© 2004-2018 P. Missin - Details

This is an edited version of a post written to harp-l in February 2004

Tuning Schemes for the Standard Major Diatonic Harmonica

As I am sure I have said before, I never fail to be amazed at how an awful lot of blues harp players will endlessly discuss such things as the minutiae of which sort of tubes gives the warmest tone, whether to use crystal or ceramic mike elements, does tongue blocking give a tone that cannot be duplicated by puckering, the alleged tonal effects of various cover and comb materials, etc., etc., yet will glaze over within seconds of the subject of tuning and temperament being raised.

Of course, this is not helped any by the sheer amount of utter rubbish that has been written on this topic, often by otherwise reputable sources. For example, I have lost count of the number of times I have read such things as "the Just Intonation scale" (even in respectable music reference books), when anyone who really understands the subject knows that Just Intonation is not a single fixed scale.... yadda, yadda, yadda...

To cut to the chase, if your goal is to sound exactly like Walter Horton, then I honestly don't believe you can do that with a harp in Equal Temperament (hereafter referred to as "12TET" - 12 Tone Equal Temperament). You could limit yourself to playing just pure single note lines - but of course part of Walter's style was his usage of chords and partial chords. No matter what microphone and amplifier you use, if you stick a tempered chord in at one end, then rough sounds will come out of the other end. Temperament introduces all sorts of noise and artifacts into chords that will be amplified by your (duh!) amplifier. However, stick a Justly Intonated chord into the same set-up and you will be rewarded with perfectly tuned difference tones adding depth to your sound, plus rich summational tones adding pure brightness and sparkle to it.

OK, you don't have to be fully versed in all the arcane secrets of tuning theory to be able to do this. I mean, Walter probably didn't know any of the theory explaining the difference between 7-limit minor seventh and a 19-limit minor seventh, but I know he would have been able to hear the difference. (In fact, I have been told by someone who knew him that he disliked the Hohner Golden Melody, a harmonica tuned in 12TET, because the chords sounded "wrong".) Getting a feel for JI suddenly explains a lot of things about how and why the great blues harp masters played what they did. I recently had a similar conversation with another harmonica technician about how Kim Wilson's playing has evolved as he has spent more time working with custom harps from Joe Filisko tuned in the traditional 7-limit JI tuning.

I would even go so far as to say that you can't truly understand ANY genre of music without at least having some basic knowledge of the tuning system (or systems, or lack of systems) that was commonly used to play it. For example, when you know how thirds and sixths were tuned back then, it suddenly becomes obvious why these intervals were treated as dissonances in Western art music up to the early Renaissance period. Likewise, knowing that the difference tones produced by a minor chord in a meantone temperament undermine the tonicity of the chord, explains the use of the so-called "Picardy Third" (see this page for a more detailed explanation) in the music of that era and why this device became less common as the various Well Temperaments and eventually 12TET took hold over the tuning of European keyboard instruments.

But anyway...

Is there anyone still reading this?

Getting back to the specific question I was going to answer:

Would it be good idea to have several "sets" of diatonics? For instance, a set each for 1st position, 2nd, 3rd, and so-on? And if that's the case, what intonation scheme would I use for first? Third?

First of all, I must contradict what has been said about harps traditionally being tuned for first position. This is not strictly true - harps were traditionally tuned using what is termed 7-limit JI, NOT to make any particular scale or mode sound good, but simply to make the smoothest possible blow and draw chords. In the case of a C harp in the usual major tuning, these chords are C major and G dominant.

The usual major tuning has one particular bug in it - that is that (using a C harp as an example) the F that is used to make the smoothest possible G7 chord is considerably flatter than the F that would make the best fourth note of the C major scale. This means that although the harp sounds great when you are vamping those two chords, as soon as you play a melody that involves using that F note, you run the risk of it sounding "sour", particularly when that F is played against the subdominant chord (the F chord if we are in the key of C), although it usually sounds acceptable when played against V chord (the G chord if we are in the key of C).

