An Introduction to Bass Harmonica
Bass Harp 101
A Personal Point of View
by Danny Wilson - BassHarp
Questions from Winslow T Yerxa in preparation
Answers as supplied by BassHarp (considerably revised and updated since publication in HIP #5):
1) "Stars" - you mentioned previously the names of probably the most obvious in the U.S. - the same ones I have on my list - Don Les, Johnny Thompson and Dick Gardner. (Side note: The original Mr BassHarp, Don Les, often remarked how much he disliked the Bass Harmonica - he preferred playing diatonic jazz and swing. It is a tribute to his talent, professionalism, integrity, and determination, that he became the peerless master of the bass harmonica!) Hugh "Pud" McCaskey (Stagg McMann), known for his talents as a chromatic master, was also an incredible bass harmonicist, as can be attested to on his GRT/Sunnyvale album, Happy Harmonica - Best of the Big Bands (1976). This is an album of multiple recordings featuring Stagg at his best, where he exhibits his talents on all types of harmonica.
Another name that should be right up there, but not generally known as a bass player, is Eddie Gordon. He is a master of all harmonicas, including the bass. He plays with authority, and applies the bass lines of an upright bass. He doesn't limit himself to the standard "bass harmonica patterns" that are so familiar to trio work. Another excellent bass player was Harry Cooper of Ontario, Canada, member of the original "The Three Reeds", which also included Mo Vint on chord and Bob Higgins on lead. They were Canada's top trio for more than a decade, and worked from the Maritimes to the West Coast. They were on a touring level with the 'Cats in Canada, and worked all the top rooms. The last year they were together, Bernie Bray was added as second lead, and made the act even more outstanding. When Bernie became ill, the group began to lose momentum, and finally broke up in early 1974. Harry learned to play bass just for the act, and perceived it merely as a"job", not having the usual "harmonica interest". He didn't play any other harmonica, but learned it well. He never owned a bass harmonica or amplifier - they were owned jointly by the act - and stopped playing when the act split. (In fact, the Garnet speaker enclosure that is now included in my equipment, was the one he used.)
Other accomplished bass players of note are Paul Steigerwald (The Stagg McMann Trio), Charles Pitello (The Philharmonica Trio), Jacob Kol (The Adler Trio - Israel), Geert van Driesten (The Hotcha Trio - Netherlands), Don Ripps (Borrah Minevitch Harmonica Rascals and Cappy Barra and George Fields Trio), Ronald Kamminga (Fata Morgana - Netherlands), Robert Berthiaume (Borrah Minevitch Harmonica Rascals and Sharp Harp), Conley Day (The Original Harmonica Band - Los Angeles), Judy Simpson-Smith (Harmonica Hotshots), Werner Hotan (Maspesos Trio - Switzerland), Walt Miller of Millioniser fame (Walt Miller Harmonica Stars - Switzerland) and Siegfried Brugier (Blizza Harmonica Gang - Germany). Yet another is leading female bass harmonica player, Arlette Herbineaux of the Trio Candido, formerly of Belgium, now retired and living in Tucson, AZ.
I give special honor to Bill Walden of the Borrah Minevitch Harmonica Rascals, who recorded with the Leo Diamond group that also included Richard Hayman, Frank Marque and Vic Pace.
I know I am overlooking many other bass players of note who should be listed here - players from around the world. Please forgive me for unintended omissions.
2) Various bass instruments - let's look first at the Hohner family. In addition to the most familiar Hohner #265/58 bass, or "E Bass", is of course the #268/78, or extended bass, and the single reed #264/29 "G Bass". Also there is the Polyphonia #7, with a two-octave range from D to D, and another Poly-type, #266, with slightly over an octave range from C to C#. Both of these models are single-reed, and discontinued.
Note: the "/xx" in the model number denotes the number of reeds. The model #265/58 has 29 holes with 2 reeds per hole, for a total of 58 reeds. The double reed instruments have two reeds per note, tuned one octave apart. This is for two reasons: one being for a fuller sound, and the other to result in a quicker response of the note. The upper pitched reed will respond more quickly, sending sympathetic vibrations to the lower pitched reed. For this reason, the single reed instruments, whose reeds are usually the lower octave of the double reed models, are a little more difficult to play. Care must be given to blow gently, feathering the breath, to activate these very deep sounding reeds.
