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The Bass Harmonica: The World's Lowest Harmonica

I've recently started to learn the bass harmonica and I wanted to share with you some of the things I have learnt.


Don't worry, in the video where I show you the sounds of the bass harmonica I've enlisted the help of Ronald Kamminga of Fatamorgana* who can actually play! Trust me, you wouldn't want to hear my attempts 😂😂 Big shout out to Ronald for helping me out with this video lesson.



I'm going to talk you through the sound, feel and look of the bass harmonica as well as covering a little of the technique.


The Bass Harmonica


Firstly, have you heard of the bass harmonica before? When we say 'harmonica' most people think of the diatonic - or blues - harmonica. There are other types of harmonica, as you might know, such as the chromatic harmonica or tremolo harmonica. I cover the differences in this lesson: 'How Many Harmonicas are There?'


Most people have not even heard of the bass harmonica and wouldn't be able to recognise it if they heard it being played which is why I wanted to tell you all about it.


Let's get into it.


Size


There's only one way to describe the bass harmonica's size: it's a beast (particularly when compared with the diatonic harmonica). It's massive. It's actually two separate harmonicas hinged together. It's heavy and it's much better to hold the bass harmonica with two hands.


There's a reason why it's so big; it needs to house big and heavy reeds. It's the long chamber (with the big heavy reeds) that means it can make those earthy, deep, rumbling tones.


A chrome hohner bass harmonica
A Hohner Bass Harmonica

Speaking of earthy, deep, rumbling tones...


Sound


To listen to Ronald playing the bass harmonica so well click on the video.


It's such a unique, interesting sound. The tones are so deep and resonant. When you're playing it you can feel the vibrations going through you. It really shakes your soul - but in a different way to the blues harmonica. This is certainly an instrument that demands attention and leaves a lasting impression. Those deep, low tones have an emotional impact on the listener and player alike.


It's almost like hearing a distant earthquake (a rumbling), or being in a deep cavern. Have a listen and see what you think.


A quick note about physics


Here's how those deep tones are achieved:


Like other harmonicas the bass harmonica works by reeds held in chambers that your airflow activates.


It's the length and the pitch of the bass harmonica's reeds that produce the super low frequencies (and hence the sound).


There are two chambers in each hole. That's because each hole contains two reeds. This gives you a bigger sound and a better response to these low notes.


Technique


When it comes to technique, playing the bass harmonica is different to playing the diatonic harmonica.


Firstly, there's no draw note. That's right - there's only blow notes. It took me some time to get used to this as someone who mainly plays the diatonic harmonica. It's disconcerting. Everything is all on the out breath, with no need to breathe in at all.


Secondly, breath control on the bass harmonica is different. You're trying to find the sweet spot for your embouchure (as you are with the diatonic harmonica but it's a different sweet spot!)


Thirdly, timing needs to be considered. The low reeds take longer to respond than the higher pitch diatonic reeds so as a diatonic player you need to slow down and be aware of this.


The bass harmonica is played in niche areas - unlike the diatonic which you hear in blues and jazz and lots of other places. It's usually used for playing bass notes rather than melodies - so that's a difference to get used to.


I hope you've enjoyed this quick overview of the bass harmonica.

Do let me know if you've heard of the bass harmonica and if you've ever spotted any in pop songs or the like.



*Thanks again to Ronald for helping me out. I hope you enjoyed his playing as much as I did! You can find out more about Ronald by clicking here.


❓ Want to know about the lowest blues harmonica? Click here.


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