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Harmonica compromise tunings

Any harp I work on can be tuned to your preference. Here's a visual representation of some Richter tuning options. These are not altered tunings where the notes are changed - these are all standard harmonica tuning. Every manufacturer tweaks the tuning of the individual notes to get a unique sound. These tweaks either emphasize the sound of single notes or the sound of chords.

If you want nice sounding chords and melody notes at the same time, then you need to compromise.

There are many ways to compromise and this shows a few ways you can do it. It's a little like a burger joint - you can have it any way you like!

Chords on a Suzuki Manji are nicer than on a harp tuned to Equal temperament, but they are not as nice as the chords on a current Marine Band. Marine Bands in the 1950s used to be tuned to provide even richer sounding chords than they do today, but the 5 draw on those harps sounded very flat (about a half semitone flat!) So you can compromise in any direction, and you decide if the emphasis is on single notes or chords.

This chart provides you with a view of which notes are offset from ET with the intensity of the color showing how far they deviate. I'm a visual person and this sort of thing helps me grasp the tuning differences.

The differences can be subtle. If you are playing unaccompanied, you probably won't notice notes being out-of-tune. It is hard to tell if a note is ten cents off from ET when played all by itself. But if you and the band are playing the same note at the same time, the difference is easier to hear - or hard to miss! Likewise, a chord played on an ET chord still sounds okay. It is more dissonant than it could be, but it still gets the point across.

Click on the image to download it as a PDF.

PDF icon Tuning meter.pdf101.31 KB

Tune a harmonica using your ears and a simple chromatic tuner

This is part of a series about tuning the diatonic harmonica

Part 1 - Tune a harmonica using your ears and a simple chromatic tuner
Part 2 - More Better - ultra precision tuning
Part 3 - Perfect Pitch: Using breath dynamics for tuning

There’s nothing like playing a harp that’s in tune! You can set up a harp to be as loud and responsive as you can but if it’s not in tune, it won’t have any mojo.

Tuning a harmonica with a guitar tuner can be a painful experience because the needle just seems to bounce around. Using an analog strobe tuner makes things easier but strobe tuners are bulky and are very expensive.

Here’s a tuning method that relies on the use of a basic chromatic guitar tuner and the technique of fine tuning by eliminating beating while playing octave splits.

How your own harps need to be tuned is entirely up to your playing style. Use this method to get your harps in better tune than most out-of-the-box harps.

Use a swiss file, a good emery board or a diamond-tip engraving tool to remove brass from the tip of a reed to raise its pitch. Remove brass from the base of the reed to lower it. Support the reed from underneath with paper or a tempered steel support tool.

Remove some brass and then recheck. Don’t bet on a hole-in-one, it’s far too easy to overshoot the mark!

Believe me, overshooting the mark is the number one harmonica tuning frustration and will account for most of the time you spend tuning unless you address the problem. Aim for getting halfway to the pitch you want in one shot. Then, go back for more, this time aiming to get halfway again until you “sneak up” on the target pitch. You will save a lot of time going about it this way. If you can land on the pitch you are aiming for on the fifth attempt, consider that success!

Warm the harp by playing it for a few moments before reading the pitch. If you forget to warm the harp, you may end up with unpredictable results.

It takes time. Don’t aim for completing the task in one day. Let the harp sit for a day and then make smaller and smaller adjustments.

A chromatic tuner doesn’t have the accuracy to be able to get the pitch as close as you need it to be. To tune a note by “using your ears”, first use the tuner to get the pitch as close as you can. Although your tuner may indicate that two notes are of the same value, they probably will still sound out-of-tune - you will hear beating when you play them together as an octave split.

Play the octave harder for a moment. If the beats disappear, the lower note is tuned too high. If nothing happens or the beats get worse, the lower note is too low. That will give you the information to decide which note to tune and in what direction. Obviously, if you just tuned a reed using some reference, don’t adjust that reed, rather adjust the other note in the octave split.

