Chord Harmonicas

From “Harmonica World” June-July 2012

Harmonica trios, chromatic lead with chord and bass accompanyment, once common in Western countries, are now rarely found. Not so in Asia. In particular, the Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival competitions feature many many trios, most with excellent chord and bass players. The teaching done by the regional harmonica organisations ensures an on-going supply of players. They read music, mostly the Asian number format, and play set pieces, often to an amazingly high standard. However most players cannot improvise.

Nonetheless, the combined sound of the bass and chord harmonicas is compelling. The chord players have long instruments, and leap with great agility between distant chords. Let’s examine this strange (to us) instrument more closely.

The chord harmonica is actually two harmonicas, held together with a metal bracket. Each chord comprises 4 notes, on adjacent holes. There are two common chord harmonica types, the 48 chord and the 24 chord. The Suzuki version of the latter also has a bass note next to each chord.

The 24 chord harmonica layout is:

Upper harmonica chords

Blow Bb F C G D A

Draw F7 C7 G7 D7 A7 E7

Lower Harmonica chords

Blow Bbm Fm Cm Gm Dm Am

Draw F#+ C- G+ D- A+ E-

The + and – indicate augmented and diminished chords respectively.

So. How about blues in A? You need an A, a D and an E7 chord. They are grouped nicely together on the right hand side of the upper harmonica. Likewise for other major keys.

Minor keys are similar. For example, the Am, Dm and E7 chords, needed for A minor tunes are grouped closely together.

So far so good? Actually, for me, no. I don’t like the design at all. For my music I need the I, IV and V chords (G, C, and D for tunes in the key of G). I also need the II and the VI minor chords (the Em and Am chords when playing in G). Guitar players know that these five chords go together all the time.

Now let’s find them on the chord harmonica. The I, the IV and the V chords, no problem. Placed next to each other, as indicated before. Not so for the II and VI minor chords. In fact, if you’re playing in the key of G, you don’t even get a VI minor chord, i.e. the Em (imagine a guitar without an Em chord). In the key of C, the II and VI minor chords (Dm and Am) are available, but they are located some distance from the C chord, as the layout shows.

I like tunes in minor keys. In the key of A minor, the Am chord is often followed by an F chord, the layout above has these chords at opposite ends of the instrument.

My guess is that the Chord harmonica was designed for pop standards and show tunes, where the chord layout perhaps makes sense. It doesn’t work for me however. Just as well. The 24 chord harmonica generally retails for more then $500, its larger 48 chord cousin for more than $1000.

There is a solution. Huang make the 20 chord “Chordet”. The build quality is not quite Suzuki standard, however Huang have a long history of decent quality budget priced harmonicas. The Chordet is no exception. Better still, the chord layout makes more sense (to me at least). Here it is:

Upper Harmonica chords

Blow Bb F C G D

Draw F7 C7 G7 D7 A7

Lower Harmonica chords

Blow Gm Dm Am Em Bm

Draw D- A+ E- B+ F#-

As before, the + and – indicate augmented and diminished chords respectively. Like the Suzuki 24 chord model, the Chordet has a bass note next to each chord.

In particular, the layout groups related chords together. So, in the key of G, the main chords (G, C, D7, Am, Em) are grouped together, similarly for the other keys. Much nicer. When playing in Am, the much needed F chord is close by, similarly for the other minor keys.

Good, however it could be better. I have little use for augmented or diminished chords (purely my own taste). So I retuned them to 7th chords. More useful, for me at least. For example, I now have an E7 chord next to my Am chord (guitar players know how often these two chords go together). I’ve also retuned the upper draw chord to straight chords, rather than 7ths. They sound better to me.

The chord harmonica is a great instrument in the right hands. For newcomers like myself the budget Huang Chordet is a good entree, with a better chord layout.