Retuned Harmonicas – Major Cross and other Alternate Harmonica Tunings

major-cross-200Most players, including many of the best, simply use the standard "Richter" tuning, i.e. straight out of the box. Why bother changing this tuning? There are many reasons to use retuned harmonicas, but perhaps the simplest is to more easily play music we care about. This page describes some common alternate harmonica tunings, and why they are used.

Pat Missin has a comprehensive site on different tunings. Brendan Power also provides much useful information on alternate tunings. A great way to experience alternate tunings  is to hear Brendan’s playing, particularly on New Irish Harmonica and Tradish. Before exploring alternate tunings, you should first have a good understanding of the standard Richter tuning. Then branch out a little with the "Country" tuning, widely used by Charlie McCoy. Only one note is changed, the  number 5 draw, which is raised a semitone. This is good for country music, as it allows a more melodic style for cross position playing. Hohner and Seydel harmonicas tuned to this scale are available.

The Paddy Richter tuning was developed by Brendan Power. Only one note is changed, namely the 3 hole blow, which is tuned up a whole tone. This avoids an awkward bend for a commonly used note when playing in 1st position (i.e. the A note when playing 1st position on a C harmonica). Paddy Richter tuning is particular good for those wishing to play traditional Bluegrass and Irish fiddle tunes.

If you want to retune your own instruments (which I recommend), then buy Seydel toolkit. The technique, which is described in the toolkit, is not too hard. However, it is best to practice on old instruments at first. Also, Seydel will produce instruments for virtually any desired tuning, the service can be organised through their web site. The tuning I use for fiddle tunes ( and throughout my CD) is shown below. This table shows a C harmonica, adapted to my tuning. I call this the "Major Cross" tuning. Major Cross Tuning.

Hole

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

Blow

D

F#

A

C

E

G

C

E

G

B

Draw

E

G

B

D

F#

A

B

D

F#

A



To more easily see the changed notes, the standard Richter tuning for a C harmonica is as follows: Standard "Richter" Tuning

Hole

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

Blow

C

E

G

C

E

G

C

E

G

C

Draw

D

G

B

D

F

A

B

D

F

A



Seydel now provides Major Cross tuned harmonicas “off the shelf”, with a distinctive blue comb (note: when visiting Major Cross link, be sure to hit the “Switch to English” button in the top right hand corner).

I call my tuning Major Cross because it is intended for cross position playing, e.g. using a C harmonica when playing in the key of G. This tuning is similar to the Lee Osker Meoldy Maker one. Also, Pat Missin shows a tuning almost identical to mine, the only difference being the top note. The key aspect of my tuning is that you almost never bend notes. While much of the beauty and character of  the harmonica sound comes from bent notes, they become difficult at high speeds. However my tuning allows over two major scale octaves in cross position, without bends. This more easily allows the fast and clean playing which underpins many fiddle tunes, for example, Billy in the Lowground from my CD.

There are three other positions available with this tuning. These are:

1) Minor, starting on number 3 blow hole, e.g. A minor for the harmonica shown above. You have to bend the number 5 draw to get one of the minor scale notes (the minor 6th). You can hear this position on Drowsy Maggie from my CD, where I use a G harmonica to play in E minor. Notice also how I move to D major for the final two tunes of the set, the Merry Blacksmith and Crowleys Reel.

2) Minor, starting on number 1 draw hole, e.g. E minor for the Major Cross harmonica tuning shown above. I use this in "Dunmore Lassies" on the CD, which follows "Miss McLeod’s Reel" in G. Moving from a tune in G to one in Em happens frequently in Irish sets.

3) Major, starting on number 4 draw hole, e.g. D major for the harmonica shown above. I use this position for modal tunes, such as Red Haired Boy (Jolly Beggarman), Salt Creek, and Goldrush. These tunes are in A, so I use a retuned G harmonica.