Make small changes to each reed and recheck often. Higher reeds require surprisingly little work to change pitch.

If you are not sure which note is out-of-tune or if you overshot the mark and have lost your point of reference, try playing each note individually and looking at the tuner again for hints. Try using other hints, too. You can play each note with another audio source like a keyboard or another instrument. Or, depending on the adjacent notes, play a chord and listen for extra notes that appear when the harp is in tune. Getting the harp in tune is a difficult process. It gets easier with practice.

Also, it’s normal to hear beats when playing octave splits very softly, that is playing well below normal breath force. Force on any reed will lower the pitch of the note being played and normal tuning is adjusted for this amount of force - if you play a note with far less breath force than normal, it will sound sharp. The lower the reed, the more sensitive it is to this phenomenon. Lower reeds need to be tuned a little sharp to compensate for this effect. Aim for getting the octave split in tune when playing with your everyday breath force level.

What to do when the tuner says two notes are in tune, but they sound out of tune:

Tuning Method:

The traditional method of tuning a harmonica involves using a table of offset values for each reed. (See the table at the end of this document.) You need a very precise tuner to be able to get each reed to those exact values. Most inexpensive tuners are pretty accurate about indicating when the needle reads zero so we use that to our advantage and change the calibration reference of A concert pitch instead of trying to figure out exactly what value the needle is showing. Changing the reference of A 440 by one Hz changes the pitch of each note by about four cents. For example, to bring a reed to -12 cents we change the reference of A from 442 to 439 and then tune the reed to get the needle to read zero.

Using a chromatic tuner that has an adjustable reference (at least A=436 to A=444) do the following:

(The needle must read zero unless specified.)

Root (Tonic) notes
Tune Blow 4 to A=442
Tune Blow 1 to match Blow 4 (use your ears to find beating and then try to eliminate it by fine tuning)
Tune Blow 7 to match Blow 4
Tune Blow 10 to match Blow 7
Tune Blow 6 to A=442, with the needle just to the right of zero.
Tune blow 3 to match blow 6
Tune blow 9 to match blow 6
Tune Blow 5 to A=439
Tune blow 2 to match blow 5
Tune blow 8 to match blow 5

You are done the blow plate. Verify your work by playing the 1234 chord and listen for beats. Go up the harp that way.

Root (Tonic) note
Tune Draw 2 to A=443. It should match blow 3 by ear.
Tune Draw 4 to A=443, with the needle just to the right of zero
Tune Draw 1 to match Draw 4
Tune Draw 8 to match Draw 4
Tune Draw 7 to A=440
Tune Draw 3 to match Draw 7
Flat sevenths
Tune Draw 5 to either A=436 (1950s tuning), A=440 (current Marine Band), A=443 plus a hair (19-limit)
Tune Draw 9 to match Draw 5
Tune Draw 6 to A=444
Tune Draw 10 to match Draw 6

You are done the draw plate. Play the 12345 draw chord and listen for beats. Go up the harp.

Use the French Tuner™ to speed things up! Here's a video about using a simple tool to help tune the blow plate. Although this tool is optional, it makes tuning the blow plate faster and easier than putting the harp back together every time you need to play the reed you are tuning.

See this page for more information on tuning your harp with accuracy: Ultra Precision Tuning

Here’s a comparison of the most popular harmonica tunings:

Common Tuning offsets from zero (equal temperament)

Pentatonic scales - Play in six different keys on one harmonica... With no overblows!

Here's a chart that lays out pentatonic scales in six positions (click on the image to download the full-sized chart pdf):

A member of the Modern Blues Harmonica forum posted these breath patterns - His name is John Potts. I created the chart to give a more visual description of these breath patterns.

What does this all mean? How does it work?

First, what is the pentatonic scale?

