth, which remains available on 2-draw. But Paddy Richter tuned harmonicas are not made by any major American manufacturers, and hence are not widely available here. You can, though, order them from Seydel Harmonicas in Germany and their distributors.

If you're handy, you can also assemble a G scale Paddy Richter by cannibalizing two Lee Oskar harmonicas, which have replaceable reed plates. For this, take D Melody Maker (Melody Makers are labeled according to their second position keys) and a G major diatonic, and combine the blow, or upper reed plate from the Melody Maker with the draw, or lower reed plate from the G major diatonic.

When my book, Irish and American Fiddle Tunes for Harmonica, was published in 1987, Brendan Power had not yet invented Paddy Richter tuning, so the 12-hole Marine Band was the best solution at the time to tunes in one sharp requiring the low E. I now recommended Paddy Richter harmonicas for these tunes, though.

Celtic Music is also played on the chromatic harmonica as well, with the slide being used for ornamental notes. But if a standard chromatic is used with the slide out, the the ornaments will be a half step above the melody notes and will have a decidedly un-Celtic, somewhat Middle Eastern flavor. On the other hand, if the slide is held in and released for the ornaments, they sound a half step below the melody notes and sound much better, which is an approach used by Ireland's Eddie Clark. But holding the slide in for long periods is disliked by many players, so for that reason some players customize their instruments by inverting the slide. The slide then opens lower notes rather than higher ones, achieving the same effect with less effort.

Another method of customizing the chromatic for Celtic music is to retune the harmonica so that it can be played with the slide out and have diatonic ornamental notes available. For example, on a C chromatic, the Eb on the D draw can be tuned up to an E so that a quick push with the slide produces the ornamental note E. This allows the player to use ornamentation with ease. There are other methods of retuning as well, at which Brendan Power is considered a leading expert.

Celtic harmonica players today include Brendan Power, mentioned above, who played with the Riverdance band, Americans Mark Graham and Rick Epping, and Scotsman Donald Black (see discography). Power, considered the leading player, is known to use pucker technique; the technique of the others is uncertain.

Below are links to the tab for six Celtic harmonica tunes, and other related information.

(I'd like to acknowledge various members of the online discussion group Harp-L as the source of some of the information given here. - G.W.)

Free Celtic Harmonica arrangements Celtic Harmonica Discography
Irish Harmonica (by Rick Epping) Reviews of  "Irish and American Fiddle Tunes for Harmonica"

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