All of the Hohner "hinged" basses - 264, 265 and 268 - have a physical note pattern similar to that of keyboard instruments - "white keys" on the bottom tier, "black keys" on the top tier, staggered in keyboard half-step fashion.
The #265/58, the most common and preferred of the Hohner bass models, has a two-octave range starting with Contra E to E.
The #264/29, commonly known as the "G Bass" because the lowest note is Contra G rather than E, is also a two-octave instrument. This is a hinged double-bass, similar to the #265, except it has single reeds, thus only one reed plate on each comb. This is the model played by Johnny Thompson, of the Harmonica Jazz Quartet fame. It is also a discontinued model.
The #268/78 seems to be far more popular among the European and Asian players than in the U.S., for its extended range. However, the additional notes are on the high end, rather than the low end, so the upper octave gets rather high - well into the chromatic 64 range, and more susceptible to "getting out of tune". Compared with the #265/58, it continues up the scale 5 more tones, to C (the 2nd C on the 280/64). It would seem that the additional notes available, especially in the high range, do not justify the extra weight, cost, and maintenance - that's just my personal opinion. It should be said that the F above the highest E on the#265/58 would be nice to have at times, but that in itself does not convince me to switch back (my first bass was a #268/78!).
Cham-Ber Huang designed his #123 Octave Bass slightly different from the Hohner #265, in that the half-step notes in the upper comb are directly above the natural notes of the bottom comb - not staggered. This allows a single comb mold having the same number of holes, but more importantly, he allowed for that sometimes-needed high F - the last hole on the upper comb!
Note also that the Huang bass has C and F naturals on the upper comb in addition to the lower comb, while the Hohner bass has B and F naturals on the upper comb. (This is why there are no groups of two and three on the upper comb, as with the black keys on the piano keyboard.) This allows playing the C# (Db) scale entirely on the upper comb of the Huang bass, without dropping to the lower comb for C natural, as with the Hohner model. Having the half-steps directly above the natural notes does not seem to cause much difficulty in switching from a Hohner to a Huang, and vice versa - compensation can be made with a little practice. The Huang bass has plastic combs, which means no swelling, shrinkage, and cracking, resulting in air leakage.
For someone who may be accustomed to the staggered pattern of the Hohner bass, but wishing to play the Huang bass (Hohner list - May 15, 1995 - $736.95 / Huang list - July 1, 1996 - $300.00) without struggling with the non-staggered layout, the fix is very easy. Simply locate four spacers the same thickness as the width between the centerlines of any two adjacent holes in the mouthpiece. Remove the two hinged end brackets, and install two spacers (one for each screw) between the LEFT end bracket and the UPPER comb, and two spacers between the RIGHT end bracket and the LOWER comb. Voila! You have your proper offset. However, it may be necessary to use slightly longer mounting screws.
The Tombo Octave Bass, again a two-octave "E Bass", is also designed with the half-steps directly above the natural notes. And, similar to the Huang bass, it too has C and F naturals, including the high F, on the upper comb. This model is not a hinged bass, as are both Hohner and Huang, but rather a solid, one-piece body with a very nice feel, having a concave space between the two combs that allow ample room for a lip bite. The only negative I find with this instrument is that it is pitched one octave above both the Hohner and Huang basses, thereby placing it in a tenor range, rather than bass. Otherwise it is a quality-built instrument.
The Tombo Contra Bass is a single reed model, two octaves C to C, with both reed plates mounted on a single, convex-shaped comb, with a stainless tube covering the reed plates, giving it an oval-shaped cross section. The note lay-out is exactly that of the piano keyboard, staggered, with groups of two and three on the upper row. This also is a high quality instrument, but it, too, is pitched one octave higher than the other manufacturers' models.
NOTE: All production-made bass harmonicas are chromatic, whether they are double-row, or single-row polyphonic in design. Also, all production-made bass harmonicas are blow-only. Some custom-made bass harmonicas, incorporating a slide, may include drawreeds, depending on the design. Various chromatic basses using a slide have been designed and/or built by Leo Friedman (Fair Lawn, NJ), the late Don Strnad (Flint, MI), and the late Bernie Bray (Toronto, Canada), among others.