If you play the tonic, second, third, fifth and sixth notes of the major scale, you are playing the pentatonic scale. A lot of popular melodies are based on this scale and you will find that you can improvise around quite a lot of music with only these five notes.

Try improvising along with a country song using the major pentatonic scale. Try doing the same with a song you hear on the radio. Quite often, the melody to a popular music song (mainstream, "top 40") is played with the major pentatonic scale. The major pentatonic scale is so simple and intuitive and yet so useful. It's a great place to start when learning to improvise.

The major scale has a relative minor. Three semitones below the tonic of the major scale is the sixth. If you use that note as the tonic and play the same notes as in the major pentatonic scale, you are playing the minor pentatonic scale. For example, A minor is the relative minor of C major. When you play in A minor pentatonic, you are using the same notes and using the same scale as the major pentatonic scale in C but you are resolving (ending your phrases) on A. And what's most relevant to harmonica is that you are using the same breath pattern. So if you learn the breath pattern for the major pentatonic scale in C, you also know how to play in A minor!

You only have to learn three breath patterns to access six different positions. Three major and three minor pentatonic scales are available without overblows or overdraws and a standard Richter-tuned diatonic harp!

Use this chart to learn the pattern for playing in the following keys on a C harp:

Play in G major (second position - 2 draw or 6 blow is tonic)
Play in E minor (fifth position - 2 blow or 5 blow is tonic)
Play in C major (first position - 1 blow or 4 blow is tonic)
Play in A minor (fourth position - 3 draw with whole step bend or 6 draw is tonic)
Play in F major (twelfth position - 2 draw with whole step bend or 5 draw is tonic)
Play in D minor (third position - 1 draw or 4 draw is tonic)

These scales are only the beginning. Try adding "blue" notes to the major pentatonic scale (flat fifth, flat seventh). Also, by adding just one note to the minor pentatonic scale, you play the blues scale in that position. Have fun playing in multiple positions!

Beginner asks "what harmonica should I buy?"

Dear Andrew,

I bought a $5 harp and it plays poorly. Can you fix it up and make it play better? What brand of harp do you recommend for a beginner?

I can't fix the cheap harp. Although it may be branded as a Hohner or Suzuki instrument, these harps are awful to play and do not have the potential to be improved - a terrible choice for a beginner. What harp to buy? As a general rule, I suggest you buy a harp that was made in Germany or Japan. I also suggest you buy a harp that can be taken apart with just a screwdriver if you need to set it up to your liking.

Harps that meet those criteria and are affordable include the Hohner Special 20 or the Suzuki Harmaster/Delta Frost. They are easy to find (in stores or online) and the quality is usually consistent. A good place to start.

I would encourage you to eventually buy other types (Seydel 1847, Lee Oskar, other Hohner Handmade harps like Marine Band, Blues Harp, etc...) Anyone who starts playing harp rapidly gets addicted and soon finds that they have bought a collection of instruments in various keys and from various manufacturers. Take your time before deciding that you want to stick with one particular make or model. It's good to change things up; for example, Seydel harps have wider spaced holes than other brands and that may take a week to get used to. That's a good exercise for your muscle memory as well as your brain. And overall, that workout will make you a better player.

The advantages and disadvantages of the various kinds of good-quality out-of-the-box harps fall into two categories:

1- deficiencies such as the harp not being airtight, not being set up so that it is easy to play, or being out of tune.

2- matters of preference such as the size of the harp, the material it is made of, the shape of it in your mouth, shape of the cover plate.

All out-of-the-box harmonicas will have deficiencies. Some less that others but you can't expect a store-bought harp to be perfect. As a beginner, you need to figure out if you are having trouble playing a certain note because of your technique or because the harp is leaky or not properly set up. Even the most expensive out-of-the-box harmonicas suffer from this problem. That's because it's not feasible for the harmonica companies to mass produce harmonicas and give each instrument enough attention to ensure that each one is precisely set up. That being said, there is no problem that can't be fixed, and part of learning the harmonica is to either learn how to fix them/set them up yourself or get a guy like me to do it for you.

