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Chromatic Harmonicas In Alternate Tunings - Why?

Part 2

by Winslow Yerxa

Some of the More Common Alternate Tunings

Last month we dug into the reasons why there’s an interest in different tuning systems for the chromatic harmonica. Here are some of the more common, or at least the most commonly discussed.

Bebop Tuning

Bebop Tuning takes its name from the bebop scale. A bebop scale simply adds one chromatic note to the seven notes of a major scale to make an even eight notes in the octave. For rhythms that have an even number of notes in each beat, this means you can land one octave higher on the same beat or division of the beat that you started on. On the harmonica, the note added to the scale is Bb, achieved by retuning the leftmost C in each double-C pair:

That added note allows you to play a blow-draw pattern all the way up the scale in C Major or in Db Major without having to switch to the draw-draw sequence between A and B. It also gives you nifty C7 and Db7 blow chords, and all sorts of alternate ways to play note sequences that involve Bb or B, which are available as both blow and draw notes.

C6 Tuning

C6 Tuning is similar to Bebop Tuning but replaces one of the blow C’s with A instead of with Bb:

If you play the blow-draw pattern up the scale, you’ll hear A twice in a row. But this note arrangement gives you A minor and Bb minor chords, and several new ways to play a variety of scale passages in various keys that contain A or Bb.


Major 6 Tuning

In Major 6 Tuning, all four chords are Major 6 chord (major chords with an added 6th).

Brendan Power first showed me this tuning. Each individual hole has the same ascending note pattern as you blow, then press in the slide, then draw, then press in the slide, so it has greater consistency within each hole than Solo Tuning. It has several duplicated notes that can be played as either blow or draw: C, G, A, and Bb. In addition, you have six basic chords: C, A minor, Db, Bb minor, D, B minor, Eb, and C minor.


Diminished Tuning

Diminished Tuning is a symmetrical tuning. Each hole contains the same ascending pattern of blow and draw notes, and each hole is the same distance in semitones from its immediate neighbors. In the case of Diminished Tuning, each succeeding hole is tuned three semitones higher than the last as you move from left to right, so that all four chords on the harmonica are diminished 7th chords, hence the name. Diminished chords are used less often than major or minor chords. With some ingenuity, diminished chords, or fragments of them can be made useful, but Diminished Tuning is not a tuning that could be considered especially rich in obvious chords.

This symmetrical tuning means you only need to learn three note patterns to play any scale in twelve keys: The “key” of Blow (four different keys), the “key” of blow, slide-in (four more keys), and the “key” of draw (the remaining four keys). The draw, slide-in notes are the same as the blow notes, shifted one hole to the left. This gives you four duplicated notes in an octave, and a second set of patterns for playing in the “key” of blow, in any key or scale that contains any of the four duplicated notes.

Augmented Tuning

Augmented Tuning is a symmetrical tuning, like Diminished Tuning. Playing three adjacent holes together sounds an augmented chord, hence the name. Augmented chords are even less often used than diminished chords (though the chord fragments can be put to some use), and Augmented is used primarily as a single note tuning.

Like Diminished Tuning, Augmented Tuning has the same ascending pattern of notes in each hole. However, the holes are tuned four semitones apart instead of three. This means that no notes are duplicated. It also means that there are four key positions to learn instead of three. It also means that an octave needs only three holes instead of four to reach the point of repetition—you can fit nearly four octaves into only 12 holes instead of 16.

Whole Tone Tuning

Whole Tone Tuning is based on the whole tone scale—you can play this scale by playing all the blow notes in sequence—or all the draw notes, or the blow or draw slide-in notes.

The whole tone scale by itself is not used much except for special effects, but as a tuning it offers several advantages. All notes are available as both blow and draw, and by working the slide you can play several scales without changing between blow and draw. For instance, any major scale can be played as either all blow notes or all draw notes. However, this tuning chews up a lot of real estate. In 12 holes, it’s just barely possible to fit two octaves of range.


