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There is some confusion concerning various terms used in
describing tremolo harmonicas, as well as harmonicas in general;
and a few bits of general music terminology may be helpful as well.
Many thanks to John Broecker for direct contribution, input, encouragement, and correction!
The accuracy of harmonica tuning refers to how closely a harmonica is tuned to a particular standard. The most common standard today is A-440, which refers to the note "A" in the middle of the common treble clef, when it is tuned to 440 Hz (cycles per second). This is the A directly above the middle C on a piano. There are other standards in regular use, including A-443 and A-438.
Regarding the tremolo harmonica, accuracy is a bit different, because each note is sounded by two different reeds at the same time, one of which is just slightly off-tuned.
The comb of a harmonica is the wood or plastic (occasionally, titanium or other very durable substance) item in the middle of the "sandwich" of which a harmonica consists. A harmonica player interacts directly with the comb, opening and blocking various holes, to control notes being played.
The covers of a harmonica are the metal shell-like items on the very outside of the "sandwich" of which a harmonica consists. Much of the overall strength of a harmonica depends upon the quality of metal of the covers. It is best for covers (and thus the whole "sandwich") to be held by screws, rather than nails, for reasons of longevity, strength, and repairability.
The "key" of a tremolo harmonica is a term from music theory. It refers to the particular set of notes which a given tremolo is capable. Some folks are more familiar with this concept in terms of "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do"; those are names for all the notes of one scale, in any key. Visualizing a piano, is one good way to begin to see how keys work: one can build a scale starting from any note, and "C" is the key just to the left of any pair (and not any triplet) of black keys. C-sharp (C# for short) is the black key just to the right of C, and the white keys run from A through G and then to A again, low to high. The keys fitting the "Doe a deer" song are called "Major"; there are also two kinds of "minor" keys which are a bit different (one can oversimplify by calling them "sad"), and blues keys which are different yet, and on and on! Music theory is quite complex. Many topknotch harmonica players, know little or no theory, but it can help.
So. Most tremolos made are in the key of C. Almost as many are available in G. A very large amount of music is in neither. You only really need to know this, if you are playing alongside other instruments and/or vocalists; if you are, this is how you stay in sync with them, i.e., "in their key".
Tremolos are available by a few companies, in three complete sets of keys: the twelve major keys, twelve natural minor keys, and twelve harmonic minor keys. There is something called a "melodic minor" which is not used for harmonicas, because it is different when running up versus running down. The Seydel Fanfare-S solo system tremolo, is available in any of the three sets. Seydel also accepts custom orders. In addition, Tombo 1521 is quite readily available in all major and natural minor keys, and Tombo 3121 is available from some dealers upon request. The Swan Professional and the Echo Celesete, are available low cost, in all major keys.
The "Note Placement" of a harmonica, refers to the selection and arrangement of notes which each instrument has. This is also called "Reed Placement", because on a harmonica they are one and the same thing, on a tremolo harmonica there is one pair of reeds placed in the instrument for each note.
There are a number of different systems of note placement. This is because most harmonicas are not "chromatic", which means, they do not play all of the available standard twelve-tone scale notes between their lowest and their highest: they play just a selection from one key, i.e., A, A#, B, and so on. This makes the instrument much easier to play. Chromatic harmonicas are readily available, but are not our topic of the moment!
There are three common note placement systems for tremolo harmonicas right now: the "Solo System", the "Asian System", and the "Richter System". Each of these gives a particular pattern subset of the notes of one key per instrument. The founder of this web site, Jonathan Brickman, prefers Solo and Asian system instruments, and finds them considerably more intuitive and easy to just pick up and play; but there are lots of opinions ☺
Note numbering is the placement of numbers, on the top cover of a harmonica, next to each single hole on a ten/twelve-holer, and in arrangement with groups of four pairs of vertical holes on some tremolos. This is mostly used on single reed diatonic and slide chromatic harmonicas because of their uniformity across models and brands, but a few tremolos also have numbering systems.
For instance, the Hohner Echo #2209, a tremolo in key of C, starts with the lowest pitched blow and draw paired horizontal holes (E and G), stamped together on the cover as 2, and proceeds with paired horizontal holes through 11.
But there are dozens of tremolo models with different reed/note counts and arrangements thereof, so any single tablature method will not be practical for all tremolos, or even most tremolos often seen.
As a result, a large quantity of tremolo players have found themselves learning by a different method.
There are other note placement systems also. Pat Missin's page can be very helpful to study the variety.
Reedplates are flat metal plates, right underneath the covers. Each reedplate has many very small strips of similar metal attached (often secured with very tiny rivets or sometimes very tiny screws), positioned just above larger but similarly shaped holes. These are the reeds. When a musician causes air to move through the holes, the reeds vibrate, and sound is generated.
The Richter system is a design of the note-set of a harmonica such that chords very valuable in certain styles of music are easily available, at the expense of disposing with easy and straightforward runs all the way up and down scales and chorded scales. A thoroughly nonscientific broad-spectrum analytical guess, by Jonathan Brickman, suggests that many relatively nonintuitive players may find more grist for their personal mills in these instruments, as some sevenths and other chords are exposed particularly in the Richter system. For very specific information about Richter tuning, please see Pat Missin's excellent page on the subject. Almost all ten- and twelve-holers made for the U.S. market are Richter-tuned, as well as possibly most of the Hohner tremolos, and all Hering tremolos. Most Tombo, Suzuki, Huang, Swan, and Merano tremolos are not Richter-tuned.
This is a very nice note/reed placement system invented by Hidero Sato and furthered by Cham-ber Huang and others, which is seeing quite a lot of use today. This is a variation on the solo system. These instruments admit of excellence both in playing melody and accompaniment as well. Most Tombo, Swan, Suzuki, Huang, and Merano instruments, among others, have this sort of layout.
The Solo system is a harmonica design setup which sets up as much of the scale of the instrument's key, all the way up and down, as physically possible. These instruments always have "do" of their keys (of do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do), as the lowest pitched exhale reed (left side of the mouthpiece), and "do" as the highest pitched exhale reed (right side of the mouthpiece). This system yields the same blow-draw pattern everywhere on the instrument, with no reversals.
John Broecker and Jonathan Brickman suggest that solo system harps, by design, are best for pure melody playing. They have redundant "do" pitches between the 1st and 2nd octaves, and 2nd and 3rd octaves. At this time, standard solo system harps are, unfortunately, only known to be available in the key of C.
These two terms refer to the most common variety of harmonica in much of western Europe and the northern Americas, the ten- or twelve-holed harmonica, of which a very well-known variety is the Hohner Blues Band. Some use the term "diatonic" for this, but tremolos do also fit the purist definition of "diatonic".
The word "tremolo", generally refers to a "wavy tone", a fluttering in either volume or pitch. The "tremolo" of a tremolo harmonica sounds a bit like this, but is actually not; instead, it is the subjective result when two tones sound which are very nearly tuned alike. In many contexts this is called acoustical beating, and Wikipedia has an excellent page discussing it. In the case of the tremolo harmonica, this occurs because any single note is sounded by two reeds simultaneously, usually constituting one vertical pair of holes in the comb; and in each case, one reed is tuned oh so very slightly off from the other. Some sources have stated that a semistandard off-tuning is four cents, four hundredths of a half-tone, but there is a lot of variation, between instruments and even within the same instrument.
There are two benefits to the so-called tremolo effect. First, it gives the tremolo harmonica player a very nice timbre, full of character without distortion, to work with. And second, the double-reed mix produces lots of additional overtones, which makes the instrument considerably more pleasing, in the ears of many, when playing in ensembles and as accompaniment to vocals.
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