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Chromatic Harmonica players! Check out the Diminished Chromatic Harmonica!
The diminished chromatic harmonica is based on the traditional chromatic harmonica, made famous by players such as Larry Adler, Toots Thielemans, and Stevie Wonder.
The harmonica is a rare type of instrument in that you can relatively easily change the pitch layout to suit your imagination, and the diminished chromatic is modified to have an an alternate tone layout. An analogy might be that of a typewriter with an alternate keyboard layout that is an improvement on the traditional qwerty layout.
The "Dimi" (a nickname for both the Diminished Harmonica and the Diminished Chromatic Harmonica) is most typically built upon two diminished 7th chords a whole step apart. One is blow chord and one a draw chord. This results in a blow/draw whole step in each hole, with a half step interval between the draw of one hole and the blow of the next. This creates a repeating, symmetrical tone layout across the harmonica.
The Dimi Chromatic has a slide, which (most typically, but not always) raises each pitch a half step when pressed.
The repeating symmetric pattern of the note layout makes the Dimi easy to play in any key, which is not true of the traditional chromatic harmonica. It also makes a large number of alternate fingerings available in every key, which smooths out phrasing and offers the player a lot of options.
Because of the symmetric nature of the diminished scale, there are only three fingering patterns to learn in order to play in all keys. For example: fingerings in the key of C are the same in Eb, Gb, and A. Db is the same as E, G, and Bb, and D is the same as F, Ab, and B.
Thoughts on trying the Dimi Chromatic.
The Dimi Chromatic may seem confusing upon first try. The notes on the Dimi don't line up with the major scale, so simple tonal melodies are harder to find by trial and error than they are on the traditional chromatic harmonica. Traditional songs such as "Oh Susannah" are easy to pick out on the traditional chromatic, where it takes a little slide work to play on the Dimi. The trade off is that, in general, more complex melodies become much easier on the Dimi.
The Dimi has four enharmonic notes, which is another huge advantage when you become proficient, but it can be confusing to the beginner due to the number of alternate fingerings available. If learning the Dimi is approached in the same way any other instrument is learned, however, it is not difficult. For example, in a beginner trumpet book, you would learn the fingering of some basic notes. You would combine these into scales and basic melodies using those notes. Then you build from there. Eventually you get used to where the notes are, and at that point, it's easy to play by ear, read music, etc.
In teaching the Dimi, I start with a method I have devised using 4-note patterns (tetrachords). There are only three of these patterns (with one alternate), and the "fingering" of these 4-note patterns are very similar to ones found on the traditional Solo layout. These patterns are then combined into scales.
The enharmonics (the notes that have two possible fingerings for the same pitch) may be the trickiest aspect of mastering the Dimi layout. Once the primary fingerings are ingrained, I introduce the enharmonics one at a time. When approached this way the Dimi can be mastered in an efficient way. Once the initial hurdle of acclimating to the notes is overcome, the Dimi proves to be very practical for playing diatonic melodies as well as chromatic melodies. It works exceptionally well for playing in all keys.
In summary, the Dimi is a little more complex than the traditional chromatic harmonica, but really pays back the effort put in. It becomes quite practical and user-friendly as the player gains familiarity.
Published Articles on the Dimi Chromatic
Exploring The Diminished Tuned Chromatic Harmonica
Originally published in "Harmonica Happenings Magazine," Winter 2012.
An introduction to and review of the diminished tuned chromatic harmonica.
It's All About the Line - Playing Jazz on the Diminished Tuned Chromatic Harmonica
Originally published in "Harmonica Happenings Magazine" Summer 2013.
An original jazz solo, written as an etude primarily in 8th notes on a standard chord progression in the keys of Db, E, G and Bb. The intention is to illustrate how certain phrases fit on the Dimi. The Dimi has a symmetrical note layout, and therefore the solo can be played with the same fingering in four different keys. Tranposing a known line to foreign keys with the same fingering is an interesting way to become familar with the less common keys.
Educational Materials for the Dimi Chromatic
Guide to Playing 12 Major Scales on the Dimi
On the Dimi, each of eight Major scales have eight possible fingerings, and each of four Major scales have four possible fingerings. Cut through the confusion with this article on how to play 12 Major scales on the Dimi with only 3 four-note patterns. I simplify the playing of all the Major scales on the Diminished Layout Chromatic Harmonica by defining a primary fingering for each scale.
Summary of all major scales on the Dimi with default fingerings.
Major Scale Fingerings on the Dimi
A simple chart showing Major Scale Fingerings on the Dimi with emphasis on the fewest possible breath changes. 8 Major scales with four breath changes. 4 Major scales with two breath changes.
As a demonstration of the Dimi, in 2013, I recorded the same solo in the keys of E, Db, Bb, and G. I puposefully used a somewhat continuous 8th note line and some mildly "outside" playing as part of the demonstration. Here is the recording in the key of E.
This next video features Eugene Ryan on the half-valved diminished chromatic on the intro of the tune. Eugene has a style where he emphasizes the blues-harp-type-bending that's available on the half-valved diminished chromatic.
Randy Weinstein has a really interesting project called the Freed Reed HarmOrchestra. On the tune Jackie-ing from HarmoniMonk Volume 11, Eugene Ryan is featured on the half-valved diminished chromatic. Eugene's part starts at 1:40.
Due to the available chords on the Dimi being diminished chords, the question arises as to how effective chordal vamping can be. Here's an interesting sample by Matt Watson where he is doing some rhythmic vamping on the Dimi.