It's a chicken-or-the-egg situation, since you need to know what a proper harp sounds/play like in order to tell if a harp is not in proper order. I recommend you get a harmonica teacher and take a few lessons to start - if you have a questionable harmonica, your teacher will be able to help you troubleshoot.

Here's one last thought. I went to see a Curtis Salgado show last summer and I got to speak with him afterwards. I asked him what harmonicas he plays and he said "I'll play anything anyone gives me as long as it's in tune." Words to live by.

Cossover tuning

I have had many people ask me to tune their harps "like a Crossover", something I am happy to do. Here are my thoughts on this tuning. First of all, regarding Hohner Crossover tuning, Steve Baker posted the following on Harp-L:

0=443Hz w. minimal air pressure, all deviations are in cents, 1Hz = approx. 4 cents on most tuners
Blow reed plate:
Root notes (1, 4, 7 & 10) tuned to 0
Thirds (2, 5 & 8) minus 5 cents
Fifths (3, 6 & 9) + 1 cent
Draw reed plate:
1-draw is very difficult to measure accurately. With absolutely minimal air pressure maybe +8 cents, more in low keys. Like that it will sound right with normal air pressure. It's essential that it sounds good when played together with 2-draw and as an octave interval with 4-draw.
2-draw + 4-6 cents depending on the key, at normal air pressure it should sound at the same pitch as 3-blow
3- & 7-draw tuned to 0
4- & 8-draw 1 cent higher than 2-draw (i.e. + 5-7 cents)
5- & 9-draw + 2 cents (this will mean the 7th chord sounds rough, but sounds better as a single note. You can even tune it a little higher if you prefer that sound)
6- & 10-draw 1 cent higher than 4-draw (i.e. + 6-8 cents)

It's highly recommended to check that all perfect intervals (octaves, fifths and fourths) sound without interference beats. This is what
piano tuners do too. You'll find it's damnably difficult to obtain constant readings from your tuner and I can only recommend playing very softly indeed and holding the note for a long time so you get a fairly clear note value. I use a Korg MT-1200 tuner with a built-in spread which tunes the upper octaves slightly sharper (as do piano tuners) and use the smallest spread the machine offers. It's hard to work to this degree of accuracy with a tuner which only shows Hz values.
Hope this will be of assistance,
Steve Baker

His description of how he tuned the master plates is very telling. It's not a bunch of theoretical numbers but a recipe to follow to replicate the sound of his own harps. The blow plate is A=443 with the thirds being somewhat less flat that the usual Hohner compromise tuning. It's much like the Manji compromise tuning - closer to ET but still a compromised tuning.

The draw plate is real-world tuned. I think because draw notes are usually more expressive than blow notes, many people hit them harder. The harder you hit a note, the flatter it will be. By tuning the root note to +6 (draw 2), the draw plate is really tuned to A=444 or higher. But as you play it "in the real world" such as on stage or while jamming, the draw 2 should sound the same as blow 3. The thirds on the draw side are tuned to zero, but relative to the root note (2 draw) they are -6, almost like the thirds on the blow plate (-5). The rest is again compromise, but close to ET. The sevenths are a little flat, as flat as the sevenths on a Seydel - again, relative to the draw 2.

I know Jason Ricci used to like his harps tuned to 443 on the draw side and 442 on the blow side.

I think the Crossover is the only out-of-the-box harp on the market today to compensate for the fact that the 2 draw and the 3 blow need to be tuned to different values to sound the same - for some of people, anyway. Consequently, the rest of the notes on the draw plate need to be a little sharp.

Some people hate the tuning. I reckon than some people don't hit the draw notes very hard (or hit the blow notes just as hard) and in that case, the draw notes are sharp or just plain out of tune.

This is the way I interpret this tuning. If anyone else has a different take, I'd be interested in it.


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