Harmonica Tuning Temperament – Why Care?

The fact that harmonicas go out of tune after being played for some time is not surprising and something most people notice. In recent years many more people also take the time to get harmonicas re-tuned instead of discarding them. The manufacturers have also made this easier with modern models with reed plates that are screwed on rather than nailed on to the comb. In this article I will give you my thoughts on why you should also care about the harmonica tuning temperament. In tune is more than simply being in tune. 😉

Harmonica tuning temperament variants

First of all, what are tuning temperaments? Basically it is how the notes are fine tuned against each other to give the best overall sound together. On a high level there are three major groups of temperaments.

  1. Equal tuning
  2. Pure just intonation
  3. Compromised tuning

These tuning types all have their place in the harmonica world. The reason you should care is that depending on the music you play one of these harmonica tuning temperament variants may be more suitable to you than another.

Equal tuning

Equal tuning basically means that the octave is divided into 12 half step, each half step is equal in size. This creates a tuning where every note is very close to where you expect it to be. I would recommend this tuning variant to anyone who primarily plays melodies. The Hohner Golden Melody is tuned like this. If you are playing more chord heavy (as I recommend for blues) you will find that this temperament creates harsher sounding chords, therefore I don’t recommend this tuning if you are primarily a blues player.

Pure just intonation

Pure just intonation is a tuning where the chords are your main focus. The idea is to fine tune the notes relative to each other to give the best sound of the chord. What the tuner/customizer does is listening to the chord to make sure that there are no beating sound when a chord is played. The important thing here is to get the ratios of frequencies between the chord tones just right.

Pure just intonation harmonicas are basically tuned so that they are more or less only usable in one position, more often than not second position. The note that will stick out the furthest is the 5 draw, it is the minor 7th to the 2 draw and is tuned -26 cents against the equal tuning variant. If you play the 5 draw at the same time as another instrument plays this note your note will sound very flat. Therefore I do not recommend this tuning if you are primarily a melody player or if you want to play in more positions on the same instrument.

Compromised tuning

Compromised tuning is exactly what it sounds like, it tries to find the best of both equal tuning and just intonation. The chords are tuned to be smooth and the important intervals should sound nice. At the same time the individual notes are not pushed too far away. Melodies can still be played without too much dissonance against other instruments.

Both Hohner Marine Band deluxe and Hohner Marine Band Crossover use compromised tuning. The deluxe is a little bit closer to pure just intonation. The tuning of the Crossover is meant to lend itself better to more positions than the deluxe. Most players will not notice a difference between these two types of compromised tunings. I generally recommend harmonicas with compromised tuning for blues players.


I hope this explanation has helped you understand why you should care about the harmonica tuning temperament. Contact me if you have further questions.

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4 thoughts on “Harmonica Tuning Temperament – Why Care?

  1. Thanks for this explanation. As a musician with 40+ years experience singing and playing various instruments, I am familiar with various temperments. Having only recently picked up the harmonica, I had no idea that most harmonicas do not use equal temperment, but the idea of using a just or near-just tuning on a blues harp makes perfect sense. I’m just starting to learn blues, but I have lots of folk and classical music resources to draw upon, and at the moment, I chiefly play melodies.

    I’m currently learning the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” on a diatonic C harmonica (overblowing the high E and G to get the required Eb and F#), and I had noticed that my Suzuki Promaster seemed a bit out of tune with my accompaniment. I didn’t hear any “wolf” tones, but some notes just didn’t sound right. Now I know why. I have ordered a Golden Melody, which should be arriving within a couple of days. Thanks for the recommendation.

    (BTW, I understand that some Lee Oskar models are also tuned to equal temperment.)

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