Harmonica Tuning Variants

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.

harmonica tuning equipment

Sjoeberg tuning table and Peterson strobe tuner.

Equal tuning

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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Taking Advantage of the V-chord

When it comes to improvising on the harmonica there is one place in the 12 bar blues where you really can stand out from the crowd. The place I am talking about is the V-chord, how you handle the V-chord signals to other musicians how knowledgeable you are. In this article I will give you the information you need to use theory to really shine over the V-chord.


The V-chord sometimes causes harmonica players a bit of problems.

The problem with the V-chord

Let us first understand why the V-chord might be a bit problematic. For G-major (C harp in 2nd position) this is D. The chord tones are:

  • D, root
  • F#, third
  • A, fifth
  • C, minor seventh

If we look at the blues scale for G-major we have the following notes: G, Bb, C, Db, D and F. As you can see, C and D fit well with the chord tones but the other may need a bit of more care. G is the fourth of the scale realting to D which is a workable note but primarily a passing tone. Bb is a minor sixth, also primarily a passing tone and not even a scale tone. F is a minor third, a blue note for the chord and definately useful to create tension. Lastly Db is the major seventh and not really a note you want to use too much in blues.

The BS way

Playing many fast notes over a chord a player is not 100% comfortable with is not uncommen among some players. Although this will not sound bad it will not let you shine as a player. Maybe you will impress some people with speed but the pros will instantly recognise what you are doing. I do not recommend this approach and it is simple to avoid.

The easy ways

There are a couple of easy ways to handle the V-chord and still be musical. The first and easiest way is to hang on the root not all through the chord and perhaps touch on the minor seventh before going to the IV-chord. The same thing can be done with the fifth (6 draw would be easiest then). The only problem with this approach is that you will repeat yourself a lot, probably too much.

The second easy way is to learn a few V-IV-I-turnaround riffs to use. This is where a lot of players go and there are a huge number of them out there. It is basically up to you how many you choose to learn to avoid too much repetition. I think this is an excellent way and encourage you to seek out riffs to use. You will be standing on the shoulders of giants.

The knowledge approach

Even though I think learning riffs from other players is a great way I also think that using your theory knowledge can set you apart. By combining rhytmic patterns with chord tones you can come up with great riffs yourself. This will add options when you play and toyr riff bank will grow together with the set licks you have already learned. You will also be able to modify riffs you already know by stubstituting a few notes for the chord tones.

Besides being able to stay withing the chord tones for the V-chord there is another benefit. If you use mainly use the blues scale over the I- and IV-chord you will not use F# at all and probably A to a lesser extent. This means that to the human ear those notes will sound fresh when you use them. It doesn’t matter that you have played the third and the fifth of the other chords, the pitch of the note will be new and fresh to the ear. This is not only true for expert musicians who may actually be able to tell exactly what notes you are playing but also the average listener will notice. He or she will not be able describe what happens but it will sound fresh.

What next?

Now I would like to encourage you to internalize the chord tones for the V-chord and start using your knowledge when you play. Learn a few new licks and experiment with them. I also cover this and blue notes for the different chords in my “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Skillshare and Udemy.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail.