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Thread: Harmonicas & Mandolins

  1. #1

    Default Harmonicas & Mandolins

    I have been playing the mandolin w/vocal for 6 years now. 2 years ago I had the great opportunity to perform at a rural Pub in N. Ireland where I was given 13 pounds in tips and all the Guinness I wanted. (a dream come true) I've started to branch away from Irish tunes and have started working with John Prine tunes and light bluegrass/folk tunes. I've already added foot percussion instruments to the mix, but recently I've been considering adding a harmonica.
    I'm primarily a cord player while singing with limited picking between verses. So far I've been using a capo up to the forth fret. Using the internet to shop for harmonicas I've noticed several low cost multi key sets available for under $70, but the reviews are discouraging.
    My question is: What individual harmonica keys would be the best for a mandolin player using a capo on the first four frets.
    Thank you for your input!

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Ok, you're using a capo, but what are the resulting keys? That's gonna make a huge difference. It's also the answer to your question.

    I do have some actual advice, though. If you need an F# harmonica, you need to look special for the Low F#. Most F# harmonicas will be an octave higher than most cowboys would use. I found this out the hard way. I typically tune a half-step down and while trying to replicate songs I played on my G harmonica, I found that the standard F# isn't a half step down from the G. It's 11/12 of an octave up.
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  3. #3

    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    When I attend local sessions people ask me what key I'm playing. All I can tell them is what fret I've got the capo on or not and I get the feeling that's not the answer their looking for. Being a Scottish small pipe player for 15 years we look at the notes on the score and we can determine the key.
    Most of my new tunes are pulled from guitar websites and all they provide are lyrics and cords, no dots. When I see a high count of G cords do I assume the tune is in G?

  4. #4

    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    I’m a harmonica player and just started learning mandolin about five months ago. My band plays rock, folk, blues and country music and I spend most of my time playing cross harp, typically three keys above the key of the main song (ie use a C harp for songs in the key of G, F harp for the key of C or Am, etc).

    In terms of how often my harmonicas get used, probably C, A, F, G and D get the most play (I generally wear out each of those keys once or twice a year) while the remaining keys in order of Bb, E, B, Eb, Db, F# and Ab last me multiple years. For your first harmonica I’d buy a C because almost all online instruction videos and books start with that one.

    Don’t skimp and try to learn harmonica using overly cheap harps. I’d recommend starting with a Hohner Special 20 as a decent durable reasonably priced harmonica. I mostly gig with Hohner Crossovers but also play some Seidel, Suzuki, Lee Oskar, etc. and they all have their proponents.


    When I play harps on a rack with the mandolin it’s primarily been C, D, F and G, but that’s partly been driven by the fact that I just started learning mandolin so have only learned to comfortably sing and play about a dozen and a half songs.

    You’ll definitely want to get adept at looking at the chord progression and telling what key the song is in, and transposing it if you’re using a capo. You might want to check out Duke Sharp’s book Garage Band Theory if you don’t already know how to do this.

    Good luck and welcome to harmonica playing!

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    🎶 Play Pretty 🎶 Greg Connor's Avatar
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    I buy most of my harmonicas here: https://www.musiciansfriend.com/harm...dRedirect=true

    Wait till they go on sale, usually 15% off. I play both straight and cross harp. I love using a Hohner Echo Harp for a lead break on an Irish flavored tune. As for keys, you eventually need all 12, especially if you are playing with others.

    Take a look at these brands: Seydel, Lee Oskar, Suzuki Promaster, and Hohner. Each of these feature different qualities, tone, bending etc.

    Have fun!

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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Not all of the time, but most of the time the key of the song is the last chord in the song.

    Now to add to what NDO said. First I'll ask a question. Are you going to play straight harp or are you going to play cross harp? Straight harp you will choose a harp for the key of the song, cross harp will use a harp that is the 4th of the key. Key of D= G harp. Straight harp key of D= D harp.
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    What NDO said, mostly. The cross harp method he mentioned is usually used for blues and rock. Reason being the notes in the pentatonic scale for that key on the harmonica fall nicely in line with the chords on the backing instrument corresponding to the other key. Just to eliminate confusion, it's best to think of the difference as five keys - each half-tone being a key - rather than the three he mentioned, being steps in a scale (I think).

    But for the kinds of songs you're playing, it's generally preferable to play "straight harp" - the same key as the song. How you determine the key of a song isn't always - though often - dependent on the most commonly appearing chord in it. The best indicator is which chords are used and how. For example, if a song contains G, C, and D (I, IV, V) and starts and ends on G, it's a pretty safe bet that's the key. If a song resolves at the end of a verse with a D then a G (V-I), it's in G.

