beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > Do You Recommend Chromatics?
Do You Recommend Chromatics?
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116 posts
Sep 23, 2017
2:06 PM
I'm interested in everyone's input as regards the pro's and con's of a chromatic harp. I am thinking of getting one for playing more intricate stuff where grabbing overblows and overdraws is really difficult. More involved jazz stuff and the like. Trouble is i'm a bit put off by the problems i'm hearing about that folks have with windsavers, a thing that because i've only played diatonic i know nothing about. Can guys that play them or have input give me their opinion is it worth getting one or are they too much of a hassle with the maintenance?
4993 posts
Sep 23, 2017
4:05 PM
I'd love to help but my chromatic adventure has stalled since the band has become more busy. It doesn't take much!
I have 4 chromatic harps, 2 270s, a 260 and a cx12.
The 260 is prewar and tuning is different to current model. Both 270s have been refitted with Brendan power 3D printed combs. Good combs. But i need to put windsavers on the prewar 270. I currently play that one without windsavers and am able to do so since the power comb is so good but it is rather airy. Needs tuning also. I can see this taking a lot of time and i have other priorities so just not touching the chromatic. I think they don't have to be a real pest if you pay attention to the basics, every time. warm the harps before playing, don't put them away wet, prop the slide open after playing with a stick or such, that hold the slide halfway open and allows air to circulate though both sets of chambers. Don't dip them in water or oil the slide. And play with a clean mouth, every time.

Prevention is the key, because they are much more of a pill to repair.
4994 posts
Sep 23, 2017
4:07 PM
And if you have wooden comb, don't leave them in the sun or hot place, because the plates will expand and the comb will crack!
117 posts
Sep 23, 2017
6:57 PM
Thanks Bee. Yeah i was searching on the net for info and on a harp forum this guy was moaning about this chromatic he'd bought and he was wanting to play classical stuff on it but was so frustrated because after a very short period of time the harp was jamming up and the windsavers were getting the blame. He was asking for advice and was just about ready to pack in using it because he said the instrument was so unreliable with it freezing up like that at inopportune times ruining his performance. The bit you say about keeping the harp warm and warming it up properly was what someone said to him. Can't remember what kind of harp he had. I was thinking of a chromatic because to play really intricate stuff on diatonic is a bear with the missing notes. Yeah you can get them with OB's and OD's but sometimes those are hit and miss and trying to grab them super quick and in time is a monumental task.
1655 posts
Sep 27, 2017
10:09 AM
Chromatics do require more maintenance than a diatonic.All of the above info helps to keep them playing well. DO NOT buy one that has pinned instead of screwed on reed plates. Those are a real pain to work on.You can use trombone slide oil,but it has to be applied very sparingly.Also,if you're going to play anything but "3rd position" blues on one,you must know some music theory.
50 posts
Sep 27, 2017
11:27 AM

I wondered if this site may be of any use to you. I've just bought a Swan ten hole chrom but haven't used it much yet. This site gave them a good write up as a first or practice harp.
2363 posts
Sep 27, 2017
12:01 PM
A while ago I though the natural progression would be to a chromatic, for the same reason you say. I only got one, and I've had no trouble with it technically.

However, I soon found out that to play it properly would need a lot of dedication, and I simply didn't like the sound of it enough. So I put the effort into trying to learn a more conventional instrument. Particularly that I can play in a group, and start at a more basic level in the background. Rather than up front.

I love the sound of swing jazz on the chromatic and I cite Max Geldray. Just fantastic, but also very difficult and beyond my reach. Other stuff I hear on MBH and elsewhere, at a lower technical level, I don't really dig.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Sep 27, 2017 12:04 PM
120 posts
Sep 27, 2017
5:44 PM
Thanks guys. I've been thinking about getting one on and off for a while now. The main reason is the missing notes on diatonic and having to play OB's and OD's to get them. I can play all the OB's and OD's but in playing a complicated piece at a fast tempo well that would be beyond me plus it's so easy for the OB's to be out of tune if you're not careful. Here's a video of a tune i was blown away with. The film it came from was so sad so harrowing and the music is so beautiful. I shed a tear every time i hear it which is surely the definition of good music that it can move you like that. This could maybe be played on diatonic as well but i don't think it would have the same impact.
2366 posts
Sep 29, 2017
4:09 AM
That's a lovely piece of music. Harmonica does do 'haunting' really well. If you want to play melodies like that, definitely get one.

