Andrew's blog

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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