Variations on the Harmonica

When you think of a harmonica, you probably think of the standard 10-hole harmonica tuned to one key, known as the diatonic harmonica. Did you know that there are other varieties with different applications?


The chromatic harmonica features a button that redirects the airflow to allow the player to switch between the regular major scale and the semi-tones. These are notes only accessible to the diatonic player through bending.

The standard 12-hole chromatic harmonica allows the musician to play in any desired key. Some models include additional holes to provide extra octaves. There is also a 10-hole chromatic that only allows for playing in one key (plus the semi-tones); its main advantage is its compact size.

The two main disadvantages of the chromatic harmonica are its heftier size and the fact that techniques such as note bending are difficult. While bending is no longer a necessity for picking up semi-tones on this instrument, bending does give unique tonal color to a song. It’s a trade-off that will boil down to your personal preference. There is also a learning curve to this instrument—most musicians find it far easier to master the diatonic first.

The chromatic harmonica can be found in blues and jazz. However, its increased note-playing capabilities make it useful for playing melodies in any genre.


The standard diatonic harmonica is tuned to a major key. One variation is a 10-hole harmonica tuned to a minor key.

While this sounds good in theory, tuning the harmonica to a minor scale by necessity creates limitations on the songs that can be played. Furthermore, playing a minor-key song is quite doable on the standard diatonic, anyway—it just takes a little know-how. So unless you enjoy the tone of the harmonica, there is no reason to buy an extra just to play in a minor key.

The minor harmonica can be found in either folk or blues.


The tremolo, or echo, harmonica is a rather unusual instrument. Instead of having one reed for every note, it has two reeds per note. Out of each pair of reeds, one is tuned slightly sharp and the other slightly flat. The result is a wavering sound.

The main reason a musician might choose a tremolo harmonica is to play with that unique tone. However, in American music, it is more of a novelty item than a staple instrument. Nice vibrato effects can be produced on a standard diatonic harmonica with various hand and breath techniques and offer a much more personalized touch than the consistent tremolo produced by this harp.

The tremolo harmonica is more common in Asian music than American. Again, it makes a nice novelty instrument, and it has some potential for special effects. One area in which it is underutilized is in adding shimmer to a simple folk melody.


Variations on the Harmonica

The octave harmonica is rather similar to the tremolo harmonica in construction, except for one important difference—the paired reeds are tuned to precisely the same note, just one octave apart.

The primary advantage of the octave harp is its full-bodied tone. Its primary disadvantages are its technical limitations. Bent notes are practically impossible on an octave harmonica.

The octave harmonica is typically used in folk music.


The miniature harmonica only has four holes, but it does offer a complete scale in one octave. This type of harmonica is typically regarded as a children’s toy and is sometimes made into necklaces. Still, you never know what sort of an interest it may spark when placed in the hands of a youngster.

Pitch Pipe

You probably don’t think of a pitch pipe as a harmonica, but technically there’s not that much difference. In fact, the main difference is its application—the pitch pipe is used to provide reference tones for singers or instrumentalists, while the harmonica is a musical instrument in its own right.


There really is no substitute for the standard 10-hole diatonic harmonica. However, there may be occasions when adding another harmonica to your arsenal will give you some new and intriguing tonal options or, in the case of a chromatic harmonica, access to a few hard-to-reach notes.

The best way to determine if any of these instruments is right for you? Try one!