The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Is There a Future for the Chromatic Harmonica?

by Alan "Blackie" Schackner

Reprinted with permission from The Harmonica Educator

Originally, the title of this article was going to be: "Will the Chromatic Harmonica Survive the Onslaught of the Diatonics" (Or will it become as extinct as the Dodo bird or the Dinosaur?) However, on second thought, I came to the conclusion that that might be too strong an approach, hence the above Title.

There can be no doubt that the music scene, as many of the older players are aware, has radically changed. Certainly, this is one of the factors that has encouraged the playing of the diatonic "harp" rather than the Chromatic Harmonica. Simply put, it's a lot easier to learn to play a Marine Band harmonica than a 3 or 4 octave Chromatic! (And the "new Music" is a lot easier to play!)

Of course, I'm aware that some remarkable advances have currently been made in the diatonic techniques being used today. Also, better diatonics are now available, either out of the box, or from skilled modifiers. I think that's wonderful - But, the average young player who picks up a 10 holer, learns a few simple licks, and often he (or she) is in business! Sure, there are some wonderful diatonic players, who are musicians, who do read music. and that too is great for the harmonica, but I think, that if you look at the over - all picture, they are few and far between!

Today, If you do any type of movie going, if you listen to TV or even the radio, one can't help but notice the influence that the diatonic has had in every one of these venues!

And what about the way that the "ten holer" is being used? Producers often utilize it as a clever way to establish a mood. Sometimes, this tiny instrument, because of its' unique sound, can create an unusual musical background. Other directors have it do what it does best, Namely: "WAIL" the blues a bit. So, for what the diatonic does, one would have to say it is ideally designed! In addition, because of its' popularity, the public has a much better appreciation of the harmonica ... But, in case you haven't noticed, you almost never hear the chromatic anymore! At least, not in these settings!

Why should this be?

Certainly, one reason, is that the chromatic players are generally older. Attrition has been taking its' toll. They are either retiring, joining that great big band in the sky, or, (because of advancing age) have lost all interest in playing. Unfortunately, that's only part of the story. Today's aging players grew up in a time, when we had great composers writing wonderful music for the "popular" trade. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, and on and on. They wrote tunes that sounded awesome on the chromatic harmonica. And while their harmonies were sometimes intricate, the melodies were almost always "singable!' Then too, the tunes were easily "digestible." That is, they were very easy to remember, yet, musically excellent. Contrast that with most of the music we hear today!

Back then, there were "Role Models" like the great Larry Adler, who, at that time, was miles and miles ahead of anyone else! (And at age 85 years young, is still one of the "greats.") Also, on the scene were names like Zimbalist, and Sebastian, who were renowned classical players at the time.

In addition, we had the wonderful "Borrah Minnevitch Harmonica Band." They were on the radio every week, so we had great exposure to the chromatic harmonica as well as all the other (harmonica) band instruments. Also, we could listen to skilled players like Leo Diamond, and the equally wonderful Ernie Morris, whose distinctive sound positively fascinated us. For years, we tried to, but never could, imitate his sound. Rumor had it, that he achieved his tone with the use of cellophane, so we wrapped our chromatics in it, but that did not work. Then, we tried playing into a drinking glass. It did change the sound, but again, no cigar! I know it sounds silly now, but at the time we had no internet, no harmonica clubs, and nobody to help or advise us. Anyway, what it did teach us, was that we would have to create our own individual sounds, but at least, we had great examples to emulate, or perhaps even improve upon.

If I may, I would like to go "way back" to a time when we avid chromatic players were still playing the Marine Band harmonica. Actually, other than the "old Standby" and a few other (probably now obsolete) diatonics, that's all we had! Nobody had heard of "positions" on the Marine Band harmonica, and nobody had any knowledge of "over - blows!" Johnny O'brien was a wonderful Marine Band player. He was very well known at the time, but he played everything in the key his harmonica was in. He knew nothing about "positions," and subsequently became famous as a harmonica playing comedian. (Interestingly, much later, your author was the first one to write about, and illustrate "positions" on the diatonic. I listed 6. (My book was published by Warner Brothers, and still sells remarkably well). At any rate, when the first chromatic harmonica came on the scene, it was like a gift from heaven! It was pure happiness. At last we could push a button, and find all the notes that had been impossible to find before! Never mind that the chromatic was just two 10 hole diatonics a half tone apart, we thought it was just wonderful. Then, when the Hausler tuning became available, it created sheer bliss! We know that tuning now as solo tuning, but it was still a tenholer. When Hohner designed the Super Chromonica (12 holes, solo tuned), our delight knew no bounds! 3 FULL OCTAVES. WOW! This was later followed by a 4 octave chromatic harmonica, which made every kind of music possible. So, you can easily understand our joy.

Lest you think we were any different from the players of that day, I'm talking about the guys I actually grew up with: People Like Charlie Leighton, Stan Harper, Victor Pankowitiz, Bernie Fields, all of whom later became top - flight professionals.

Quite a bit later, the "Harmonicats" scored their version of a home run with "Peg of my Heart." It became a tremendous hit, and inspired a whole new crop of chromatic players. Many of these new fans formed their own trios, and for a while, it seemed that wherever you looked, whether it be at harmonica gatherings, conventions, or clubs, there were always several trios playing! Chromatic harmonica enthusiasm was everywhere, and the future of the instrument surely seemed assured. But that was then and this is now! So, what happened? That's a good question, and while I do not profess to know all the answers, I do know some of them. Think about this: Most of the former harmonica enthusiasts are now in their late 60's, 70's, and even 80's. Where will the new Chromatic players come from?

