Have you played a Country-Tuned Harmonica? Why not?
NOTE: This discussion originally appeared in a slightly different form in a message posted to the Harp-L List on December 2, 1998.
There’s been some recent discussion on Harp-L of the uses for the Huang Jazz Harp (which is in what Hohner calls Country Tuning, i.e. Richter tuning with the fifth draw reed tuned up a half step.) Here’s the layout of this tuning on a C harmonica:
This tuning produces some really big, full-sounding chords in the low and mid-range, and it sounds great on lots of rhythm licks as well as on sustained chords. It works very well on almost any roots-based style (like blues or reggae or folk or country), and it’s also a strong choice for rock, pop and jazz stuff. The sharped draw 5 reed gives the player a major triad
and a +6 chord on the V chord in second position (i.e., tonic is draw 2).
The straight triads on the IV chord in this tuning
work better for many country and blues tunes than the IIm chord that you get in the low register on a Melody Maker (which is the same tuning with the blow 3 reed tuned up a whole step). You also get a major triad,
and major 7+9 chord on the tonic,
plus IIm7 (root omitted)
and IIIm7 chords
in second position, plus a VIm9+11 voicing (no root),
and not to mention a V#9 (7th omitted) voicing, courtesy of the natural 3rd (of the V chord) in the middle octave and the flat 3rd in the top octave:
etc., etc. . . .
The above analysis of the chords available on this tuning in second position may be useful for jazz-oriented players, maybe not for blues or country, though who knows; a lot of those chords show up on something like "Stormy Monday." In any case, for almost any style except classical, it’s a very versatile and good-sounding tuning. I used this tuning on a Lee Oskar (I had to tune the draw 5 reed up by hand) on "Billy The Kid" on my second CD, The Second Act of Free Being; if anyone wants to hear what the harp sounds like, there’s a sample here. I believe the key of the instrument is Eb, and it’s played in second position.
Since we’re on the subject of special tunings, I’ll also note that special tunings on the diatonic are a very easy way to add a lot of color and new sounds to the instrument. It is relatively cheap it’s the cost of a harmonica (or a new set of reed plates if you use Lee Oskars) and Oskar (mostly) and Hohner and Huang (a little) make a bunch of tunings that sound new and different right out of the box, even when you play the stuff you’ve played for a while on them.
Right now there’s a lot of action going on for standard Richter-tuned diatonic harmonica players in fully chromatic single-note approaches that rely heavily on overblowing and bending. A few years ago, most of the players using this technique heavily were in their late thirties and up. Lately I see much younger players using the technique fluently. It seems to me that overblowing is now or will soon be a mainstream technique, and multiple players are now pushing the limits of that technique in terms of both expression (e.g. Howard Levy on the soundtrack of “A Family Thing”) and virtuosity (Levy, Clint Hoover, Sandy Weltman).
I see far fewer players trying to get extra mileage out of unusual (even slightly) tunings. It makes me wonder: will Magic Dick’s new Magic Harps, which include some radically different tunings, some of them explicitly designed for hip chording, find a large audience? I don’t think a majority (or even a large minority) of players have jumped at the special tunings that are readily available. If people don’t want a reasonable amount of variety (i.e. six or seven different factory standard
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