Brendan Power, as visitors to this site know, is a remarkable stylist on both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, many of which he modifies and retunes to meet the requirements of his traditional and modern repertoire. Power plays a wide range of material — Irish jigs, the music from Riverdance (which show he toured with), blues, and amped harp that goes all the way to metal — with style and assurance. Brendan here tells us how chromatic harps are set up to play Irish and Celtic music. You can bet that he knows how.

This discussion originally appeared in a slightly different form in a message posted to the Harp-L List in May 2001.

Essentially playing Irish and other Celtic tunes on the chromatic is all about the best way of getting the decorations to sound good and appropriate for the style. This involves playing tunes that are mostly diatonic in certain common modes. Ionian, Dorian, and Aeolian are the main modes, with some use of the Mixolydian too.

Semitone-up slide trills are easily do-able on standard chromatic harmonicas, and are perfect for East European music. They can sound a bit odd in the more diatonic style of Irish music, though it is OK to use the normal-tuned chromatic in this way if you want. If a particular semitone slide decoration sounds weird, there is always the option of using a jaw flick or tonguing decoration instead.

However, if you want to use the slider for most of your trills and other ornaments, then it is best to either retune the chrom to a Slide Diatonic (my approach), or flip the slide so that all the decorations go down a semitone (Eddie Clarke Style).

The latter style is based on the playing of the reclusive Eddie Clarke, a brilliant player who recorded in the seventies and eighties before retiring from performance. He had little technical knowledge of the chrom and didn’t realise you could turn the slide over, so he did it the hard way: playing with the slide pushed in, and releasing it momentarily for the decorations. Try it: it’s not simple! People who liked his playing soon twigged that you could get the same effect much more easily by just reversing the slide, or setting up a chrom so the reedplates are in opposite order, with the lower pitched one on the bottom (this gives the same effect achieved by Clarke with the slider in normal position).

The advantages of Eddie’s style are that:

  1. The semitone down decorations sound good and authentic. Fiddle, flute and box players use these all the time too, so the chrom fits in well playing with other instruments.
  2. Because the instrument is still fully chromatic, it is not hard to change keys with the tunes in a set. For example, on an F#/G instrument you can play in G, Am, Em, D, Bm without too much trouble, and these are the main keys of Irish music. (However, it tends to happen that particular tunes play easiest in certain positions, so to play in D it is often preferable to use a C#/D chrom).
  3. You can use a standard chromatic for this style, by just reversing the slide (no re-tuning necessary). However, reversing the slide using a normal C chromatic will not work for most sessions, as it will put you in the main major keys of C#, G# and related modes (a semitone too high; some trad players do like these keys for performance/recording, but they are not common). You need to reverse the slide on a standard B/C chrom, or make up special chroms in C#/D and F#/G, to play tunes in the usual trad keys.

The Eddie Clarke style is the prevalent chromatic style for Irish music, and some very good modern players who use it are Mick Kinsella, Joel Bernstein and Mark Graham.

As far as I know I’m about the only person doing it the other way, by turning the instrument into a Slide Diatonic. This is the style I used on my album ‘New Irish Harmonica’, and it involves raising most non-scale slide notes to the next note of the key of the instrument. Therefore on a G chrom the G#, A#, and D# slide notes are tuned up to A, B, and E respectively. Some semitone up notes are already in key (the blow B to C on holes 2, 6 and 10, and the F# to G draw slide notes on holes 4 and 8). I also generally leave the C# and F draw slide notes intact, as they are useful for some key modulation and don’t sound bad just used as trills. However, to change key with my Slide Diatonics is not so easy, and I tend to change harps for different tunes or compose sets where the key changes all work on one instrument.

The advantages of my system are:

  1. A lot more enharmonic notes. There are two options for just about every note of the scale, a blow and a draw, which gives you alternate ways of playing difficult phrases. You can use these to do quick runs between notes a third apart (eg. G to B through the A; on my harps this simply involves blowing with a quick slide flick in between, which is very smooth and legato, as opposed to having to blow-suck-blow as on a normal G chrom).
  2. The decorations sound very harmonious, as they are flipping up to the next scale note.

Each style has its own sound, and it’s really a matter of taste which you prefer. I can’t get the nice semitone-down turns that are so simple with the reversed slide, but then again it is easy for me to get the cuts, which I like and use a lot (fast grace notes from above which precede the main note, which are impossible with the reversed slide).

There is a middle way, and that is to tune a chrom so that certain slide notes rise to the next note of the scale and others fall a semitone. It’s a matter of knowing the music very well and analysing where in the scale it is preferable to have the different type of decoration. I think Mick Kinsella has experimented with this a little bit, but he mainly uses the standard chrom tuning with reversed slide.

I make up both types of instrument. Certain keys (e.g. high D) are useful for Irish music but not available in the shops, and I make these by tuning up a C chrom. The Eddie Clarke style F#/G is available from Hering, but I also make these in Hohner models for people who prefer the sound. I also make chroms in tunings other than the standard Solo tuning that some people prefer for Celtic music, as well as Celtic diatonic harps. One of these is what I call the Trad Session Harp, which is a chrom with a D and G reedplate, allowing you to play it like two diatonics in the same instrument. Check out my website if you’re interested.