Monthly Archive for November, 2011

Irish Harmonicas

I’ve been messing around with learning Irish fiddle tunes on guitar, tin whistle, and harmonica since 1997, and recently I’ve made quite a bit of progress learning new tunes and playing them on the harmonica at sessions, and a lot of it has to do with the use of an alternate tuning: “Paddy Richter.”

The Paddy Richter tuning is really simple: you just take a standard diatonic harmonica and raise the pitch of the 3rd hole blow by a whole step. On a C harmonica, that means bringing a G up to an A.

Retuning the 3rd hole blow makes it possible to play melodies that use the 6th note of the major scale without having to play a difficult bend. Since fiddle tunes are dance music, they’re often played really fast, and bending accurately at high speed is quite tough, especially on the 3rd hole, which is one of the trickiest on the harmonica.

Why not just play everything way up high and avoid the lower octave? You could do that, and on some tunes that’s actually the best option, but D is a really popular key for fiddle tunes, and on a D harmonica, that top octave is pretty shrill. I like the sound of the lower octave a lot better. Plus, when you repeat a tune three or four times, it’s nice to be able to alternate octaves every other time, playing a low version AND a high version.

So that’s the “why” part of this article. Let’s move on the harmonicas pictured at the top. The two in back are Suzuki Promaster harmonicas in D and G, tuned to Paddy Richter by Brendan Power, who wrote the book “Play Irish Music on the Blues Harp.”

Those two instruments are “half-valved,” which means they have windsaver valves strategically placed over certain reeds in order to make them more airtight and allow bending on both blow and draw notes on all holes. I particularly like using those little bends to articulate repeated notes. The valves do change the tone a bit, making them sound reedy, more like a chromatic harmonica. You could also compare the sound to an accordion or even pipes sometimes, which is appropriate to Irish music.

What I’m most excited about, though, is the two harmonicas in front, which I retuned myself using a small file from my Lee Oskar harmonica maintenance kit. At sessions, folks had been playing tunes not just in D and G, but also A and C, so it became apparent I’d need a couple more keys.

After practicing on (aka “destroying”) a couple of old harps in random keys, I applied my new tuning skill to a Golden Melody in A and a Meisterklasse in C and after a few hours of filing with a furrowed brow, they play fine! They don’t have valves, which is a project for another day, but they play in tune and I’ve been able to use them in sessions. Hurrah!