© 2004 P.Missin - Details

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

Harmonica tuning relative to accompanying instruments

This is a fascinating topic, especially since I've recently taken to paying a lot closer attention to tuning my harps. What I haven't seen discussed much is the relationship of the harp's tuning to the rest of the band's tuning. I think that back in the Walter days the guitarists might have been more likely to tune to the harp or piano than the other way around. Is that a sound belief?  

I would imagine it is. When I was first starting out (before electronic tuners were commonplace) the general rule of thumb was to tune everything to the least tuneable instrument. That's easier said that done when you have both a piano and a harmonica in the band, neither of them being practical to tune in a few minutes before going on stage.

(There is a persistent rumour about a gig I played where I took a solo on a tune, retuned my harp during the guitar solo, then took another solo - I'm sorry to say that this story is not rooted in fact.)

Usually when I am playing with a guitarist, I get them to tune to me - however I have both the knowledge of which reeds give the most appropriate reference pitches, plus I generally have the luxury of knowing that my harps are generally in pretty good tune.

If there is a keyboard player, I generally tell the guitarist to tune to the keyboard, then I try to use my playing technique to correct any pitch discrepancies between their instruments and my harps. Usually that's not too difficult, just providing the keyboards are not tuned really sharp, being that it is easier to bend harmonica notes downwards rather than upwards.

One piece of advice if you do get your guitarist to tune to your harps: bear in mind that the harder you play a harmonica, the more the notes tend to flatten. The opposite is true of the guitar - the harder you play the guitar, the more the notes tend to sharpen, at least at the start of each note. This can mean that if you tune together whilst playing very quietly backstage, when you get onstage and the adrenaline starts to flow, you can wind up very seriously out of tune.

I dunno, but it seems now that most guitarists and bassists I encounter use digital tuners and tune to A440+. (?)

... and more than a few people claim that the more common these devices become, the rarer good intonation is amongst musicians!

For a diatonic to sound right to me it not only has to be in tune with itself but in tune with the band and pure JI just doesn't always sound like it is. '

The main issue with the trad JI diatonic tuning is the 5 draw and the 9 draw, which are about 1/3rd of a semitone flatter than their 12TET versions. The other notes do not deviate all that much from 12TET.

So I guess that means compromise. Pat, I know you do compromise tunings cause you've tuned some harps for me that way.

I have tuned harps to various compromise tunings when my customers have insisted, but I believe the ones I have done for you were the 19-limit tuning I have described elsewhere in these pages. The only real difference between that and the traditional diatonic tuning (7-limit JI) is that the 5 draw and 9 draw notes are tweaked upwards in pitch.

The traditional 7-limit JI tuning makes a lot of sense especially if your band is playing retro, post-war type blues (which I love but it sure seems hard to find other players who want to do that these days). But in a "modern band" ie: one where the bass and guitar are digitally tuned, what's the best alternative Richter harp tuning solution?

I would go for the 19-limit tuning with the roots of the chords tuned relative to A=443. This means that you still get a nice smooth blow chord, a nice smooth major chord in holes 1 to 4, a stable minor chord in 456 draw and none of the individual notes fall below their tempered values relative to A=440. Any notes that are a little sharp can be easily played down into tune - most good harp players do stuff like this without even realising they are doing it. If you are a very heavy player, or if your band routinely tune above A=440, then you might want to tweak the base level of your harps a fraction higher, but I find that 19-limit JI rooted relative to A=443 to be a good all round tuning. It's what I use myself for most of my "general purpose" harps (those that I will play in several positions) and it has probably been the most popular tuning that I have offered for my customers.

For harps that are only ever going to be played in 2nd position, where the "dominant" 7th is going to be used as the tonic chord of a piece rather than as a dominant chord, I usually tune them in the traditional 7-limit tuning.

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