The majority of harmonica players play diatonic harmonicas almost exclusively, and most of those players have never played a harmonica that is not standard-tuned, i.e. tuned to a Richter scale in a major key where the lowest exhale note on the instrument is the root or tonic note of the scale (for example, ‘C’ on a C harmonica). These players are missing out on some big, easy fun, the kind that can be had for the price of a harmonica (from Lee Oskar, for example) tuned to a non-standard scale (such as the Lee Oskar Melody Maker, Natural Minor, or Harmonic Minor tunings, or the Hohner Country tuning).
All of these harmonicas provide the player with a greatly expanded set of chord possibilities, which can be used to great effect in both solo and ensemble work. They also offer some new bending opportunities, which are very expressive, and make it much easier to play certain melodic lines that are difficult on standard tunings. (Try B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone,’ for example, in 2nd position on a Natural Minor harp, or “Tequila” in 1st position on a Dorian Minor.) The techniques used to play these instruments are identical to those used to play standard-tuned instruments, and a great way for a player to learn the new tunings is to try out some of the pieces that the player has already learned in standard tuning. Anyone who wants to hear non-standard tunings in action is invited to check out my CD The Act of Being Free in One Act or my 2nd CD (now in progress), both of which contain many pieces played using the tunings named above, or any of Lee Oskar’s recent recordings. (Click here for information on the instruments used on the first or second CDs.)
Any innovation has its detractors, and there has been plenty of talk from certain harmonica players (published on the Internet and elsewhere) to the effect that non-standard tunings are a “gimmick,” mainly useful for trick effects. I will concede that non-standard tunings are “gimmicks” when someone is willing to stand up and say that Robert Johnson’s favorite open G guitar tuning was a gimmick, or that Muddy Waters’s use of a capo on top of the same tuning was a gimmick, or that Joni Mitchell’s use of 51 (yes, 51!) distinct tunings for guitar is a gimmick. And if those players are all relying on gimmicks, I’ll be proud to say that I am too.
A final note: special tunings are not a substitute for other techniques, such as overblowing, which can be used to augment the scales available on a standard diatonic. I recommend that serious players learn as much as possible about both these approaches, as well as any other techniques that expand the player’s and the instrument’s capabilities.