The upshot of this is that the traditional 7-limit tuning works best for tunes such as "Ach Du Lieber Augustine" and "The Old Gray Mare", etc., but for tunes with a more involved harmonic background, I don't think this would be the most appropriate tuning. The obvious solution is to raise the tuning of the F so that it sounds good melodically, the downside to this is that you can't do this without making it sound out of tune when played as part of the G7 chord. There really isn't a way to get a pure G7 chord AND a sweet sounding melodic F - you have to pick one or the other, or find a compromise between the two. My own preferred solution to this is to tune the F so that it is a 19-limit minor seventh above the G in hole 2. That sounds complicated, but really it just means that you tune it to about the same as a 12TET F - ie, about zero on your tuner, depending on how you have set 2 draw. This makes the fourth note of the C scale sound perfectly natural. It does rough up the G7 chord more than a little, but as the dominant seventh most often used in Western music as a tense chord that needs to be resolved to the tonic, it's not a bad thing to have a little dissonance in it. This tuning of the 5 draw also have some other benefits which I will mention later.

If you are playing in second position, then the traditional 7-limit tuning (with the F tuned about 31 cents smaller than a 12TET F) sounds great. As you are using the "dominant" seventh as a tonic chord in this case, it's great to have it tuned perfectly smoothly. The only real disadvantage is that if you are playing along with instruments in 12TET, you could easily get clashes between the two different tunings of the F. Also, blues uses a lot of "in between" notes and one typical blues-flavoured seventh is actually midway between the minor and major sevenths. You can get this easily in the lowest and highest octaves, but you would need to overblow to get it in the middle octave - but of course hard core blues guys don't overblow, do they? :)

OK - third position. The problem here is if you want to use this as a pure minor position. In the trad 7-limit JI tuning, the 3rd position mode is not actually minor, it is what is often termed subminor. This means that the trad JI diatonic harmonica tuning is great for playing in sub-minor modes, however the subminor is not actually recognised by conventional Western theory.

If you want to use 3rd for playing in a minor key, there are a couple of JI options that are better than the usual 7-limit layout. The most consonant of all is to tune the 5 draw so that it is a pure minor third above the 4 draw and a pure major third below the 6 draw - this would be at about +16 cents on a tuner, assuming your 4 draw is set to +/- 0 and is what is technically known as a 5-limit tuning.

There are a few problems with this. The first is that if your G major chord in holes 1-4 is tuned purely, the you will wind up with your B at about -14 and your F at about +18 - that's quite a spread of deviation if you are playing an accompaniment in a fixed tuning. It is less of a problem if you are playing solo, but then you have to deal with the fact that your B and F are seriously out of tune with each other, to the point where any harmonic combination that employs both B and F will sound terrible. There is also the issue of the difference tones created by the D minor chord in holes 4, 5 and 6 converging on a Bb, which seriously undermines the stability of the chord if you are using it as the tonic chord in a minor key progression (which is part of the reason for the use of the "Picardy Third" that I mentioned previously).

My own solution to this is to use the 19-limit tuning I previously mentioned above, in the section about first position. This gives a less consonant chord than the 5-limit version, but the difference tones of the minor chord in 4, 5 and 6 draw in this tuning converge on a frequency that is exactly 3 octaves below the pitch of 4 draw, thus reinforcing the root of the chord and making it extremely stable. It is also very close to 12TET. In fact, the similarity between the minor triad in 19-limit JI and the minor triad in 12TET is part of the reason why third position blues on the chromatic sounds so strong and perhaps goes some way to explaining why 3rd position diatonic was comparatively uncommon in the days when all diatonics were tuned in 7-limit JI.

Here are some audio demonstrations of the above:

This clip (180k mp3) demonstrates a typical blues trill between holes 4 draw and 5 draw, first with 5 draw tuned as a 7-limit minor third above 4 draw, then as a 19-limit minor third, then finally as a 5-limit minor third.

This clip (130k mp3) demonstrates another typical blues sound, holes 2 draw and 5 draw, first with the 5 draw a 7-limit minor seventh above 2 draw, then as a 19-limit minor seventh, then finally as a 5-limit minor seventh.

As for the other positions... well, as you progress further and further from the designated key of the harp, the actual tuning becomes much less of an issue. By the time you are playing in 7th position (F# on a C harp) you are having to do so much bending that the intonation is much more to do with the player than the harmonica. The thing to bear in mind is that no matter what key you are playing on a harp (diatonic or chromatic), there are only certain notes that can be sounded simultaneously, so you don't need to worry about such things as the relative tuning of E and A on a standard C major harp.

I should also add that the complexity of all this stuff is due to the layout of the standard major tuning. Most of these issues do not apply to the natural minor or the Melody MakerTM tuning, although the harmonic minor brings its own set of issues - more on that topic on this page.

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