When playing blues harmonica tone and sound are very important ingredients for the overall experience. Creating good tone require quite a bit of exercise but how the harmonica is tuned also play an important role. Most people beginners don’t even realize that there are different harmonica tuning variants. In this article I will explain the major groups of tuning temperaments you will run into. Depending on your playing style or what positions you prefer this may impact your choice of harmonica.
First off I am not talking about tuning the harmonica to different scales such as a country tunes harmonica. The tuning referred to here is the relationship between notes within a scale. The reason this is done is to make chords and intervals as pleasing as possible. This is very important if you play a lot of chords, which I think you should.
If you don’t know how tuning is done I will just give a short explanation. Should the pitch of a reed be too low you can scrape off material from near the tip to make it vibrate faster. If the pitch of the rred is to high you can scrape of material closer to the base to make the tip realitvely heavier so that the reed vibrates slower. Tuning requires a steady hand and well trained ears. It is both an art and a science. Some choose to tune on the comb while some use tuning tables such as the Sjoeberg harp tuner table.
Equal tuning means that the octave is devided mathematically across the octave. This tuning is good for melody playing but not optimal for blues. The Hohner Golden Melody is tuned to equal tuning out of the box.
Pure just intonation
Pure just intonation means that the intervals in the scale are tuned realtive to each other to form a sound with out beats. This means that the notes of the scale are adjusted away from the equal tuning to reach this effect. What happens is that the chords and intervals will become very smooth and pleasing. Very good for blues. The drawback is that the tuning is done for one specific key, often the second position key. This means that the harmonica will be less usefule for melody playing and playing in other positions.
For example the 5 draw, which is the minor seventh of the root note, is tuned very low in pure just intonation to get a prefect relationship with the root note. If you would play in unsion with a piano on such a harmonica you will be quite a bit off compared to the note on the piano.
To get a pure just intonation harmonica you most likelt have to go to harmonica customiser or tune yourself.
Compromised (just) intonation
Compromised just intonation or simply compromised tuning is a way of getting the best of both worlds. The intervals are changed to get good sounding chords but not too much to make melodic playing or switching to different positions hard. There are many different compromised tunings. The Hohner Marine Band deLux uses a compromised that is closer to pure just intonation than the compromised tuning of the Hohner Crossover. This is because the intended customers are slightly different and have slightly different needs.
You may hear expressions such as 7 limit just intonation or 19 limit just intonation which are names that describe how close to pure just intonation they are. Many customisers have their own compromised tuning that thay have worked out depending on what they find most useable.
If you are looking to buy your first harmonica and blues is your goal I would recommend that you buy a harmonica with compromised tuning. As you get more advanced you will find which type of compromised tuning that suits your style the best.
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Hi there, I’m having trouble achieving the ‘blues’ sound as I refer to it I have tried bending the notes but it takes an awful lot of pressure from my mouth to get anywhere near the sound and is hard to sustain it am I missing something or is it really all down to blowing & sucking hard?, Regards, Keith.
Hi Keith, I recognize your struggles from when I was starting out. First of all, although bending is an integral part of blues and needed to access some of the notes in the blues scale you can get a bluesy sound even if you don’t bend. Take s look at what I have written about techniques such as dirty notes and tongue slaps.
When it comes to bending, the position of your tounge inside your mouth is the most important thing. High air pressure is not needed if you control your tounge properly. If you feel the need to draw hard you are compensating for the position of your tongue.
Try this, whistle (it doesn’t have to sound good) and the focus on drawing your tongue backwards ever so slightly without raising it in your mouth. Most importantly to focus on moving the back of your tongue inwards, that helps me at least. You should now hear the pitch of your whistled tone drop a bit. This is exactly the movement needed to bend a note. The movement should be very small so it may take some practice. At first you may still need high air pressure but with time the movement of your tongue will be the thing that gives you the bend.
I hope you find this useful and good luck practicing.