Grey Owl does a really good job with melodies on the diatonic - have you heard his Greensleeves just now? So it can be done but IMO he's an exception, mostly I don't like melodies (esp sweet melodies) on the harp. The reason being that even when the bends are in tune, their timbre stands out and gives accidental emphasis to those notes.

It's like spinning plates (on sticks, you know): it's an amazing feat, but not the best way to store plates.

The one I got, kindly supplied by an MBH member, was inexpensive and works perfectly. And those Easttop ones are supposed to be really good, so if I were you I'd just get one. 12 holes - well you don't even need all those for melodies, the top notes are pretty high.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Sep 29, 2017 4:15 AM
5006 posts
Sep 29, 2017
5:30 AM
I did actually break out my 'good' 270 for use on a gig last night, probably because of this thread.
The guys wanted to play 'I just want to make love to you', in the style of muddy waters' early record. Not sure but I'm guessing little Walter played on it.
I'd been messing with diatonics, both 2nd and 3rd pos, and even broke out an 'easy 3rd-do it!' harp, then I thought why not just get a chromatic on the job.
Listening to the recording of the gig, I think I got away with it. I've done a little bit of 3rd position study on the chrom, and a tiny bit of serious proper music reading study: just enough that I'm almost instinctively aware of the layout and note names and that's about it. I can work the button ok with practice and I naturally block it. Also been playing some stuff with 3rd pos focus so picking up the chromatic to do a little comping and melody work wasn't too intimidating even though it was on stage.
But that's a lot different to what you want to do with it.
I do like the chromatic, but I don't like that metal mouthpiece. I don't like putting anything made of metal in my mouth, near my teeth. Dunno what that's about, just gives me the willies.
2368 posts
Sep 29, 2017
6:33 AM
What's an 'easy 3rd-do-it' harp?

Yes, metal in the mouth - not great. Especially knowing how long harmonica players tend to practice, carrying it round with them and all. That's where the bassoon wins again.

BTW Brass often contains lead. So your choice is between lead from your MBs or the unknown effect of ABS from your SP20s :)

I remember when we were little, my brother used to say he'd had a good day at school when he'd got a shiny spoon at lunch. The plating was intact so he didn't get the nasty electrolytic effect eating his ice cream.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Sep 29, 2017 6:39 AM
121 posts
Sep 29, 2017
8:10 AM
Thanks guys your opinions are all really great food for thought. You know until a while back i never even realised that the old time bluesmen used chromatic harps!! I thought they were all strictly diatonic and then i heard about Little Walter playing a chromatic on some tunes and loads of others too. What about bending on the chrome? I saw on a YT video warning of dire consequences if you try to bend on it because in their words "It's just not designed for that."
2369 posts
Sep 29, 2017
9:01 AM
There's a long journey from 3rd position blues chromatic to real chromatic playing. And 3rd position sounds great, but you've only one key (well, two if you hold the button in).

Bending on the chrome is routine, but it's a different sound - same basic technique to make it though. There are examples of very deep bends (see Winslow) but most of it's a an inflection on the note like a lighter version of our dips into notes. You hear that all the time and I think a crucial part of the expressive sound. And yes it's easier to damage things, I believe because the thing is more airtight with the windsavers.

