If you are considering buying a harmonica, you may already know that there are two common types: diatonic and chromatic. There are pros and cons to each one, so it is important to learn about them before making a purchase.
Deciding between a diatonic and chromatic will depend on the type of music being played, the amount of experience with harmonics, and the budget used to make the purchase.
Depending on your musical interests, you may opt to buy a chromatic harmonica over a diatonic harmonica. The amount of experience you have and the budget you have are also worth considering before deciding on a harmonica. Read on to find out more about the differences between diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, when they are played, and what each instrument sounds like.
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The diatonic and chromatic harmonica have noticeable differences in how they are played, the styles of music they are used for, and the cost for each instrument.
Generally speaking, the diatonic harmonica is capable of a larger range of sound, whereas the chromatic harmonica is limited in its range and is easier to play. Depending on your skill level, a chromatic harmonica may be preferable over a diatonic harmonica, since it is an easier instrument to play. However, you will need to keep in mind that a chromatic harmonica is more expensive than a diatonic harmonica.
Keep reading to discover the differences between the diatonic and chromatic harmonica. Once you do, you should have a much clearer picture of which harmonica is a better fit for you.
The diatonic harmonic gets its name because it is easy to play the notes of a diatonic scale on it. A diatonic scale is a scale that starts at a certain note and progresses 6 more unique notes in a series of steps and half steps until ending with the 8 note which is exactly the same as the starting note except for one octave higher. If you are thinking of purchasing a diatonic harmonica, it is important to consider:
- The type of music you’ll be playing
- How much experience you have with harmonicas
- How much they cost
Diatonic harmonicas are generally used to play certain styles of music such as the blues, rock, and folk. Although it is possible to play these styles of music on any type of harmonic, famous harmonica players of these genres almost exclusively use the diatonic harmonica. These include Bob Dylan, Charlie McCoy, and more. The main appeal of the diatonic harmonic to these artists is how you are able to bend the sound.
Bending the sound is what makes the harmonic sound so famous for genres such as the blues. It is a technical phrase that refers to a certain way of blowing into the air holes of the harmonic so you are able to change the pitch of each of the notes on the diatonic scale. This is what gives blues harmonicas such a unique, wailing sound in some of their more passionate pieces that is incomparable to other instruments.
Although many people choose the diatonic harmonica because they want to be able to bend sound, it is not always possible. This is a technique that must be learned and then practiced if you want it to get it right. Although it may be tempting to purchase a diatonic harmonica to be the next Bruce Springsteen, keep in mind that just because an instrument makes a noise does not mean that you will be able to produce it.
Beginners may find more challenges with a diatonic harmonica than a chromatic one. Although it takes skill to play any instrument well, harmonica or otherwise, if you are unwilling to put the time into mastering bending the sound on a diatonic harmonica, you will be limiting its capacity greatly, but a chromatic harmonica will have many options for you to play original notes simply.
Diatonic harmonicas are relatively small instruments and are made out of affordable materials most of the time. It is easy to get a one that is inexpensive but still can sound great while you play. If you are looking for an intro harmonica, you should be able to find one that meets your needs. It’ll probably even come with a small protective case, for well under $100. Usually, the starting price is less than $15 and increases from there with quality.
If for a number of years you’ve been playing harmonica and would like to purchase several diatonic harmonicas that cover different keys, you can buy a set with the most common keys. On average, 3 harmonics that are for the keys of C, G, and A are likely to be enough for you to practice any of the songs and styles you would like. This will generally cost a little over $100.
Diatonic harmonicas are relatively limited in the notes you are able to play, but chromatic harmonics function in the opposite way. If you have a chromatic harmonica, you will be able to play any note you want, regardless of if it is on a certain scale. Although there are smaller variations, the classic chromatic harmonica has 48-64 reeds and the ability to reach between 4 octaves.
If you are thinking about purchasing a chromatic harmonica, you should be aware of:
- What a chromatic harmonica sounds like
- What the cons are
- How much a chromatic harmonica costs
Each of these factors is crucial for determining whether a chromatic harmonica is a better purchase for you rather than a diatonic harmonica.
Chromatic harmonicas look much more complicated than diatonic harmonicas. They are comparatively giant, and they actually have two sets of holes, one on top of the other. A sound is made by the player blowing into the holes, and a slider is used to cover the holes you do not want to play. One set of holes covers a diatonic scale while the other set covers a half of a step above so you are able to play every note.
You are not able to bend sound on a chromatic harmonica to create the classic blues sound that many people think of with harmonicas. However, what you can do instead is play many notes quickly without worrying about where they are relative to the diatonic scale of the harmonica you are using. This means that it is much more convenient when playing classical music but less so in some other genres.
Being able to play notes fluidly and quickly is a huge perk if that is the type of harmonica playing you are hoping to accomplish. In addition, you only need one chromatic harmonica!
Unlike diatonic harmonicas where you would have to purchase one for each key you would like to play in, every note is already available to you on your same chromatic. It is also more straightforward and easy to learn than a diatonic harmonica.
Despite these benefits, there are also some disadvantages to the chromatic harmonica. Because it must accommodate a way to play every note, it is generally larger and clunkier than a diatonic.
It may be easier to play when you have it, but it is less likely to fit into a small pocket. Again, bending sound is synonymous to many people with harmonica playing so you must be willing to sacrifice that if you choose a chromatic.
Chromatic harmonicas are generally more expensive than diatonic harmonicas because they are able to cover more notes and have a more complicated structure to them. It is possible to find a less expensive one that is smaller, but a standard chromatic harmonica can cost around $200 or more, depending on quality. A standard is also always in the key of C.
Although diatonic and chromatic harmonicas may look similar to someone who knows little about them, there are in fact many nuances to consider before making a purchase. From your current skill level with harmonica to the types of music you plan to play, there are variables to choose from when it is time for your decision.
Overall, a diatonic harmonica is probably the best choice if you are hoping to play blues music. Bending the sound is so distinctive that playing the blues with a chromatic harmonica would sound absurd. However, the chromatic harmonica is a great harmonica to purchase if you want to play clearly defined music and are able to afford a larger purchase.