Chromatic for Diatonic Players
Part 3 - Workin' the slide

by Winslow Yerxa

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The most obvious physical feature of the chromatic harmonica is the button attached to a sliding metal grate sticking out of the right end of the instrument. Prone to bending and breaking off, it has been completely ignored by some players. Too bad, because it's the doorway to an extra set of reeds that gives you every note of every scale in every key.

If you play your C chromatic without using the slide, you get the notes of a C major scale. Press the button in while playing and all the notes go up by one semitone, giving you the C# major scale. Together, the C and C# major scales give you all the notes of the chromatic scale, in addition to having a couple of notes in common, which turns out to be useful.

Putting the slide to use

Learning to use the slide in various keys requires both learning to use the slide and learning to relate to a new key center. For that reason, this installment will concentrate on the mechanics of using the slide. This may seem a little boring, but mastering these basic moves is excellent preparation for all sorts of cool moves you can master later on.

Basic moves

Basic actions in harmonica playing are changing breath between blow and draw, and moving from one hole to another. Slide action adds a third element. Here are a few simple studies to help you gain familiarity with the most basic combinations.

Slide change

When you press the slide in, it will automatically spring back as soon as you release finger pressure. Press the slide in quickly, then release it; you'll hear the note go up a semitone when you press the slide in, and come back down when you release it.

Pressing the slide in quickly is important for two reasons. In moving from note to note, you need to get the slide in play right after the end of one note and right before the start of the next, without hitting it too early-during the previous note-or too late-after the note has started. Also, if you move the slide slowly, you can get the "special effect" of sounding both notes at once-this may not be desirable in all circumstances.

Try playing Blow 5, pressing the slide in, then releasing it a few times. Then try alternating the two notes in a steady rhythm:

Now, try the same thing with Draw 5:

Slide and breath change

Let's try alternating Blow 5 with Draw 5/slide in:

Let's also try alternating Blow5/Slide in with Draw 5:

Slide and hole change

Changing the slide when changing holes can benefit from applying a little body English with the hands to create a coordinated motion.

First, let's try the following alternation:

  • Slide-out note on the left
  • Slide-in note on the right

Let the right hand push the whole instrument to the left as the right index finger presses the slide in. This should happen as one coordinated hand motion. The right hand both places the desired hole in your embouchure and puts the slide in place.

Let's try the opposite combination:

  • Slide-out note on the right
  • Slide-in note on the left

With this combination, both hands can press inward at the same time to reach this slide-in note.

Start with the slide-out note on the right. Press inward with both hands to reach the slide-in note on the left. The left hand presses the whole instrument to the right while the right presses only the slide. The result is that in one coordinated motion you arrive at the note to the left with the slide pressed in. Try this motion for blow and draw versions of this motion:

An easier form of the hole/slide change is when the hole changes before the slide does. This has several forms:

Slide, breath and hole change

Let's try combining all three types of motion. Surprisingly, these combinations boil down to only four (eight if you use the other note to start). Each will bring into play elements of what you've already learned.

In conclusion

Play each type of alternation slowly at first, giving equal time value to each note. Strive to play the transition cleanly so that the slide never misses its note or overlaps a slide-out note. Once you can play the change cleanly, try speeding it up a tiny amount. Once you can play the move cleanly at the new speed, speed up again-but only slightly. This will give better results than playing at a speed that is faster than you can control.

Try playing these alternations in other holes throughout the range of the instrument. This is important for two reasons. One is that the physical sensation and actions are different because in each location the relative positions of hands and head and the weight of the instrument are different. The other is that the same motion in different parts of the scale produces different musical sounds.

Next time

Next time we'll start looking at the different musical uses of the slide.

Notation Key

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