3) Set-up - Reed offsets of the bass harmonica, as with all other harmonicas, are preset in production at a nominal point that would satisfy most players. However, I suspect that the production specs are weighted toward those who play unamplified, and are therefore apt to blow much harder. Thus, those who do play amplified will find it necessary to reduce the reed offsets slightly, to respond with a much lighter attack. The benefits are many - the mic does the work for you, there is much less air loss, the tone quality, and accuracy of finding the correct notes are much improved - all because you don't have to work so hard! As noted elsewhere, care must be given to blow gently, feathering the breath, to activate these very deep sounding reeds.
Also, if the reeds are not subjected to hard playing, they will stay in tune much longer.
4) Service Problems - the bass, among all harmonicas, requires the least amount of regular maintenance. Cleaning of the mouthpieces and the cover plates, with occasional cleaning of the reed plates is nearly all that is required. The reeds are much larger than reeds of other harmonicas, and not nearly as delicate, so stay in tune much longer. Bass reeds are tuned to equal temperament, in octaves, and since they are not subjected to"bends", or the kind of pressure seen by diatonics or chromatics, they are usually tuned to Concert 440. Of course, those models with wood bodies need to be aired after each use, to be sure the combs don't swell, shrink and crack prematurely. It is inevitable that cracking will occur after a period of time. Plastic body models, such as the Huang, or custom-built bodies, will maintain air-tightness "forever".
5, 6) Pitfalls - you mentioned one that is somewhat common: that of lagging attack time. This is especially noticeable when playing unamplified, causing over-emphasis and anxiety, as noted above. Since the reeds are so large, compared with diatonics and chromatics, it is necessary to learn to blow very easily into the harmonica, even feathering the breath, to start the reeds vibrating. For this reason, it is quite difficult to get the reeds to have the punch of a bass guitar or upright bass. This sometimes gives the illusion that the player is "behind the beat" - and makes it so important to learn to play "ahead of the beat".
You also mentioned that some players have problems figuring out where they are on the instrument. This is a common problem, especially on the bass because of its low tones - being one hole off is sometimes very difficult to detect if the sound level of the environment is especially high. I personally have found myself playing by position rather than sound as I could not hear my instrument. (This is where monitor speakers become invaluable!) The mouthpiece mounting screw heads can be, and are often used as a reference index (except on the Huang and Tombo basses, which have no screws) when learning the instrument.
7, 10) Moving from comb to comb, center-blow playing vs tongue-blocking, proper note positions (#5 above): all of these techniques are attained and sharpened with practice and complete familiarity with the instrument. The usual practice methods of playing scales, intervals, chromatic scales, octave jumps, etc, are all extremely important to learning the instrument. In my opinion, tongue blocking on the bass is quite impractical for various reasons. One being that fourth and fifth intervals are not close enough to make a difference in movement. It might be argued that they would be a little closer, but the technique of tongue switching and blocking would seem to detract from other more important techniques. (I know of only one person - Jerry Murad - who used tongue blocking on the bass - there are probably others - but he merely played out of the corner of his mouth, as he did on the chromatic, without taking advantage of the tongue switch technique. This is merely from force of habit. Jerry played bass with Borrah Minevitch's Harmonica Rascals.)
The center-blow method allows more controlled breathing, adjusting the inner cavity of the mouth for tone, use of the tongue for the "plucked string" effect, and for consistent mouth-to-mouthpiece-to-microphone proximity for accuracy of notes and sound. With the head held still, the machine-like movement of the combined harmonica and two hands make a much simpler, but more consistent operation. Johnny Thompson and Dick Gardner use this method, as did also the late Don Les.
I noted years ago that Johnny Thompson, who plays the #264/29 Single Reed Bass, plays with the hinged combs completely closed. This means the holes of the upper and lower combs are very close together, but just as important, the distance is constant - the hinges are never opened. Most bass players are not aware of the costly time lost, and the loss of accuracy, just from working the hinge in jumping from comb to comb.
My personal instrument is a modified Hohner #265/58, presented to me by Eugene Hansen in 1978 when I was a member of Jerry Murad's Harmonicats. Eugene, Treasurer of SPAH, is an engineering machinist. He asked for my input as to how I would like the harmonica modified - plastic combs and mouthpieces, and solid end plates rather than hinges. After determining the proper distance for the separation of the combs to suit my nose, lips and chin configuration, the proper angle was determined to machine the comb faces prior to attaching the mouthpieces. This was necessary to provide a simple plane for the two mouthpieces - no concave surface even though the combs are tilted toward each other. The result, in effect, is a solid one piece instrument that never changes - a big step toward better bass playing!