Every once in a while I stare at my chromatic and think what a lovely object is, plus it's a REAL instrument in a tiny, convenient package. It's not painful or physically hard to play like some instruments. It's not so much I don't like the sound, more that the application is limited - you can join a traditional harmonica ensemble (where are they?) or play as part of your blues band. If I could play like Max Geldray then I could form a swing band, but otherwise it would be a novelty instrument.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Sep 29, 2017 9:08 AM
5007 posts
Sep 29, 2017
2:42 PM
B&H, please pardon me for diverting from your thread a moment to answer MTG regarding the question of easy3rd.
'Easy 3rd-Do it!' (That's how I've seen it written in a couple places, generally I think 'Easy 3rd' is enough) is a tuning scheme where holes 1-3 have the same notes as holes 4-6.
This harp I have is a Seydel 12 hole, and has a Low Octave, like a lucky 13, except its a 12, so actually has 3 octaves laid out like this.
There's a video on YT, I think it's Paul Lamb, playing a tune he calls SummerTyne on the same type harp I have.

Re the chromatic, yes a long way from jamming minor blues in 3rd to playing like Max Geldray.

My thing with metal is just sensory/ psychological. I tapped my teeth with the 270 on Thursday night as I was practicing and that sensation stayed with me all night.

I like the CX12, unfortunately mine needs tuning, otherwise a very good thing. You can buy different mouthpieces for them but very expensive.

The Max de Aloe book seems a good way into it. I made a start, got distracted. Had to go back to work I think.
I also have bill galison's playalong 'jazz chromatic' which I've used to attempt 'Georgia'. Ima fan of Bill's playing I think.
122 posts
Sep 29, 2017
5:16 PM
I like the look of the Suzuki SCX-48 and the Hohner CX12 Jazz. Think the latter is out because it's a tad too expensive. But i'm not sure. Might not even get one and instead buy some other diatonic's. I wanted to try the Marine Band Deluxe and the Crossover. But the chromatic intrigues me because it has all the notes. To play involved pieces on diatonic is really hard.
2370 posts
Sep 30, 2017
12:02 AM
More diatonics really? Surely you owe it to yourself to get one, even a cheap one, to see if it might be your thing.

Thanks Superbee for the explanation. I'll have a look at that. Re the metal on teeth, yes I see. I think that's quite a common reaction.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Sep 30, 2017 12:04 AM
123 posts
Sep 30, 2017
8:46 AM
Yeah MTG i know! It's just the thought of getting a chromatic and then not liking it if i get any problems with it mechanically or so. The diatonic there's nothing to go wrong with. How do you clean a chromatic as regards you can't soak the reed plates in water to wash them. Do you need to clean the windsavers as well? I'm just kind of scared that on cleaning them they'll get damaged.
2372 posts
Sep 30, 2017
9:12 AM
Fair point. I've not had to clean it, internally anyway. I did need to adjust a couple of the windsavers that weren't lying flat. It didn't seem all that fragile. You can get replacement windsavers in any case.

The one I have has a plastic comb, so if I did need to clean it I'd be using cold water, much like with the harp.

But yes, you are right in general - everyone seems to say they need more tlc than a diatonic. But a lot of instruments are like that I think.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Sep 30, 2017 9:13 AM
32 posts
Sep 30, 2017
11:01 AM
One option to consider is a valveless chromatic. I have an Easttop one but the Swan 1040 is rated better I believe. Cheap enough that you don't have to make a big investment to figure out whether you like the layout or not, and still actually reasonably decent for playing, although naturally not as loud as a valved one. Lot less maintenance worry too if that's a concern for you.
148 posts
Sep 30, 2017
11:12 AM
I’m a big fan of Easttop as far as quality and value go. Generally they can’t be beat.
But the ten hole valveless Swan is better than the Easttop.
I started on chromatics, but these days I when I have time to play I am more likely to grab a diatonic. That said, chromatics are great and all the notes are there.
For an amateur hack like me that can be a drawback, diatonics have less wrong notes for me to hit ;). But for some tunes they are the only way to get the notes.
1656 posts
Oct 06, 2017
11:47 AM
The problems you will encounter: A sticking slide-it will inevitably happen. That dried up saliva can be like glue. A quick fix is to hold it with the holes pointing down and run it under a barely opened faucet until it frees up. Be careful to keep water out of the holes. If it's really frozen,you would need to disassemble the slide and clean and lubricate it.
Wind savers: They will also gum up. There are actually two flaps in each wind saver and they can become stuck together. You take a pin and slide it between the two flaps to free them up. Some players will use the pin to put a little crimp in the top flap to help keep this from happening.
I have an Eastop that I am very happy with. I've played it a lot for about 18 months and it has performed without anything but routine maintenance. The valves are now in need of attention but it will be the first time I had to do that.
11 posts
Oct 07, 2017
7:41 AM
I'm really new to playing chromatics, but here's what I have learned,

