Andrew's blog

Five things you can do to make a harmonica play better

See also Putting it all together: a quick reference to the process of upgrading a harmonica.

Here are five things you do to a diatonic harp to make it play better. These are all the important parts to working on harmonica. You can't expect more advanced techniques (like embossing) to have a big impact unless you got these things covered. If you haven't started working on harps and are thinking about it, these are the things you want to start with.

Most of these things take very little time and effort to do.

Number 5 - Make it airtight:

The harp needs to be airtight or it won't play as well as it should.

Bending will be harder, the tone will be weak and it may even squeal if it leaks air. If you have a particular harp in your collection that just doesn't play as well as you think it should, I can bet that making it more airtight will fix the problem. Do this by making sure the comb and reed plates are flat.


A) I offer custom combs that are more airtight than factory combs. You may also flatten your harmonica's comb if it's a "sandwich-type" harmonica.

B) The draw reed plate can be made more airtight with a few minutes of work. On my custom combs page you can download a PDF document (it's free!) with the details of making the draw reed plate flat. Flattening the draw reed plate will improve your harp even if you use the regular stock comb.

C) I offer The F tool which will allow you to make both the blow and draw reed plates flat.

Other simple things that can lead to air leaks are screws that have been over tightened and misaligned cover plates. If the covers click into a groove in the reed plate, make sure they sit in the groove the whole length.

Number 4 - Reed shape:

A reed sounds loudest and is most responsive when it’s full length passes through the slot at the same time. All reeds must have a curve at rest. Got one note that won't play right? Try to shape both the blow and draw reeds so that they will be straight when passing through the slot.

Look at the shape of the reed from the side. Focus your attention on the light you see through the slot as you push the reed down through the slot.

Change the shape of a reed by focusing pressure with a tool onto a specific spot. Use a finger to provide counter pressure from the other side of the reed. Plink the reed about ten times after every change you make to its shape.

When in doubt remember that if the tip of the reed is curved down and enters the slot before the rest of the reed, you will not (never, ever) get a good result.

Number 3 - Gapping

Gapping is setting the resting point of each reed. It refers to how high the tip of each reed is above the reed plate when it is at rest.

If the tip of the reed is at the level of the reed plate (or lower!) your breath would not be able to make the reed start to move. The tip should be above the level of the reed plate at rest. How high should it be? It depends on how hard you play.

Each player has their preference between a harp set to soft, medium or hard breath. Players who use soft breath force have better control, better tone (especially amplified!) and don’t blow out reeds as often as player who use harder breath force.

No matter what your breath force preference is, consistency is extremely important. Try to make all the reeds respond to the same breath from top to bottom. A harp with a mix of high and low gaps will not be fun to play.

Gaps also affect timbre. There is a “sweet spot” between gaps that are too high and gaps that are too low. Try to find the gap with the best effect on timbre. If you have trouble optimizing timbre, that may be a clue that you need to go back and look at airtightness or reed shape.

Number 2 - Adjusting the gaps for bends.

There are only 19 "straight" notes on the diatonic harmonica. There are 19 more notes that you can play using bends and overbends. All 38 notes are the chromatic scale over more than three octaves.

Both draw bends and blow bends rely on both the blow and draw reeds to work together. It takes two reeds to bend a note.

True or false? To make the 3-draw bend work better, you need to open up the gap on the 3-draw reed.

Answer: Usually false. It depends.

The 3 hole has one blow note and four draw notes. The three 3-hole bends are hard to execute correctly, but some of the best blues harp involves using the 3-draw bends in expressive, soulful, vibrato-soaked wail notes. It's important to get the three hole properly set up.

Close down the 3 blow gap as much as you can without sacrificing it's playability. If you gap the 3 blow too tightly, those draw bends will become very easy to hit, but at the expense of the 3 blow note!

Make sure it doesn't choke under hard pressure, but don't open it up any more than you need. Next, close down the 3 draw reed until it freezes under hard pressure. Then open it up until you can play the unbent note quite hard. Play the three bends. You should have fairly good control of them at this point. It that's not the case, you need to go back and do some more work on airtightness or reed shaping. That will allow you to reach your goal of being able to play all the note available without having to sacrifice any of them.

Adjust the bends on the other holes in the same way. It gets more complicated when you want to optimize unbent notes, bend notes as well as overbends and make sure all three varieties have optimal response and tone.

You can't always attain all three (regular notes, bent notes and overbends) just by gapping an out-of-the-box harp - you often need to do extra work so that you don't have to overtighten your gaps or sacrifice one kind of note for the other.

This highlights the relationship between reed shape and gapping. Think of reed work as setting the gap of the whole length of the reed - not just the tip.

Number 1- Tuning

Nothing gives a harp more ability to get people moving than being in tune.

Read this blog entry about tuning (click here) and go ahead and tune your harps. Can't tell if they are in tune? Here is a way to check your tuning (click here). Warning! Once you start to notice tuning issues, you may drive yourself insane trying to attain perfect tuning!

Tuning tools

So there you have the five fundamental concepts in making a harp play better. I can guarantee you will get results and improve your harps by learning how to do these five things. You may master these elements and stop there without even wanting to dabble in the more advanced topics.

One last thought. Now that you have poured sweat for the last hour trying to work on your favourite harp, put it down and walk away. The next time you pick it up, be it in a day or a week, it probably won't be perfectly set up anymore. This is not a sign that you are an unskilled harp technician. In fact, it's nothing personal at all. It's just physics.

Springy metal can store energy. Until you get rid of the tension in the reed, take a break between reed shaping sessions and reed tuning sessions. You'll find your results will be a lot more predictable. With practice, you'll be able to set the shape of a reed in one sitting.