We know that hit records can inspire the youngsters, but unfortunately, we haven't had any hit harmonica records since " Ruby" and "Strangers on the Shore." So who is out there to inspire the young to play the "Chromo?" Where are the role models? Other than Toots Thielmans, no one else has achieved international recognition, and even he is not a household word - And an overview of the harmonica scene today, seems to indicate that (with very few exceptions) only the diatonic players are working! Again I ask: "Why Should This Be?"

Lest the reader think I have a bias against the diatonic , let me state that for about 30 years, I was a recording session player in New York, and probably did hundreds of dates on diatonic as well as chromatic harmonica. I consider the diatonic harmonica a distinct and separate instrument from the chromatic harmonica, just as I consider the flute different from the clarinet, or saxophone. All are woodwinds, but they don't sound the same, nor do they encompass the same musical register. In the case of the harmonicas, the same is true. The Chromatic harmonica is a remarkable instrument. Just consider the wonderful things it can do: It has a 3 or 4 octave range depending on the model. It is capable of playing any kind of music, and is equally at home playing Classical, Pop, Jazz, Blues, or any other kind of music you might prefer. It can handle vibrato, tremolo, chords, octaves, double stops, and even create "shimmering effects" impossible on any other instrument. So, would it not be a sad consequence, if this wonderful musical device called the chromatic harmonica became Obsolete?

So, what can we do to bring back the former popularity of this wonderfully versatile tool? How can we point the youngsters of today in the right direction (so that they too, might generate the intense enthusiasm we had when we were young)?

Why is it that the respect for the Chromatic is so much greater in Europe than the USA?

Why is it that harmonica players, who come here from foreign countries are so much more skillful than the average American player?

Why is it that in Europe and other countries, the chromatic is actually taught in some of the public schools? Why can't we do it in the USA?.

Why is it that nobody seems alarmed by this unfortunate trend? A trend that minimizes the chromatic harmonica, and, if continued, might actually result in its' obsolescence!

Lest anybody think your author is exaggerating, just check the ratio of sales comparing diatonics to chromatics. While the figures are not publicly available, an educated guess would say that 15 to 1 would be an understatement!

How could we have let this happen?

About the Author

Alan "Blackie" Schackner is a musician, entertainer and performer of wide and varied accomplishments. He has appeared on TV, the legitimate stage, in motion pictures, and radio. Alan has been heard as a soloist in concert halls, nightclubs and theatres all over the world. As a matter of fact, the late ROBERT RIPLEY devoted a complete article to Mr. Schackner in his famous "BELIEVE IT OR NOT" feature. Alan "Blackie" Schackner is the only harmonicist ever to be so honored.

Alan started making music on the harmonica at the tender age of ten. He learned quickly, and soon was performing regularly on the CBS children's hour. This was followed by many appearances on the KATE SMITH program, after which he was chosen to play a featured part in WILLIAM SAROYAH'S play "THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE." Alan played the music he had composed especially for the play in which dancer GENE KELLY performed to his music. Incidentally, the show won the CRITICS AWARD as well as the PULITZER PRIZE!

The young harmonica virtuoso then went on to become a featured performer on the ARTHUR GODFREY & HIS FRIENDS TV show, and also toured for awhile with MILTON BERLE. Alan has written music for several motion picture and theatre productions, as well as the score for the nationally broadcast ABC TV UNICEF program. He composed some of the music for the film "PORTRAIT OF JENNIE," and also wrote the hit tune "THE HAPPY COBBLER." A lifelong ambition was realized, when he appeared as soloist at New York's TOWN HALL. Cy Coleman, the composer, was his accompanist at the time.

Alan Schackner is a graduate of the New York College of Music, as well as a thoroughly trained advocate of the Schillinger System of Musical Composition (An advanced technique, which he studied at New York University). Today, Alan, or "Blackie" as his friends call him, is one of the most successful harmonicists in the United States. He is a well established recording artist, composer and performer, who still holds the all time record for performances at the famed CONCORD HOTEL in New York (33 in a single year!). He has shared concerts with such notables as ROBERT MERRILL, SERGIO FRANCHI, BOB HOPE, BOB NEWHART, and other top ranking performers. TV appearances go back as far as THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, and include guest spots with MERVE GRIFFIN, MIKE DOUGLAS, and the TONITE SHOW. "Blackie" has even been a mystery guest on "WHAT'S MY LINE," where he taught BEVERLY SILLS AND GENE SHALIT how to play the harmonica. He has also performed for 3 presidents of the United States: Eisenhower, Nixon, and Carter!

Alan is in constant demand for TV commercials, and his harmonica can be heard promoting several automobile companies, PepsiCo, Nabisco cookies, Macdonald's products, frozen foods, and many others. He has recorded albums for RCA, ABC, Paramount, Grand Award, and a "How To Album" for Columbia called "Anyone can play the Harmonica." His latest for RCA is Called, "YESTERDAY WHEN I WAS YOUNG." He is also the author of nine very popular music folios, as well as three top selling WARNER BROTHERS PUBLICATIONS called, "EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CHROMATIC HARMONICA," plus two follow-ups for the blues and rock harmonica fans.

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