1 you can play blues, it's just different, a bit like the piano.

2 you can bend, but you must be gentle, and the bends wont go as far down.

3 only know this from what I've read on a chromatic-centric forum, but Don't leave in a hot car. Not sure what would happen, but I'm not going to find out the hard way.

4 they play best when warm, and even if you start out with a warm harp it can cool off while playing,

5 I haven't needed to do any cleaning yet, my understanding is the only hard part about taking one apart is the slider due to a small spring, and the rest is similar to a diatonic.

So ya I recommend chromatics, and then when someone finds out you play the harmonica, and asks the stupid question, do you play anything else? You can say YES I DO!
5042 posts
Oct 19, 2017
4:13 AM
Hi Fibl, the hot car will cause the reed plate to expand.
I left my 270 0n a table beside a sunny window.
Later i found a big crack in the comb. The harp didn’t play well in that region
Sadly i put the harp away.
Later i got it out and found it played ok. On close inspection i could see the crack but the harp played ok

Some time later it got heated up again and the crack reappeared.
The xpansion of reed plate is enough to stretch the comb via the reed plate fasteners and break it.

I had my good 270 apart for maintenance on the weekend. Had to restock a windsaver and remove an obstruction.

I just took delivery of a new rotary tool so I’m now set to retune my prewar 270 and give it some new windsavers.

I also took my 260 apart.

It has prewar covers but the reedplates and reeds are so clean it looks new. I thought it was a prewar and maybe it is, or maybe its a restored prewar or maybe a fake. It’s in incredible condition. Has leather winsavers but i can believe they’re original. Maybe a restoration from 10 years ago. It is tuned like a prewar chromonica. I have high hopes for this harp.
21 posts
Oct 20, 2017
7:43 AM
Super Bee when I said I read that they shouldn't be left inside a hot car, I wasn't even thinking about the comb cracking, I thought maybe the wind savers would melt, or the whole thing would warp, guess that's possible too, in the summer time my truck gets hot enough to slow cook a roast, well maybe not, but it gets HOT.

I have left diatonic's in my truck and the only issue's were the burns to my lips, ouch!
But those had composite or metal combs, but now I'm thinking that any wood combed harp could get the same kind of damage.

As for cleaning, after watching several videos I just don't think it's all that hard, if you can take a diatonic apart you can do the same with a chromatic.

Sorry about your 270, think I may have to start looking for some old beat up harps to practice on, better than using an expensive harp, and could be fun to make some old harps new again.
5049 posts
Oct 20, 2017
4:45 PM
I’m sure a hot car can get hot enough to trouble a plastic comb, curl widsavers or melt some types of glue too.

I love those ‘powercombs’ i fitted my 270s with. This thread is inspiring me to get back to finish the pre war 270 restoration. I threw away the old comb from that one (in 3 pieces). With the power comb it is quite playable even without windsavers, although it definitely takes plenty of air.

Currently I’m only playing one tune on chromatic but i do like them a lot
22 posts
Oct 22, 2017
9:54 AM
I've been looking around YouTube and ran across two Adam Gussow video's, big surprise right, well these are on the chromatic not diatonic.

All he's doing is improvising and playing around with some blues lics, if this doesn't make you want to go out and buy a chromatic I don't know what will.

I don't have links but the vids are on the Modern Blues Harmonica channel, from 2012.

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