Irish Harmonica
By Rick Epping

(Glenn Weiser's music book/CD package, 100 Irish and and American Fiddle Tunes 
for Harmonica
with standard notation, harmonica tab, and guitar chords for all tunes is available by clicking here. )

The following article was written by Rick Epping of Hohner Harmonicas 
and originally appeared online at the Harp-L Digest:

A while back there was a request for information on Irish harmonica. The following is an overview of the subject, which describes the harmonicas used, along with a little information about the playing style. While not widely used in Irish sessions, the harmonica is recognized as a traditional instrument in Ireland and has its own category in the competitions.
     There are a number of different moods to Irish music and an equal number of harmonicas to express them. Chromatics, octaves, tremolos and single-reed diatonics in various tunings each have their own character and advantages, as well as limitations. Diatonics, by the way, are usually called "mouth organs" in Ireland, while chromatics are more
often referred to as "harmonicas".


    The chromatic models are capable of playing any tune in any key.
Chromatics are probably the best suited to play the more modern jigs and
reels that depart from the traditional modes with chromatic passages or
ornamentation. The playing style is similar to that of the 2-row Irish
button accordion, which has the rows of buttons tuned a semi-tone apart,
such as D/C#, D/D# and, most often, B/C. The chromatic is played in a
flowing style that is mostly single notes- not much chording or octave
playing. An advantage of the B/C system is that in the common keys of
Irish music, G and D, one gets strings of notes that occur in one air
direction, adding to the fluid quality of this style. I don't know if
Irish players have used the 270-B with the slide reversed, which would
have similar note directions in and out to that of the B/C accordion,
but it may be worth exploring. Some players use chromatics tuned to
G/F#, reversing the slide so as to facilitate triplets. Chromatic player
Eddie Clark plays a regular 260-C and 270-C.


    A bygone favorite among Irish players was the Regulation Band, an octave
model that differed from the current Marine Band Full Concert 1896/40
only in its cover shape. Also in this category is the Auto Valve; a
similar instrument with the addition of windsaving valves and a greater
selection of keys (check out the octave harmonica audio clip at
<>). This instrument gives a full sound, very like
the single-row melodeons still seen in Ireland and known in the USA as
Cajun accordions. The Knittlinger Octave models (Marine Band Full
Concert and Auto Valve) are tuned the same as Richter or Marine Band
types and have the advantage of being able to play both melody and chord
accompaniment. Naturally, there are melody notes missing in the low
end, but there are two ways in which this limitation can be overcome.
Irish diatonic (and single-row accordion) players will simplify or
change a tune when necessary to fit it on to their instrument, sometimes
to the point where a tune with three apparent chords will end up with
only two. This does not always fit well in a session with flutes and
fiddles, but is very effective in a reed ensemble. I had the pleasure
once of joining a group for a few tunes at a fleadh, or festival, in
Kilrush, County Clare. Perched on top of a pool table were three
musicians playing octave harmonica, button accordion and brushed
snaredrum. The tunes were fairly simple but the sound and rhythm were
mighty and drove the dancers till well past closing time.
Another useful technique to overcome missing low notes is similar to
that employed by flute and tin whistle players. If they run out of notes
at the low end of their instrument or want to avoid the loud and shrill
notes at the high end, they simply raise the melody up or drop it down
an octave as needed. Naturally it is important to choose a spot in the
phrasing and include enough in the shifted passage so that the thread of
the tune will not be lost. Playing some of the tune in octaves before
and/or after the shift can also help make the octave transition


    The tremolo most commonly used in Ireland today and popularised by the
Murphys from County Wexford, is a 24-hole model like the Hohner
Weekender 98.115. This model, like all the Oriental tremolos, uses a
tuning where the diatonic scale continues all the way down to hole 1
with no missing notes (the notes run G,C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C, etc.). The
tremolo speed on these models is also much slower than that of German
tremolos, giving the notes a quality of clarity rather than that of
fullness. Tuning is Equal Temperament as opposed to the Just tuned
German models. The scale, tremolo speed and temperament of the Oriental
models therefore favor single note melodies while those of German
tremolos favor chording. Irish music traditionally was melodic rather
than harmonic; expression was developed by means of the subtlety and
complexity of ornamentation and melodic variation rather than through
the use of chords and harmony. While chords and harmony are certainly
used widely and to good effect in modern traditional Irish music,
appreciation of pure melody, such as can be played on the Oriental style
tremolo, is in no way diminished today.


