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Brendan's Gear

Brendan is not only an exceptional harmonica player, but he is theorician and technician as well. In order to give you an idea of what exactly he does in his 'laboratory', we have asked him to send us a sample of his new CX-10 Richter harp and a copy of his brand new Irrish Harmonica method.Both of these producst and meny more besides are available on Brendan's website at

http://www.brendan-power.com.

CX-10 Richter Harmonica Play Irish Music on Diatonic

CX-10 Richter Harmonica

CX10 Frontal.jpg (9740 octets)Before I delve into this any further, I must say how much I always liked the idea of a Richter tuned harp with slide. I even purchased several, but the models available (Hohner Slide Harp and Koch) are so badly designed as to be virtually unplayable. In the end I gave up on the idea and just went on to perfect playing on a regular diatonic harp. That’s a lot of work in itself !

Then I learned that Brendan Power had designed a Richter tuned slide harp based on a CX-12 body and some Hohner and/or Hering parts, which is the beast I am reviewing now.

Brendan had warned me that the model I was reviewing was a beta-testing model, and that aesthetically, it wasn’t on par with the production model. I was really surprised therefore at how good this test model looks : you can hardly see the split line where the CX-12 body has had to be cut and glued (or welded ?). Generally, it looks real cool and professional. I can’t wait to see a "proper" one !

The Power CX-10 costs roughly $200, but Brendan also sells the "insides" seperately for $150. Since the CX series is designed to be opened near instantly you can easily switch the whole inside parts for a different key of harp in a few seconds.

So what exactly is this harp ? Well it’s a ten-hole Richter tuned harmonica, with valves on the lower notes in each hole (ie 1-6 blow and 7-10 draw), and a slide, which you can action to reach another 10 hole Richter tuned harmonica a semitone higher, following the principle of a chromatic harmonica tuning. So essentially, what you have in your hands is a classically tuned diatonic harp with some of the possibilities of a chromatic harps and more besides.

The harp plays really well compared to its cousins the Slide Harp and the Koch. Although technically that’s a real feat, it is by no means sufficient indication that the instrument is perfect. It’s not "perfect" (ie. It doesn’t play like a diatonic), but it’s still damn good. The reasons it doesn’t play as well as a diatonic are :

a/ The valved notes feel and sound different from standard unvalved holes on a diatonic. They are louder of course, but that is not very audible unless you play chords. Chords sound odd compared to unvalved chords. Also, the valved notes react differently to attack (if you attack a six blow real hard like you sometimes do on a diatonic, it squeaks or doesn’t sound) and fast playing.

b/ The holes are large and the harp requires a lot more air to play than either a diatonic (smaller holes and reeds) or a chromatic (fully valved)

On the plus side, the CX-12 design is excellent and the mouthpiece especially is very well designed and allows for the mouth to slide really easily from one side of the harp to the other. The slide is very smooth and easy to action.

The thing is, don’t expect to play this baby like you play a standard diatonic. It’s definitely a different instrument that requires getting used to. Embouchure needs to be adjusted, attack needs to be subtly different and breathing needs to be managed differently.

There are quite a few advantages to the system though : you can really bend like on any standard diatonic. Some of the lower bends are hard to sustain at first but that’s more an embouchure issue than a flaw of the instrument. And, of course, you can action the slide to access the same layout a semi-tone higher. This in itself allows the following bonuses :

a/ you can play an exact identical line with inflections, tone, bending, etc. a semi-tone higher very easily. This would be the most basic level of use, but not entirely without it’s interest. There are quite a few variations of the twelve bar blues where one bar switches to a semitone higher (usually after the V chord instead of switching back to the IV)

b/ you can access any notes missing on a diatonic without overbends, and in a much easier way than with overbends. That is especially true of hole 1 where the OB is difficult to master and of holes 7-10 where the overdraws are hard to play properly and unsqueakily. Here, you just have to action the slide. Furthermore, the position of the "missing" diatonic notes are more intuitive on the Richter CX-10 than they are with overblows since you don’t need to invert your beathing pattern to access the note : for example, if you wanted to play a classic blues run during the I-V transition in the middle octave, like D-E-F-F#-F-E-D on a standard diatonic, that comes out as 4D 5B 5D 5OB 5D 4B 4D which in terms of breathing pattern is D-B-D-B-D-B-D. On a Richter CX-10 you’d action the slide to play the F# and your breathing pattern would be D-B-D-D-D-B-D. Much smoother.

c/ you can play trills and flourishes much easier just by actioning the slide. On a standard diatonic, flourishes such as those commonly found in celtic music are fairly difficult to play. They are much easier on a chromatic. Here you have the best of both worlds. This isn’t so much a plus for blues as it is for other musical styles.

d/ you can play repeat notes that sound different : like on a chromatic, you get a lot of enharmonic notes. Quite often you can play the standard hole, and a bent hole slide in to obtain the same note. For example, A in the middle octave can be played as 6D or 6Db slide in. The interesting thing (compared to a standard chromatic) is that because of the bend the notes sound different. You can therefore alternate both notes to produce an effect similar to what sax players do when they stay on one note. Quite an interesting feature.

e/ you can play a soft "chromatic sounding" vibrato on notes where normally vibrato is practically impossible, since the blow notes 1-6 and the draw notes 7-10 are valved. This takes some mastering if you’re not a chromatic player, but it sounds very nice.

f/ Brendan’s addition of a slide hook (optional) on the slide makes it very easy to cup the harp and use sound effects while using the slide. That is a real stroke of genius, and dead simple too. You can sound like Sonny Boy on this baby…

There are probably other things you can do and tricks you can pull, but these are the main ones. So the question is : does all this make the instrument worth buying ? It is after all quite expensive and therefore is unlikely to be purchased as easily as a diatonic would be. I think the answer really depends on what you play and what your approach to the instrument is.