It should be pointed out here though, that Don Les, the fabulous Bass Harmonica Super Star, used a hinged instrument, but held it so that the comb distance is seldom moved while playing. Ditto Dick Gardner.
8) Difference in resonance - there may be any of several reasons for this. The lower octave reed plate is on the top of the combs, both upper and lower, therefore the higher octave reed plate is on the bottom of the combs. The difference in sounds may be a result of the proximity of the reed plates to the ears of the player. If the difference is noted during amplification, care must be given that both combs be placed equidistant in front of the microphone for consistent sound. Theoretically, there should be no difference in resonance or attack response between the upper and lower combs. (Note: in re-reading the question, I realize I may have misunderstood the point of the query.) The difference in resonance and attack from higher to lower registers (if you meant higher pitched reeds to lower pitched reeds), should be non-existent if all reed vertical offsets are properly adjusted.
9) Improvisation - the ability to improvise a bass line comes with the knowledge of chord structures, rhythm patterns and anticipation. This also comes with much practice - even playing the simple root and fifth pattern requires a knowledge of chord progressions to make the proper changes. Many amateur players mistakenly think "any note will do" as long as a steady rhythm is maintained. Wrong!! The serious student will learn basic chord structures, train his ear for the changes, and eventually start using thirds, walking bass, half-step, whole-step (or even greater) kick notes, and all the other bass line techniques that make it so interesting.
In the event that a music chart is available, having chord symbols (for guitar, etc), usually the root of the chord is given, such as CMaj, FMaj, Gmin, etc. In that case, a good rule of thumb is to play the root on the downbeat, (C, F, G, etc), alternating with the 5th (G, C, D, etc), as a simple bass pattern. In a 4-beat pattern, play the root on the downbeat, and the 5th on the third beat. In a waltz, or 3-beat pattern, play only the root on the downbeat, or add the 5th on the third (last) beat of the measure. These are simple, basic patterns from which to build more complex patterns later.
I am sometimes asked for a recommendation of books for practicing scales and patterns on the bass harmonica. While most any music publisher will have good reference materials for such purpose, all are aimed at various bass instruments such as bass guitar, upright string bass, tuba, etc, and none for bass harmonica specifically. This does not mean the bass harmonica student is left with nothing. I personally use "The Electric Bass by Roger Filiberto", Volumes 1 and 2, published by Mel Bay, but most any bass guitar or upright bass instructional books would be excellent for exercises and studies.
An important point: attacks, articulation, range, etc, of the bass harmonica are quite limited compared with the upright bass or bass guitar, as it is a totally different animal in the bass family. But most scales and bass patterns can be adapted to the bass harmonica, providing a great insight into the possibilities. And of course, the introduction to the bass clef for those who are not already familiar, will be very beneficial for the new bass harmonica student, and is covered in most books.
Most important point: for the ultimate in bass harmonica instruction, I highly recommend two authors of Bass Harmonica Manuals - Bob Berthiaume and Judy Simpson-Smith. Judy's book, titled "Learning To Play The Bass Harmonica", is available by writing to: Simpson & Smith Workshops / Seminars / Instructional Materials, 2398 Southern Road, Richfield, OH 44286, or call: 216-659-6458. Bob's books are "Bass Harmonica Instruction Manual" - Books 1 and 2. Bob is a former member of the famed Borrah Minevitch Harmonica Rascals, and many other harmonica groups. His books also include many important scales, patterns and exercises, in addition to bass solos that will help the bass harmonicist learn to play smoothly. For more information, go to: Bob's Bass Manuals.
Remember - of utmost importance - become completely familiar with your instrument. Pick it up and play C without looking at the mouthpiece or finding the adjacent screw - then F, then G, then Bb, and Eb, and Ab, etc, etc. Learn and practice the intervals of 3rds, 4ths, 5ths and octaves for making the jumps. And - blow easy!!
Member and Executive Vice President Emeritus, SPAH Inc
Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica
Update: November 7, 2002
Original Post: July 2, 1997
Originally Written: August 23, 1994
Copyright © 1998 Danny Wilson
All rights reserved