    The Marine Band style harp was not commonly used for traditional music
in Ireland in the past, but it is certainly well suited to it. With
single-reed voicing the melody is clean and clear, chord accompaniment
is possible and, of course, there is note bending. Bent or blue notes,
called in Ireland "long notes", play a vital part in Irish music and can
be heard on any instrument capable of producing them. Paddy Canney and
Bobby Casey are among the finest exponents of Clare fiddling, where the
tunes are lower, slower and bluer than most anywhere else in Ireland.
They will hang on a note in a long bend up toward but never quite
reaching the expected note, giving their tunes great emotional tension.
There are plenty of tunes with flatted 7ths that are good for crossed
position and tunes that go from A minor to G for G harps or E minor to D
for D harps. Most dance tunes, however, are in Major keys and do best
played in first position. Some D tunes will contain both a C and a C#,
such as "The Blackbird" set dance and "Chief O'neill's Hornpipe". Played
in crossed position (G harp) the C# can be easily side-stepped, or the 6
draw reed can be valved to allow the 6 blow to be bent to C#. Either way
the C natural (5 draw) can still be used in a 7th chord. Another
solution to this problem is Country Tuning, where you can get both the
C# and C from the 5 draw, though without that nice D7th chord. Another
tuning to check out is low D. While not as loud as regular D, its upper,
melody end is pitched to the same octave as the fiddle and flute and
blends nicely with them.
    Marine Band types, also called Vampers, are very good for backing other
instruments, especially when played at the low end. I use the technique
of vamping, where the tongue is lifted on and off the low, tongue
blocked notes to provide a rhythmic accompaniment to the higher, melody
note. Alternating with vamping I will play the melody or a harmony in
the lower register, occasionally jumping to the high register in
octaves. Vamping through an entire 16 bars of a tune is not necessarily
desirable. Once the rhythm is established it can be more effective for
the harmonica to parallel the lead instrument in the melody for a few
bars, then drop back down to a vamp again before the momentum of the
rhythm begins to fade.


    This tuning, in crossed position, is good for melodies that have a
strong sub-dominant chord, such as "The Lark in the Morning". It is
especially nice for song accompaniment and slower melodies, such as many
O'Carolan tunes. I tune my 9 draw up a semi-tone as well as the 5 draw,
which permits octaves and nicer chording for these kinds of tunes.


    It is well worth looking into this model for many of the tunes in minor
keys, especially if you are filling in chords. Explore both first and
second position on Natural Minor models. This tuning is also great for
Breton tunes.


    The trump, otherwise known as the jaw harp or Jew's harp, is an ideal
second instrument for the harmonica player. It provides relief to the
listener's ear after a number of tunes on the mouth organ and, with its
drone and rhythmic qualities, is perfect for accompanying other
instruments. It was once quite common in Ireland and I've always found
it welcome in a session. The trump is also an excellent aid in
developing good tone on the harmonica, as one must learn to tune the
vocal tract to the reed's harmonics in order to play a tune.


    Irish dance tunes generally have more ornamentation than their American
counterparts. Triplets and grace notes are the most common form of
ornamentation used on the harmonica. Grace notes are quick little notes
that occur before the melody note and are often from the next hole up
(10-hole example: 6 blow grace note for a 5 blow melody note). A slight
bend or glissando up to the melody note is also common and will add
expression to the tune. Rolls are a quick succession of five notes
(melody note, note below, melody note, note above and melody note again)
and are difficult to play convincingly on the harmonica. I don't really
use them except perhaps on slow airs.
    There are few recorded examples of Irish harmonica, but much can be
learned from studying the other instruments- fiddle, flute and tin
whistle, uilleann bagpipes, concertina, accordion and plucked
instruments. Each instrument to some degree dictates its own playing
style and each has something to offer to the harmonica player.

- Rick Epping

See also: Celtic Harmonica Discography
Irish and American Fiddle Tunes for Harmonica by Glenn Weiser-An Instructional Book/CD


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