Harmonica Playability for Best Sound and Enjoyment

Previously I have written about custom harmonicas, custom combs and techniques such as reed slot sizing. It can seem like quite a lot to consider and for the average player it probably is. In this article I want to highlight the two things that most increase harmonica playability. I have focused on ease of playing and sound.

Two areas, different effects

Let me first say that if you buy custom harmonicas, the modicfications I mentioned here will definately already be implemented. This is for the player who is mostly satisfied with out-of-the-box harmonicas. You can see them as the first steps towards more advanced high-end instruments.

The thing that I have noticed that increase the harmonica playability most for me is the reed gap setup. Whenever I have a problem with unresponsive reeds I can most often fix it by tweeking the reed gap. Getting this right i dependent on your playing style.

The second thing I recommend is to get the harmonica properly in tune. Which tuning scheme you should choose depends on what type of music you play. For blues players I recommend compromised just intonation. If you only play second position and solo you can also consider pure just intonation.

Joe Filisko made an interesting comment at HMW 2018 when asked about custom harmonicas. He said something like “my personal harmonicas are quite rough but I am fanatical about tuning”.


If you choose to buy a custom harmonica then harmonica playability will not likely be a problem. I have harmonicas from J.A. Harmonicas and they are beautifully set up to work with my playing style and tuned just the way I like. If you want to stick with out-of-the-box harmonicas then reed gapping and tuning is what I recommend you do to get the most out of your instruments. Reed gapping for how the instrument plays and tuning for how it sounds.

Don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and exclusive articles! This includes the “Positions and Blues Scale” PDF and useful riffs as part of the exclusive articles.

Click here to get to the sign-up page!

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.

Don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and exclusive articles!

Click here to get to the sign-up page!