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Playing Chromatically

Windermere by Winslow Yerxa



Ladies and Escorts

Click here to listen to Windermere, an original instrumental by Winslow Yerxa recorded with the new Hohner XB-40 diatonic harmonica.

On a standard 10-hole diatonic, half the notes may be bent down in pitch. The draw notes in Holes 1 through 6 bend (the corresponding blow notes do not), and the blow notes in Holes 7 though 7 bend (but not the corresponding draw notes). Each note bends by a different amount, anywhere from a quarter tone to three semitones.

The Hohner XB-40, designed by Rick Epping after an idea by Will Scarlett, is a diatonic harmonica that allows all the notes in the instrument to bend down in pitch at least two semitones. This allows both a full chromatic scale and access to expressive devices not available on a standard diatonic. It also extends the instrument's range downward slightly. For more on the XB-40 (and another recording featuring the XB-40) at the manufacturer's website, click here.

This recording was made using an XB-40 in A played in the key of E. It features Winslow Yerxa playing his own composition

How did the XB-40 make this recording different? Here are some of the highlights.

0:16 - Note the use of blow bends in a sequence traversing Holes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 during the opening verse.

0:55 - The high blow bend in Hole 8 during the preceding lick is matched in the following parallel lick with a high draw bend also in Hole 8. The very next note is a Draw 7 bend, chewing on the note a little on the way to Draw 6, which is in turned followed (0:58) by a blow 6 bent note. The following downward run includes a 2-semitone bend of Blow 7 (0:59) for that all-important blue minor third.

1:07 - To match the V chord, Blow 6 is bent down a semitone at the turning point in a riff that changes directions and heads downward. Note how tongue-blocked chording is integrated into the note as the bend is released.

1:19 - Notes that may sound like Draw 4 and 3 are actually bent blow notes. Instead of following Blow 5 with a distinctly articulated Draw 4, Blow 5 is bent down for a fluid transition. The following note could have been played as a draw note, but for convenience and fluidity the next note is also a blow note - Blow 4 starts bent, then bends down a little further.

1:24 - As the chord resolves from IV back to I, Blow 4 is bent down to create a note that belongs in the I chord. This allows the line to continue downwards while still accommodating the underlying chord. The usual practice would be to jump up to Draw 3, breaking the flow of the line.

1:36 - The combinations of tongue-blocked chords with bends in Draw 1 through 4 is highly characteristic of the blues harmonica tradition. It would be nice to be able to do the same thing on the blow chord during the IV chord portion of a verse. Now you can. Listen to how closely bends on Blow 6 are integrated with tongue-blocked chording during this verse.

1:54 - No harmonica content, just an explanation of the lyrics. Windermere is a town in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. Its lake has a sandy beach - unusual for the Rockies - that makes it a popular summer vacation spot. There used to be a law in those parts that beer parlors must have one entrance for gentlemen that women could not use. Women could enter only if escorted by a gentleman, through the door labeled "Ladies and Escorts." This was intended to discourage prostitution as much as it was to shield the delicate sensibilities of ladies from the rough speech and gestures of drinking men.

2:30 - Note the rapid shake of Draw 2 and 4, with Hole 3 blocked by the tongue. A one-hole split like this is difficult to do on the small, narrowly-spaced holes of a diatonic - Little Walter did it on a 10-hole chromatic, which has much bigger and wider-spaced holes. The XB-40 is smaller than a chromatic but big enough to make a one-hole split much easier than on a standard diatonic.

Most of the rest of the tune - several of the devices described above are reiterated in various contexts.

3:37 - Note that Draw 4 is being bent down two full semitones for a deeper, more expressive version of this often-used bend.

Questions? Comments? Email me (click here)

All page contents including recording and underlying musical composition © copyright 2004 Winslow Yerxa.

Planet Harmonica - 2004