In the same way that advanced chromatic players learn to play all keys on the one C chromatic, it would be totally feasible for someone to pick out the Richter CX10 as their one and only instrument. It would require a lot of work of course, but since all the notes are available and can be attained in several ways. You’ll have to work out by yourself how the scales lie though, since no exercise book has been released on the subject. So if you’re a jazz oriented player and like the diatonic sound (and bending in particular) better than the sound of the chromatic, that approach would be realistic and make sense. It’s certainly easier than deciding to play all keys well on a C diatonic. That’s the ‘best of both worlds’ approach.

If you’re into folkloric music in general and Celtic music in particular, then again I think this is a nice option for you : you get a lot of effects on this harp that are not available on a regular diatonic or a regular chromatic, and that’s nice. If you’re in a Brendan Power approach of mixing genres, it’s even better since you can play bluesy and country styles a lot easier than on a regular chromatic, and play folkloric styles a lot easier than on a diatonic. You do have a harp key issue though, inasmuch as each Richter CX-10 is quite expensive and so you’d definitely not want to buy three or four to get a large range of keys available (although you do have two keys easily available on each CX-10).

If you’re a fully dedicated blues player, then I’m not so sure you really need this beast. It’s certainly nice to have and you’d find a lot of interesting things to do just playing around with it, but at the end of the day, the harp key issue mentioned above would make its use very restrictive. Furthermore, the missing diatonic notes you’re going to use the most in a blues context would be Eb, F# and Bb, and these are the easiest overblows to learn, so it may not be worthwhile to spend $200 for two keys (say A and Bb) and an additional $150 for each additional two keys just to get these missing notes.

All in all this is a very impressive product, but maybe not for all mouths. Still, I can only applaud loudly at Brendan who has proven again that with a bit of inventivity and a bit of engineering, one can come with a design that is miles better than what most standard manufacturers do. I really do hope that thanks to him, at some point in the future, the Hohners and Tombos of this world will think a bit harder about the products they release and learn to take advantage of the inherent qualities of their own products to come up with better stuff. In the meantime, I hope Brendan releases a few more tracks on which he uses this baby : that will certainly open up people’s horizons and generate more interest in this first ever playable Richter slide harp.

Benoit Felten


Play Irish.gif (14131 octets)Play Irish Music on Diatonic

I’ve always loved JJ Milteau’s methods, and I never thought I would find the same kind of accessible approach in a repertoire other than blues. Brendan Power is a master of Irish Music and harmonica tunings, but he is also a very good teacher.

Let’s be clear from the start, Brendan didn’t write this method to teach how to play Irish Music in general, but rather to explain how he approaches Irish Music and to show some of his tricks and explain how to play a lot of different tunes, some of which are featured on his superb CD " New Irish Harmonica "). Most of the pieces on his aforementioned CD are played on chromatic, but this method focuses on playing Irish music on the diatonic. Good for me !

After a bit of theory, a few quick tips and an explanation on valved diatonics (which Brendan plays a lot) the method gets us going real quick.

The first half of the tracks on the CD that comes with the method is devoted to Irish musical phrases on the last two octaves of the harmonica, and allow the reader to familiarise himself with the special "groove" of Irish music and the appropriate techniques (tongue triplets ; fill triplets …) These phrases are all very simple, except you’re supposed to play them fast and accurate. Damn !

The second half of the method (from track 26) requires patience, concentration, a good memory and generally a zen approach in order to assimilate each piece. There are a lot of "diatonic covers" of tracks from " New Irish Harmonica ", which is quite pleasant. The whole range of the instrument is used, and each piece is played in slow motion first and tabbed out. Sometimes the final result in insanely fast though, so it does take a lot of time to understand and be able to reproduce all the nuances in Brendan’s playing.

As a whole, the level of difficulty in the exercises goes up fairly fast, and someone who doesn't know how to play diatonic harmonica at first might quickly get discouraged. Even though most tracks do not feature any bends (only three out of 55 !), all require a good breath control and, in my opinion, a good understanding of the tuning structure of the diatonic.

All in all, this method is of very high quality and very enriching. It will allow you to play complex pieces without necessarily mastering bends. It will also enable you to learn ornamentation techniques and various effects. It will also certainly make you want to get Brendan’s "New Irish Harmonica", which I recommend anyway !

Some may object to the fact that this method teaches you tunes you need to know by heart in order to make them sound good. Irish music is not really an improvised music, though, so it’s just a matter of choices of repertoire. In any case it can’t hurt even the most dedicated blues player’s fluency to work on that kind of material.

My only frustration about this method would be the absence of play-back tracks that allow you to play the tune over an accompaniment. Not many harp players have a Irish guitarist at their disposal !

David Chalumeau


Planet Harmonica - 2001