    I've almost always used Hohner, believing them to be the generally accepted standard. I know they are more expensive than one would think; the days of $5 harmonicas seems long gone. Musician's Friend has less expensive ones, which may not be worth the savings. Keys to have are usually G, C, D, and A. Depending on the keys of the songs you're playing, of course. Those last two will also be very useful if you ever play a blues in A or E, common keys for the blues. Bear in mind that a capo can be adjusted easily up or down a fret in order to suit the harmonica; most singers' vocal ranges can adjust accordingly. What I mean is, if you play a song with the capo on the third fret (for example), and you're using G key chords so you're in Bb, but don't have a Bb harp, try moving the capo down a fret and do it in A. That sort of stuff. You don't want to have harmonicas in keys you rarely play in. That would get expensive quickly.

    Good luck, and keep at it! You'll get there.
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  8. #8

    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Depends if youn are going to learn cross harp as described above. i.e, G harp for the key of C etc. Then there's the other way which I think Bb Dylan played (not certain) and how I play. G harp for key G. C harp for key C and so on. In that case, instead of buying one for D, EB, E, F, F#, and G, just buy a D, E , F and and make your vocal range suit one of these by playing the song a semi tone up or down. Perhaps in F or G in stead of F# or D instead of Eb. If you buy an F, I agree with the comment above, go for the octave lower. They sound great.

    I started adding harp to our songs around the year 2000 and ended up with C,D, E, F, G Ab and A (my wife sang a lot in Ab). It certainly makes a difference if you don't have a lead player and just want to do intros, tags and solos to break up the constant rhythm of your guitar. I'm very glad I did it.

  9. #9

    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    I agree with the comments that you may be playing straight harp instead of cross harp...I was specifically describing which harps I use the most and I wanted to be clear that I was primarily playing cross. I also play some straight and occasionally third position (e.g. the harmonica part in Mary Jane’s Last Dance is played on a G harp and the song is in Am).

    The OP mentioned playing some John Prine songs, and I prefer playing cross harp on Angel From Montgomery but others are about 50/50 cross vs. straight. So you’ll eventually want to try both styles. But my recommendation to start with a C harp stands either way because most lessons will assume you have one.

  10. #10

    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Thanks to all of you who replied!!
    All I'm looking to do is just break up the verses every now and then, instead of playing the chorus cords and adding some yodeling, a little simple picking and percussion.
    I bought a $12 Kazoo and tried that but I feel I can do better with a Harp.
    Reading your informative replies makes me think that the best way to start is with the straight harp technique.
    Final questions: 1. If I can only purchase 4 keys to start with, which 4 should I purchase given my music preferences? (Irish, folk, J. Prine, my own tunes)
    2. Any recommendation for a neck holder?
    Happy Trails and again thank you

  11. #11
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Chromatic Harmonicas can do all Keys but takes 2 hands, because the sharps/ flats are via a button on one end..

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  12. #12

    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    I'm looking at Hohner Marine Band 5 pack at Sweetwater for $190. It includes a G-A-C-D-E
    Any thoughts!!

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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Seems like a high buy-in for something you don't plan to use a lot. Sweetwater also has a 7-pack of Blues Band harps for $41.99. A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G. Someone more up-to-date on models than I can ring in on quality. The fact that one Special 20 or Marine Band costs more than that pack gives me pause. On the other hand, you can see this as a starter kit, which will give you the chance to try out different keys and decide which ones you really want. And they'll also serve as backup if you upgrade. As well as fill in gaps for keys other than your main ones.
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Try and get harmonicas with a plastic comb, not the wooden comb. the wood swells when you play it a lot from moisture and will tear your lips. If you cut it down you need to soak them to keep them swelled or you won't be able to get single notes. I went to plastic combs decades ago. If you are buying one to see if you want to play get something cheap, if you are serious spend a little more money. You will be happier. I ended up going with Lee Oscar and like their harps, tho I played Honer's for many years.
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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by MandoPiper1 View Post
    I'm looking at Hohner Marine Band 5 pack at Sweetwater for $190. It includes a G-A-C-D-E
    Any thoughts!!
    Speaking as a long time harmonica-ist:

    Marine Bands are good harps; they've been around for a century or so. Only drawback I've found is that the wood dividers between the holes can get moistened from saliva and swell a bit, so that the corners can abrade your lips when you slide them up and down the scale. The Special 20 is just about the same price, but has plastic non-absorbent dividers; I'm only using harmonicas with plastic dividers now. However, you may not find Special 20's in these packs.

    You can get away with cheaper harps, but they're not likely to last as long. I'm using Lee Oskar now, because you can buy new reed pans for about half the price of buying a whole new harmonica, and replace the worn-out reeds yourself. They're easily available from Musician's Friend, also elsewhere, and though they're a bit more expensive than Marine Bands, the savings on reed plan replacement makes them worth it, IMHO.

