If you are curious about altered tunings for the diatonic harmonica, but don't fancy the idea of retuning the reeds yourself, then you have several options. The first is to buy the different tuning ready made. As well as the regular major diatonic, Lee Oskar also manufactures harps in natural minor, harmonic minor and his own Melody MakerTM tuning. Hohner make the natural and harmonic minor harps, country tuned harps, the SBS 14-hole and a couple of different "Spanish" harps. If and when Magic Dick makes his harps available, there will be an even greater choice available and I'm sure other harp manufacturers will have new tunings on the market before too long. Your second option is to get a harp mechanic to alter your harp to your requirements. If neither of these methods appeal to you, then you can try taking one plate each from a couple of harps and putting them both onto one comb.
The thing that really appealed to me when the Lee Oskar harps came out, was the modular style construction, making it very easy to take reed plates from one harp and put them on another. One of my favorite tricks was to take the blow reed plate (mounted above the comb) of a regular C harp and put it on the same body as the draw reed plate (mounted below the comb) of a Gm natural minor harp (remember that the natural minor harps are labeled by their second position, or cross harp key: a GmN has the same range as a regular C harp). This gives you what is called the dorian mode in second position (the dorian mode is found in third position on a regular harp - key of D on a C harp), in the key of G. You now have a Gm7 chord as a draw and a C major chord as a blow. This harp is very useful, in particular for two chord Latin grooves and certain folk tunes, as well as blues. Played in first position, you get the mixolydian mode (found in second position on a regular harp) and this tuning is great for folk tunes based in this mode. Especially useful is the Bb chord found on holes 3, 4 and 5 draw (Bb, D, F), enabling you to play great backup on this harp, as well as melody. Third position (tonic 1, 4 and 8 draw) gives you the natural minor scale, based on a Dm chord on hole 4, 5 and 6 draw (D, F, A) and is useful for many pure minor tunes.
One of the advantages of the Melody MakerTM tuning is that you don't have to bend 3 draw to get the second note of the cross harp scale. Sometimes, however, there are times when you miss those bluesy slurs in hole 3. No problem. Put together the draw reeds of a G MM, with the blow reeds of a regular C harp and lo and behold - instant country tuning! And while you're at it, take the MM's blow reeds and combine them with the regular harp's draw reeds and you have the tuning that Ben Johnson calls the No-Bender harp (see his articles in previous issues of AHN) and Brendan Power calls the Paddy Richter tuning (not surprisingly, Brendan uses this for Irish music).
Notice that the blow reed plate of a Cm harmonic minor harp, is the same as on a Gm natural minor. If you take either of these plates and mount it on the same body as the draw plate from a C major harp, you get a tuning that gives you the ascending form of the C melodic minor scale, also know as the jazz minor scale. This scale gives you some interesting note sequences and the chords G major (draw 2,3,4), G7 (draw 2,3,4,5), G9 (draw 2,3,4,5,6), Cm (blow anywhere on the harp) and Dm (draw 4,5,6 or 8,9,10). Second position gives you the so-called Hindu scale and third position gives you a scale called natakapriya in Indian music theory. And just to show that I've done my homework, fourth position gives you a scale known as locrian #2, sixth position gives you the superlocrian scale, tenth position gives you the lydian augmented scale and twelfth position gives you the lydian dominant scale. You may find some uses for these positions if you need some unusual melodic ideas. You might also try combining the same blow plate with the draw plate from a Melody MakerTM in G, but I can't really recommend it. Perhaps you might find more useful sounds than I did, but you'll have to find out their names for yourself!
Out of these ideas, I find the dorian cross tuning (C blow and GmN draw) the most useful, as do several other players (Steve Jennings, Richard Hunter and J.J. Milteau spring to mind). I rarely have any of these made up ready, but if I need one, I can make one in a couple of minutes. Maybe one day there will be a commercially viable method of producing harps with individual reeds that can be removed and replaced with a small screwdriver - this would give the altered tunings specialist a field day! Swapping reed plates is already far easier than ever before, as most harp manufacturers are going over to modular type designs, with quickly replaceable reed plates. As always, have fun experimenting.
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