Country Harmonica Tuning

From “Harmonica World”Dec 2011

The standard Richter 10 hole harmonica tuning was devised in the early 19th century and is still used by most. Intended for “first position” chord/melody playing, it has been widely adapted to “second position” blues. That is, a harmonica in C for songs in G. As harmonica players know.

Despite the ubiquity of Richter tuning, the common second position style lacks an important note. Hence Country Tuning, the topic for this article.

First, a word on tuning reeds. Unscrew the cover plates from an instrument. An old one if you’ve not done it before. Look closely at the reeds. You’ll see small diagonal scratches on some, where they’ve been tuned in the factory. Tuning reeds, or changing their pitch is commonly done. Scraping the top of the reed with a small file removes metal, the pitch rises. The same at the bottom of a reed lowers the pitch.

The scratches you see on the reeds of your instrument provide fine tuning. However it is generally possible to raise (or lower) the pitch of a reed by a tone or more with this technique.

So. Country tuning. Same as Richter tuning except that the 5 draw reed is raised a semitone. Easily done with the right tools (I recommend the Richard Sleigh kit, available here ). If you’re not game for the task, then country tuned harmonicas are available from Hohner (e.g. the Special 20) and Seydel.

Assume you’ve got one, in C. A standard Richter tuned one in C also (it’s good to have both). Let’s test drive them to see the difference.

First, take the standard harmonica and play “The First Noel”, in 2nd position. The opening notes are:

3D 3D” 2D 3D” 3D 4B 4D 5B 5D 6B

Note: The TAB system is 2B = blow 2 hole: 3D = draw 3 hole. ‘ indicates a half bend, ” means a full bend.

Assuming you can do the big 3D” bend, something still sounds wrong. The second to last note, the 5D. In second position, this note is the flat seventh. Great for blues, often not so for melodies.

Now try with the country tuned harmonica. Hear the difference? The tune sounds right. The raised 5D is a major 7th. Or, the penultimate note in the major scale.

This note occurs rarely in blues solos. Perhaps you haven’t missed it so far. However the major 7th occurs everywhere in other music types, particularly pop and folk melodies.

Experienced second position players avoid the 5D at times. In some songs it just sounds wrong.

Now try the entire major scale. First take a standard G harmonica, play the first position major scale. That is:

4B 4D 5B 5D 6B 6D 7D 7B

Now repeat this G Major scale on the country tuned C harmonica. The notes are:

2D 3D” 3D 4B 4D 5B 5D 6B

Try the scale up and down a few times. Now extend to the low notes, namely:

2D 2D’ 2B 1D 1B

Notice how the 2D’ is the same note as the 5D, just an octave lower. If you’re fumbling these scales, stick at them until they are smooth.

Now try some second position folk melodies. “Wild Colonial Boy”, if you know it (I do, I’m Australian). The strongest note in the melody is the major 7th.

However, gaining the major 7th (by tuning up the 5D) means losing the flat 7th, the original note. Or does it?

Actually no. Bend the 5D down, the original flat 7th returns. Try this exercise:

With the standard Richter tuned C harmonica, play 2D 3D 4D 5D

Now with the country tuned C harmonica, play 2D 3D 4D 5D’

The last note of each phrase should match. Of course the bent note doesn’t sound as smooth as the 5D on the Richter tuned harmonica. For this reason standard Richter tuned harmonicas are generally better for blues.

Except perhaps for this riff. Take the country tuned harmonica, play the following 12 bar:

2D 3D 4D 5B 6B 5B 4D 3D
2D 3D 4D 5B 6B 5B 4D 3D
4B 5B 6B 6D 7B 6D 6B 5B
2D 3D 4D 5B 6B 5B 4D 3D
4D 5D 6D 7D 8D 7D 6D 5D
2D 3D 4D 5B 6B 5B 4D 3D

Sound familiar? Sure does. It’s the essence of many blues and rockabilly guitar backing lines. Very cool on the harmonica, the country tuned raised 5D makes it possible.

So. You’re inspired. Enough to change all of your harmonicas to country tuning.

Please don’t. Instead, get yourself a set of Country Tuned instruments. Perhaps 4 only, in C, D, G, F. These will cover the common song keys. Keep your regular harmonica for blues. When the mood changes, perhaps a country or folk song, then get out the country tuned instruments, just play the melody. You’ll sound great.