Spiral Tuning

Spiral Tuning keeps a consistent blow-draw pattern for a C major scale, as shown in Figure 7:

This has one obvious drawback: The blow notes and draw notes swap places every octave. In Hole 1 C is a blow note, while in Hole 4 it’s a draw note, and then in Hole it’s a draw note, and in Hole 12 it’s once more a draw note. All the other notes go through the same swapping every octave.

But Spiral Tuning has other advantages. It extends the range of the harmonica, allowing a few extra notes at the top of the range. And it contains every major and minor chord found in a C major scale—any three holes, blow or draw, will form one of the chords of the key.

I’ve shown only the slide-out notes in Figure 7 because if you make the slide-in notes a semitone higher than the slide-out notes, Spiral Tuning really only gives a consistent action sequence in every hole for the notes of C major and C# major. For other scales you now have an action sequence that was even less consistent than before, because it changes for each octave! For that reason, it might be more productive to forget using spiral tuning to make a chromatic slide harmonica and instead use the slide to facilitate playing in C, perhaps by making the slide-in notes give the same notes as the slide-out notes but on the opposite breath, or by creating some additional chords.

LeGato Tuning

LeGato Tuning (alos called J-Chro) was invented independently by both Gary Lehmann and David Fairweather in 2009. Fairweather (aka jazmaan) spent a fair amount of time exploring this tuning and has posted some YouTube videos using it. He made the following comments for this article:

“The main benefit of the LeGato Tuning is that it offers enharmonic choices on 8 of the 12 notes in a chromatic scale. Those enharmonic choices aren't just redundancies like the doubled blow C's and C#'s on a Solo Tuned Chromatic. Instead, they are truly useful choices because each pair consists of a blow/draw pair with also a slide-in/slide-out pair.

This allows the player the freedom to string long sequences of notes together without changing breath direction and thereby achieve a smoother legato than has ever before been possible on an ordinary solo tuned chromatic. It also allows the player to change most notes from blow to draw, or vice-versa, at will at almost any point in a melody, just to achieve a desired tonal effect: perhaps a draw bend, or a blow staccato.

Another significant benefit is the much greater availability of whole and half step triplets that can be played without changing breath direction. Those triplets are a staple of bebop tradition, but have been rarely heard on jazz harmonica because more often than not they couldn't be played smoothly. Now, on the LeGato, more often than not they CAN be played smoothly. (Only triplets which involve both E and Eb, or both B and Bb still require breath direction change. All other 1/2 and whole step triplets can be played legato.) This triplet feature alone has allowed me to play note-for-note recreations of many classic bebop solos with a fluidity never before possible on harmonica.

Another great benefit of the LeGato Tuning, which I often tend to overlook, is that it makes playing any music based on pentatonic scales almost trivially easy. And there's a whole lot of popular music that leans heavily on pentatonic scales. Everything from traditional black gospel to show tunes like "Old Man River" to Motown tunes like "My Girl." And then there's that "Smooth Jazz" stuff. With a lot of that pentatonic music if it’s in the right key, all you need to do is move your mouth up and down the harp and blow. You barely even have to use your finger or change breath direction!”

Jim’s “True Chromatic” Tuning

This tuning was invented by Eugene Ivanov (who goes by “Jim”) and is being built by Seydel as of December 2009. Jim makes several claims for this tuning, which you can check out at http://truechromatic.com/

Brendan Power “Slide Diatonic” Tunings

Irish traditional music often requires fast alternation of two neighboring notes in the scale, and seldom requires notes of the chromatic scale. Brendan Power’s Slide Diatonic Tuning replaces the chromatic notes with notes of the scale, as shown for a C chromatic in Figure 10. The same principle can be applied to chromatic harmonicas in other keys, as well. Any note in the scale can be alternated with the note above it by pressing in the slide. Every note except B is available as both a blow and a draw note, allowing for multiple ways to play any given phrase. Brendan points out that “the blow slide-in note on holes 4, 8, 12 would be D. This is really useful for Celtic music, as it gives you the A and D notes on adjacent holes, a common jump.” Another point that Brendan doesn’t mention is that this tuning gives you complete C, D minor, and E minor chords, as well as fragments of F, G, and B minor.

