Leo Shi Bass
A while ago on harp-l, there was mention of some
diatonic bass harmonicas that had recently turned up on eBay.
I've been fortunate enough to obtain a sample for review and
I have to say that I am quite impressed. However, I will start
with the bad news (sort of) that it is not really a true bass,
but more in the baritone/tenor range. The blurb for these instruments
in the eBay auctions stated that the lowest note was EE - ie
the same as the lowest note of a standard Hohner bass. Actually,
the lowest note is one octave higher than that, the same as
the lowest note of a standard guitar, or the E below the lowest
note of a low C chromatic or diatonic. Despite that, it is still
a very useful instrument.
It is made in China by the by company that makes the Golden
Cup harmonicas, but it is of much higher construction quality
than the majority of the cheap Chinese harps familiar to most
of you. It measures about 7 1/2" long and 1 1/2" front
to back (about 19mm by 3.8mm). The comb is black plastic (ABS,
I think) and the covers seem to be chrome plated brass. Overall,
the harp feels quite substantial and no sharp edges or corners.
It has a single reedplate 1.19mm thick, secured to the comb
with 12 screws and the front of the comb overlaps the front
edge of reedplate, so there is no brass exposed to the player's
mouth. It has a strong rich tone, the reeds are very well adjusted
and the tuning is also pretty good - equal temperament at about
A=442Hz. It comes in a nice plastic case with a cleaning cloth.
It is strictly diatonic, covering two and a half octaves of
the C major scale from E to A. This sounds quite limited when
compared with the usual chromatic bass harmonicas, but it could
be surprisingly useful. Certain blues riffs lie well on the
instrument, particularly in 3rd, 4th and 5th positions, where
you could thicken up a "Hoochie Coochie Man" type
riff much more than you could with a typical diatonic harp.
Of course, it is also useful for playing in C major, as well
as major pentatonic stuff in 2nd and 12th positions. As I said
in my earlier post, it is what is termed a "Single Harmonica",
which is a very popular type in Asia, often used for music education.
The Single harmonicas have the notes arranged in groups that
cover a diatonic octave, with a separate chamber for each individual
reed. Usually these groups begin with a B and end with an A,
with a slightly thicker divider before the start of the next
octave. In the case of the of the Leo Shi bass, the first hole
is a blow E, the second a draw F, the third a blow G and the
fourth a draw A. Then there is a spacer, followed by B draw,
C blow, D draw, E blow, F draw, G blow, A draw. Another spacer,
then another full octave B to A. This layout layout wouldn't
be too alien to anyone familiar with the typical chromatic harmonica
or the middle octave of the diatonic, although it may take a
while to adjust to the wider spacing of the holes and the fact
that each hole contains a single reed, rather than blow reeds
and draw reeds sharing the same hole.
Perhaps it wouldn't be all that useful for a bass player in
a traditional harmonica trio, but I think it could be an excellent
addition to the arsenal of a diatonic harp player looking for
some new sounds.
Since writing the above, more Leo Shi instruments have found
their way across to the Western Hemisphere. In addition to the
key of C instrument reviewed above, the Leo Shi Bass is now
available in the keys of A and E. Except for some very minor
differences (different cases and slightly different cover bolts)
they are exactly the same as the C version - apart from their
pitch, or course. My only disappointment is that they chose
to make them higher in pitch than the C version, rather than
lower. Alternatively, it would have been nice to have given
them the same range as the C harp, but starting on another step
of the scale. For example, where the C version has the blow
notes E, G, C, etc., it would have been nice to have had an
A version with the blow notes E, A, C#, etc. and an E version
with the notes E, G#, B, etc. However, this would have required
different combs to be made for each key, which I assume was
not economically feasible. Anyway, although their pitch range
does make them less suitable as true bass instruments, it does
make them very nice for playing lower range melody lines. The
key of A instrument starts on a C# one octave lower than that
found in hole 2 of a standard diatonic and the E instrument
starts on a G# two octaves lower than hole 2 of a standard E
diatonic. This would make them ideal for filling the role of
a cello, or a baritone sax in an ensemble.
In addition to the diatonic basses, the Leo Shi Bass 2 Harmonica
has recently become available. This is essentially two of the
diatonic instruments joined together, the lower one in the key
of C (identical to the C instrument reviewed above), the upper
one in the key of C#. This enables the player to play completely
chromatic lines by alternating between the upper and lower deck,
in much the same manner as the traditional Hohner-style bass
- however the Leo Shi version is much more manageable (weighing
in at slightly less than 11 ounces, or 300g) and has both blow
and draw reeds. The traditional Hohner-style bass is all-blow,
although it does have a deeper range than the Leo Shi (and costs
ten times the price!). The traditional Hohner-style bass also
has pairs of reeds tuned in octaves, but personally I have always
preferred the clear single reed sound, such as you get with
the Tombo Contrabass or these Leo Shi instruments.
The hinges at each end allow the angle of the two decks to
be adjusted to suit the player's preferences and the instrument
comes in a very substantial and very attractive looking wooden
case with heavy brass fittings. I think this would be great
for any harp players wanting to branch out into playing different
types of harmonicas, as well as being a nice addition to the
tonal palette of players of the traditional Hohner-style bass.
Apparently Leo Shi also make a couple of different models of
compact chord harmonica. Hopefully we will get to see these
imported into the West before too long.
For more details:
4940 Zuni St.