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Chromatic for Diatonic Players

Blues Chromatic in B

by Winslow Yerxa

Last time I promised yet another installment of advanced embouchure studies, but I'm having too much fun playing blues chromatic in B.

Did you say B? You mean B-natural, not B-flat? Why B? Why not some more normal key?

Here's why: blues in B on the chromatic has some cool effects that are easy and fun to play.

Now B may seem like a weird key, but Junior Wells and Buddy Guy didn't seem to think so. Mind you, Junior usually used an E diatonic in second position to play in B. But a chromatic? Well, Little Walter did it (on Muddy Waters' "My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble"). And it's far more natural than you might think. If you don't believe me, just click here and listen to this tune called Blue Chrome: blue chrome.mp3

This is a full-length tune, three and a half minutes long. And it's almost entirely played using the six-note B blues scale, which lies surprisingly well on a C chromatic. We're going to use that one recording for the entire article.

By the way, it's played on a four-octave chromatic, and the entire range of the instrument is used. You can play all these licks and effects on a three-octave harp. But you'd have to move some things up an octave to put them within the range of the instrument.

Here's the B blues scale: B D E F F# A

Now look at the note layout of a chromatic:

Most of the B blues scale is draw notes played with the slide out - B, D, F and A. To make the scale sound right, we also need F#, so we just press in the slide to raise F to F#. We can wiggle the slide in and out to alternate between the fifth in the scale (F#) and the flat fifth (F) - a very bluesy effect, and it's built right in. The only missing note is E. it's a blow note, conveniently located in the same hole as F and F#.

Note: The other two blow notes, C and G, are not blues-friendly unless you take a sophisticated approach. We're going to leave them alone. What about slide-in blow C# and G#? We'll leave those for another time…

So how do we start the tune? By going B - D - F - F#. Play three neighboring draw notes in a row, then press in the slide. Wiggle the slide in and out, then come down the scale. You can hear that twice at the beginning of the tune. It comes back again later at about 1:43.

Next we play a repeating three-note figure. This also uses F and F#, and adds A. You can hear this most clearly at about 0:26 and again at about 2:00. Because we're cycling three notes around in a four-note rhythm, the notes keep changing their relation to the beat.

Next we add another twist, starting at about 0:44. We go down an octave for contrast and play the sequence B - A - F - F# - A. Again, we repeat the pattern several times, and the five-note sequence keeps shifting while you repeat it. It's a very simple way to makes something sound very complicated.

Next, at 0:52, we start playing a tongue blocked chord. We're blocking one hole in the middle and playing the notes on each side. We start playing D and A together, with A on top. We ride that for a while, bending it slightly and releasing a few times as we hold the pair.

Then we slide one hole to the left. Now we have B and F, with F on top. This sounds very discordant, so we bring the F up to F# by pressing in the slide. But if we leave the left side of the mouth open, we'll get C, which will sound bad. So we close up the left side and only play the F# on the right. The second time we do it, we come to the isolated F# and end up alternating it with the D/A split we played before. On the mouthpiece it looks like this:

Here it is in notation and tab:

At 1:09 we actually go away from the blues scale a little. Let's talk about chords for a moment. This is a one-chord tune, with guitar and bass playing a B7 chord the entire time. The notes in the chord are B - D# - F# - A. If we look at the note layout:

We can see that D# and F# are both slide-in draw notes, while B and A are slide-out draw notes. We can outline the entire chord by alternating between these two groups using the donut embouchure.

What we hear starting at 1:09 is D# and F# played together in Holes 5 and 6 with the slide. We let the slide out for D and F, then press it back in. We may also go down to B one hole farther to the left. But then at 1:23 we hear the donut.

A donut has a hole, right? The hole is there because it's surrounded by the donut. So this embouchure alternates between the hole and the donut. We play D# and F# in the hole, and B and A in the ring.

The hole:

The donut:

The ring of the donut is actually a split interval covering four holes, with the two in the middle blocked by the tongue. After the donut at 1:23, this split spread migrates one hole to the right, giving us a split with D on the bottom and B on top. Then we move one more hole to the right, with F on the bottom and D on the top. We continue to move around in that area, maintaining the split. We're just playing notes from the B blues scale as a series of two-note chords. Whenever we play F without bringing it up to F#, things sound unresolved, so at 1:33 we finally bring back the F#, as a single note.

At 1:39 we resolve that section of the tune with a little downward single-note lick on the blues scale.

At about 1:43 the opening theme comes back. At 2:00 the second F - F# - A repeating lick comes back, but it travels up higher instead of coming down.

One big advantage the chromatic has is that you can learn a lick in one octave and play it anywhere on the harp because the tuning doesn't shift from octave to octave. This lets you connect licks into long, flowing lines very easily, as we'll see in the next part of the tune.

Here's what happens in the high register between about 2:00 and 2:35…

At about 2:09, there is a series of slide bumps, where you play a note, bump the slide in momentarily and let it out. The note goes up and back down very fast. Here I'm doing a slide bump on Blow E, then playing Draw D one hole to the left, then coming back and repeating it. Like some of the earlier rhythms, it migrates around in relation to the beat. We break out of that by running upwards on the blues scale, mostly on draw notes and using the slide for F#.

At 2:18 I'm doing something very simple. I start with an F#. Then I let the slide out and move up through A - B - D to F and press the slide back in for another F# an octave higher. Remember, these are all draw notes, so you can do this rapidly and smoothly. You just need to press and release the slide in sync. Then I slide back down through the same notes to the lower F# where I started. I just zoom up and down between the F#'s several times. The key thing here is the rhythm - the F#'s are always on the beat with the slide in, the rest of the notes are slide-out and in between the beats. Just zoom up and down and land that slide-in F# square on the beat.

Next I play some more high register stuff. It sounds fancy but it's all just B blues scale and mostly draw notes. Just practice your blues scales, work up a little speed, and this is stuff that becomes surprisingly easy to do. Here's the next bit of it, played at the top end of the harp.

At 2:35 we go back to the donut shop for a break after all that fast high stuff. We start with tongue-split chords covering four holes with the middle two blocked out, first a D/B split and then B/A. But then we use the B/A split as a donut and alternate it with slide-in D#/F# in the donut hole.

As the tune fades, we explore the buzz-saw sound of single notes in the bottom octave of a four-octave instrument.

Notation Key
Please visit http://www.harmonicasessions.com/feb05/ChromaticTab.pdf for a notation key.

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