For notes outside the scale, Brendan uses note bending. He doesn’t do this to play this tuning in all keys; for that he’d just use a harmonica in a different key. Rather, he uses it to get the occasional flat or sharp note that might be part of a tune. He removes some of the valves to make some of the draw bends sound more like diatonic bends. He leaves the inside valves intact, as he describes it, “to make the blow notes sound good and allow valved bending on them (except the slide in D on holes 4, 8, 12), and I only have an outside valve on the B notes (holes 4, 8, 12). They work better that way, and it gives you valved bending expression on them too. I might sometimes valve the F draw notes too, as you can't bend them really.”

Chordomonica I and II

The Chordomonica I and II were designed by Cham-Ber Huang and manufactured by Hohner during the 1950s and ‘60s. They were tuned to chords in their home key (C as shown below, but they were also available in the keys of E, F, G, and A) and used the slide to create different chords rather than to supply a chromatic scale.

The Chordomonica I, as shown in Figure 11, had a single slide and provided four chords. On a C instrument these were C Major (Blow), G7 (draw), F Major (Blow, slide in) and C diminished 7 (Draw, slide in).

The Chordomonica II (Figure 12) had two slides that enabled different chords, allowing for six different chords. The first slide produced the same chords as the Chordomonica I. However, the second slide mixed notes from both reed banks to add A minor and D minor 7th chords.


Boogie Tuning

Boogie Tuning is a chordal tuning that originated with harmonica customizer John Infande and found some use by harmonica trios starting in the 1950s. It’s not intended to deliver a full chromatic scale. Instead it gives you four chords that work for 1940s-style boogie woogie blues in C: C Major 6, C minor 6, G7, and F7. The note arrangement also lends itself to single-note boogie woogie riffs and licks.



Want to know more about alternate tunings for chromatic and how to get alternate tuned instruments? Here are a few resources.


Pat Missin’s Tuning Compendium

Pat Missin has collected and catalogued hundreds of alternate tunings for both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas. You can check them out at http://patmissin.com/tunings/tunings.html


Overblow.com is Tinus Koorn’s site devoted largely to the technique of overblowing on diatonic harmonicas. However, Tinus also catalogues several alternate tunings for both diatonic and chromatic at http://www.overblow.com/?menuid=26&type=chrom#


Seydel’s Harp Configurator

While some manufacturers will custom tune harmonicas for a fee as a special request, Seydel makes it an integral part of their business, with published pricing and an online “Harp Configurator” that will both display available standard alternate tunings in several keys, and allow you to configure your own.

Getting It Built

You can order a custom tuning from Seydel as mentioned above, and you may be able to get other manufacturers to do it, but you’ll have to engage in a dialogue with them.

Harmonica builders, customizers, and repairers may be willing to build special tunings; Pat Missin is best know for this but is not the only one who does it, and some resellers like http://harponline.de in Germany will also do it.

But you can also create custom tunings yourself if you’re careful, a little bit handy, and willing to make a few mistakes while you learn.

You can tune a note up in pitch by filing or sanding material off the thickness of the reed at its tip. You can lower the pitch of a reed either by adding weight at the tip (with lead-free solder or by gluing bits of brass), or by thinning the reed near its base.

I can’t really go into the details of tuning reeds in the scope of this article. If you want to know more, I suggest you check out some of Kinya Pollard’s articles here at HarmonicaSessions.com, Richard Sleigh’s excellent tuning and repair book at www.harmonicamasterclass.com/turbocharge.htm or Rupert Oysler’s repair videos at http://www.harprepair.com/.


Recommended Book—Basic Blues Chromatic

Notation Key
Please visit http://www.harmonicasessions.com/feb05/ChromaticTab.pdf for a notation key.

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