tremolo harmonica

The Tremolo Harmonica

From “Harmonica World” Oct-Nov 2010

In recent years I’ve become part of the Asian harmonica scene, due to a Chinese harmonica lesson website I launched in 2006 with a Chinese partner. While the site has over 70000 members, most Asians don’t play 10 hole harmonica, the subject of my lessons. Instead, many play the Tremolo.

I was initially unimpressed with the Tremolo. I’ve changed my mind.

The Tremolo has either 21 or 24 holes. The comb has a divider down the middle which doubles the number of holes. The Tremolo is actually two harmonicas, tuned slightly apart and played in unison. The beating which occurs between the notes creates the Tremolo sound, not unlike a piano accordian. It’s an acquired taste, I’m starting to like it.

This double reed layout means that two notes are played at once. It also means that notes can’t be bent (actually, single tremolo notes can be bent a little, not the double ones however). Unlike the diatonic, each hole has one note only, either a blow or a draw. This takes getting used to, applying air at the wrong place means no sound. Also, no bending limits options for blues.

However the Tremolo is great for tunes. It’s also (kind of) laid out like a diatonic, as the diagram shows. The top holes in the diagram are the blow ones, and make a C chord, just like a diatonic. Each note is doubled, so the space in the diagram above the first hole D has another D reed, the space below the second hole C has another C and so on.

The Tremolo is a diatonic instrument, the diagram shows the layout for one in C. Notice that it has all the C scale notes (C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C). For the 21 hole Tremolo shown in the diagram, a single note (B) is missing at the top. Again, just like a diatonic in C.

  C   E   G   C   E   G   C   E   G   C  
D   F   A   B   D   F   A   B   D   F   A

Apart from the missing note at the top, all the other notes in the scale are there. Unlike the diatonic, which misses notes in the bottom octave to allow chords. This makes tunes easier on the Tremolo. No bending to get notes down the bottom. Also, the holes don’t reverse at the top like the diatonic does.

The Tremolo holes are fairly small, so the mouth may actually cover 4 holes at once. So breathing in and out makes two separate notes, like a diatonic. For example, blowing into the bottom 4 holes gives a C, the draw note is a D.

So far, so good.

The problem is that the draw notes change position. The diagram shows higher draw notes to the left of the blow notes in the bottom octave. The middle octave has the higher notes one space to the right of the lower ones. In the top octave the higher notes are 3 spaces to the right of the adjacent lower notes.

Hard to remember, hard to play. At least for me. Initially I kept missing notes in the bottom and top octaves, especially the top. However, the feel of the two reed plates working (almost) together is nice.

I play fiddle tunes on the diatonic, and now play them on the Tremolo. More or less. The Tremolo layout is much like first position, so for me the tunes are already learnt. The Tremolo is longer than the diatonic, however I use the same cupped hand position. Old habits don’t change.

The Asian players hold the Tremolo with one hand at each end. There is a reason for this. They play all kinds of chromatic pieces, and get around the missing notes by holding multiple instruments. For example, a Tremolo in C with a C# one sitting on top. They switch between instruments with remarkable speed and accuracy. The technique is to grip the instruments tightly with one hand, and pivot them back and forth with the other. Hence the hand at each end.

There is far more to the Asian Tremolo technique. The good players use tongue blocking to play arpeggio backings behind their melodies. There are many good players.

The Tremolo harmonica is a popular school instrument, like the plastic recorder in Western schools. Similar to the recorder, children play the Tremolos in groups. It is also common in trios, with bass and chord harmonicas. Tunes are taught via a numbering notation, a cross between tab and traditional Western scores. The good players play remarkably well from these scores, however few of them can improvise.

In short, the Tremolo is a major part of the harmonica family. Given the Asian population, probably played by more people than the 10 hole harmonica in the West. There are some prominent western Tremolo players, such as Donald Black from Scotland. Given sufficient practice I’m hoping to add to the count.

If you want to try it out, you can find tremolo harmonica lessons here