    I'm assuming [1] that you're going to be basically playing 10-hole diatonic harmonicas, like the Marine Band and Special 20, and [B] that you're playing what we call "straight harp" (no implication regarding relationship preferences) or "1st position" -- i.e. the key on the harp is the key you're playing in, not "cross harp" or "2nd position," where, as NDO and others mentioned above, you play up five steps in the "dominant" key, -- Key of G on a C harmonica, etc. I also take from what you wrote, that you're not really "into" key signatures. Let's then look at some common chords:
    1st Fret 2nd Fret 3rd Fret 4th Fret
    G chord G# or A♭ A A# or B♭ B
    A chord A# or B♭ B C C# or D♭
    C chord C# or D♭ D D# or E♭ E
    D chord D# or E♭ E F F# or G♭

    ...and we can go on from there. You can see, depending on what chords you use, that -- assuming you move your capo around the first four frets, and also play un-capoed, you could play in keys A through G, and all the sharps and flats in between, and therefore get a complete set of harmonicas in every key -- many of which you'd probably use once in a blue moon (I carry an A♭ harmonica around in my gig bag, just because I've always had it, and probably use it once a year).

    The set of harmonicas you're considering would probably cover 75-80% of your needs. I carry seven harps -- A, B♭, C, D, E, F and G -- that pretty much cover all my bases for straight harp, cross harp, minor/modal, and "double-cross harp" (playing off the "four chord," i.e. C on a G harmonica -- for example, I play Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out in D on an A harmonica, to get that D to F# chord change at the beginning).

    If you're going to play mandolin plus harmonica in a "neck rack," let me just pass along a piece of advice I got from "Toad" Hanna in Denver, 1967: "You can play guitar [or mandolin] and harmonica simultaneously, as long as you don't care if you play either very well." I do a helluva lot of work with guitar and harp, but I'm always aware of his words...

    Later: appears my "chord table" got jammed together, and editing's in vain. A bit of Googling will give a usable diagram.
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    appears my "chord table" got jammed together, and editing's in vain. A bit of Googling will give a usable diagram.
    Ah, sir, allow me to remove the ignominy of perceived failure which must be bedeviling you. I have noticed in the past that multiple spaces in the editing window devolve into single spaces in the finished message - producing the squashed layout you noted. My work-around for this is to use dots, dashes, or underscores to achieve the desired appearance, and then change their color to white. That's the virtual equivalent of transparent. Different character width will make this pretty goshdarned neat. It's noodly, but neatness counts. Practice makes perfect.
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    If you get the 5 pack - or even more, you'll need a holster belt ala John Sebastian - ha ha ha ha!
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Do you mean John Popper of Blues Traveler? That vest is El Supremo.

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  21. #19

    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    [SIZE=5]MANY THANKS TO ALL OF YOU FOR THE USEFUL INFORMATION!!!!!
    Many of you spent a lot of time and thought passing your knowledge to a 68 year old amateur performer and I really appreciate it!
    Your tip to avoid wooden combs makes perfect sense. Our mandolins expand and contract with temperature and humidity making us forever tune. Blowing our spit into a harmonica must raise hell!
    I just placed an order with Sweetwater for 4 Hohner Special 20s (G,A,C,D) and neck holder for under $200. I was considering the larger multi sets for under $100 but I've learned in my senior years not to purchase low or high, but in the middle. My Kentucky KM150 is ok and and improving with age, but my Collings MT2 sings like an Angel
    The harps will arrive next week and I'm looking forward to a new challenge! (Covid Relief)
    Any suggestions for instruction books, YouTube sites, etc.
    Again Thank You!
    Happy Trails!

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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Good! Sounds like you've made a wise choice and are on your way.

    I have no suggestions for instruction books. But I do have a more general suggestion: Pick up a few songbooks from musicians whose material you have heard, like, and know well. Reading them and playing along with them, familiarizing yourself with the chord patterns, and correlating that with the way they sound, will help you tremendously in learning how chord structures work. You'll develop the capability to listen to other musicians and understand what they are playing.
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  23. #21

    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    The harmonica world is waiting for a really good neck holder. I've had about four over the years and whilst all claim to be this and that, they all seem to have their failing and you end up canabalizing them to seme degree. You get there in the end but one day I'm going to spend some time and hopefully design a better one. It's
    all to do with the little tighteners which sometimes jump as they get tightened or slackened. We once had a funny experience at the folk club where my neck holder bust as I was about to go on. Our good friend Christine Jeans (Cramlington folk club, Northumberland) stood almost in front of me and held my harmonica to my mouth whilst the audience were in stitches. Great fun.

  24. #22

    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Right now I’m using the Harp Arm magnetic harp rack which works really nicely for swapping between harps conveniently. It also has pretty quick adjustments for angle and position. But it’s fairly bulky and interferes a bit with singing vocals.
    I haven’t tried other racks however so I can’t comment on other ergonomic factors. I do intend to try a few others for comparison.

  25. #23
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Harmonicas & Mandolins

    Elderly used to sell a little wire rack called the Harp Handle; I bought one and have used it for over 20 years, and Dunlop still makes 'em. It's light and simple, and if you keep the wing nuts and lock washers lubed a bit, it works pretty smoothly.

    Simpler's better, sometimes.
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