New to Tremolo Harmonicas? Here are Things You Should Know First

Tremolo harmonicas are Diatonic models constructed with double holes, each containing two reeds tuned to the same note, one tuned slightly higher than the other. Since both reeds are either blow or draw, when played both will sound together – the slight difference in tuning creating a beautiful vibrating or tremolo effect. Tremolo models are popular for ballads and gospel music, as well as for Latin, Asian, European and other international folk styles.

Octave Harmonicas
Octave harmonicas are similar to Tremolo models in reed layout and musical range. Instead of having reeds tuned to the same note, however, each double hole has one reed tuned an octave apart from the other. The resulting sound is stronger and full bodied, but without the tremolo effect. This is the harmonica equivalent of a twelve-string guitar and is ideal for regional and international styles like Cajun, Old-Time and Irish music.

Playing Double Reed Harmonicas
Double reed harmonics have note layouts similar to the regular 10 hole diatonic harmonica, except that each reed is doubled, and can be played in a similar manner, except that they are almost always played in first position (the same key as the harmonica). Each set of holes one over the other are either both blow or both draw, you cannot blow and draw on the same hole as with diatonics or chromatics. They may be played in second position, but it is almost impossible to bend notes, so you can’t get the same “blusey” sound as on a diatonic.

Until we can get our own octave harmonica page written, here is a link to Ted van Beek’s site and his article “A Short Guide to the Octave-Tuned Harps”

My Opinion on Tremolo Harmonicas

Paul van der Sijde
(also known as “Doc Harmonica”)

It’s nice that finally someone picks up another type of harmonica than the currently so usual diatonic or chromatic. I have several tremolo and octave harmonicas in my collection and will try to share with you what I know about them.

Tremolo harmonicas are so called “double reed” harmonicas. They have two reeds for each note, tuned a fraction apart so that a certain resonance effect develops when playing, giving a wavering sound. Closely related to the tremolo is the octave harmonica. Basically the design is the same, though the reeds are tuned exactly one octave apart to give more fullness to the sound. I prefer these since they have more expressive abilities than tremolos, yet tremolo harmonicas are the more popular kind in the world. Especially in the Far East they are immensely popular.

Playing chromatically there often consists of holding two tremolo harmonicas, one in C and one in C# in hands simultaneously and switching between harmonicas if a sharp or a flat is needed. This may seem awkward, but Cham-Ber Huang, former Hohner harmonica technician and very accomplished classical chromatic player, once said that playing that way is not only very well possible, but also potentially faster than playing a “standard” chromatic harmonica!

The number of octaves available, as well as the starting note in #1 Blow may differ, (see note layouts) depending on the number of holes in your harmonica. Double reed harmonicas usually have a discrete comb, that means that every reed on the reedplates has its own chamber in the comb. A combination of one blow/draw note therefore always requires a minimum of four holes! Due to the fact that two reeds are involved the tremolo harmonica takes more wind to play than a single reed harmonica like a standard 10 hole diatonic or a chromatic harmonica does.

Bending notes on them is possible, however it takes a totally different technique. Bending down any note using both reeds is enormously difficult if not impossible since that would take too much wind. Instead you can block one row of holes (either top or bottom) with your lip and bend one of the two reeds. Be aware though that this will reduce your volume with roughly 50 percent. Only one reed is sounding where normally two reeds do. This too is the significant drawback of a double reed harmonica. Due to the fact that you have to move two reeds these are made thinner and softer to make sure everyone can actually get the reeds to move. Bending notes on a double reed harmonica therefore is easier, but also wears the reeds out much faster than on a ‘normal’ diatonic. Be careful! The bends you achieve on a double reed harmonica with its discrete comb are single reed bends, meaning you can blow bend reeds you can’t do on a standard diatonic. But be aware! The strain you put on the reeds wears them out much faster than on any other harmonica. That means you will blow out a reed much sooner and usually there is no way of correcting that but replacing the whole harmonica. That can be a costly past time and probably not your aim in life.

Usually tremolo harmonicas here in the West are used to play folk tunes. I use them to softly play tones like an organ or strings in the background of a gentle ballad. I never solo on them. If I use a tremolo as fill and I need to solo, I switch to either a diatonic or a chromatic for its capabilities. So what you bought is mainly something to enhance your playing, but in no way to replace your regular solo harmonicas. The tremolo has limited use in Western popular music, yet it can be used to fill in some background stuff or play solo all the way. It is a nice addition to your collection that however requires you learn to play it differently from any other harmonica you have known so far. It can be tedious, but if you see the challenge in it you may even grow to like it, like I did.

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