The middle octave, positions and pentatonic scales on the diatonic harmonica

"Pick any unbent note from holes 4, 5 or 6 - blow or draw. Play that note's pentatonic scale either upwards or downwards or in both directions."

If you haven't already read how to play six keys on a diatonic harmonica without overblows using Pentatonic scales I recommend you do so now. Get familiar with the three different breath patterns. It's common to get familiar with first, second and third positions.

Now, take a look at the middle octave of your harp. The six unbent notes played on holes 4, 5 and 6 are the tonic notes for each of the six scales you can play easily. Here's a chart to help you remember what key, breath pattern and position each scale represents when starting the scale from the middle octave.

Positions are indicated by number. Notes with matching colours have related scales. Capital letters are major scales, lowercase are minor.

Four blow and Six draw breath pattern:

First and Fourth position breath pattern

The C scale on a C harp is first position. The C scale has a relative minor - A minor. They both share the same notes - they just have a different tonic (the note you start and end on). Therefore, they share the same breath patterns on the diatonic harmonica. Once you have mastered the major pentatonic scale in first position, play the A minor scale which starts and ends on the draw 6 and that's fourth position.

Starting on the 6 draw, go upwards as well as downwards. Concentrate on resolving on the 6 draw. Go crazy and add vibrato to the 6 draw - if you have mostly played second position you may find resolving on and adding vibrato to the 6 draw feels funny at first. But try to make that note soulful; land on it with purpose and you will begin to master playing in fourth position.

Five blow and Six blow breath pattern:

Second and Fifth position breath pattern

The G major scale is second position on a C harp and its relative minor is E minor. E minor starts and ends on the 5 blow and that's fifth position - again same breath pattern as second position, just a different tonic. As with fourth position, it will feel funny to add vibrato to the 5 blow. But once you become comfortable with making that note stand out as the tonic, you will be on your way to mastering fifth position.

Four draw and Five draw breath pattern:

Third and twelfth position breath pattern

Third position is a minor scale starting on the 4 draw. Its relative major is F major - 5 draw and that's 12th position. I find the 5 draw can have a surprising amount of soul or "sass" if you carefully lean into it. We are used to wailing on the 2 draw or 4 draw and bending those notes as we bear down into them. The 5 draw can't be bent any more than a quarter step, but it can nonetheless be a very powerful wailing note.

Here's how this chart is a really useful learning tool: Pick any unbent note from holes 4, 5 or 6 - blow or draw. Play that note's pentatonic scale either upwards or downwards or in both directions. Pick another note and do the same. Try to cycle randomly through all six notes until you have gone trough all of them. Although you only have to master three breath patterns to play all those scales, the hard part is knowing where to start and stop the scale. Without a beginning or an end, it's one meaningless string of notes.

Once you "burn" this chart into your memory, playing these scales is a snap. Part of the advantage of starting in the middle of the harp is that you have the option to change things up and play the scale downwards instead of always starting scales going up (ascending). And that brings you closer to being able to use these scales as more than an exercise but as a music-making tool.

You will probably find that after a little while, you can resolve to the tonic note in the other octaves too without having to think about it. That's because you have learned the breath patterns and you have zeroed-in on how to get these scales to sound the way you think they should. Scales have a learning curve but once you get through it. their job is to make things easier for you.

The other advantage of this middle-octave stuff is that you can think in terms of positions, rather than key. This is helpful if you play a different key harp than C. You will now be able to figure out which key corresponds to which position on any key harp by naming the unbent notes of holes 4, 5 and 6. All you need to do is be able to name the notes of the major scale of that harp's key and start counting on the 4 blow!

Making my own custom harmonica combs

I have begun the long and expensive process of making my own harmonica combs. I have found that I need to.

Currently, I only use stock combs - the combs that come from the manufacturer. I upgrade stock combs by making them more comfortable by rounding sharp corners, making the reedplate contact surface as flat as I can and sealing the wood so that they don't warp and resist damage. I can also colour the tips of the tines for aesthetic reasons.

Working this way on stock combs leads to excellent results, but the material can sometimes be unpredictable and occasionally may require a lot of time before it is perfect. It can be done, but there are only so many hours in the day... So the answer is to start from scratch and make my own combs.

But why not buy a replacement comb that's "ready to go"? There are plenty of aftermaket combs available.

A custom harmonica requires an outstanding comb. I feel that a mass-produced comb is not as flat and therefore cannot offer the same performance as a comb that I work on myself. I would never just throw in an aftermarket comb into one of my harps without first flatsanding and sealing by hand. The cost of these aftermarket combs is not worth it if I still have to do all that work.

Some aftermarket combs are made of solid surface materials that don't need to be sealed, but getting them flat and polished still requires lots of work. It can also require expensive products to make them look and feel smooth. Not to mention they can be brittle and are subject to breakage if dropped. Lastly, some of those products are foodsafe, but have are manufactured using materials and processes that are environmentally damaging.

Also, I have yet to find one comb that can accommodate all the different kinds of Marine Bands I work on. Most Marine Band harmonicas have the draw plate nail holes positioned in a way that you can use them as pilot holes to convert to screws. The holes on current Marine Bands line up differently than on Marine Bands from the 50s, 60s and 70s (The Hicksville period).

So I may as well just do it myself.

I am working on a comb that has the screw clearance holes positioned to be used with current Marine Bands including the Crossover and Deluxe as well as vintage Marine Bands and their relatives such as the pre-MS Blues harps, Old Standby and Hoosier Boy Harmonicas.

Making prototypes is extremely expensive and time-consuming. I am fortunate to be dealing with some very nice and helpful people locally and in the US.

Here is what I am aiming for:

- Outstanding performance. I want to offer a comb that is flat and airtight. I want it to enhance tone and response. I will flatten each comb to my standards by hand.
- Ecologically sensible. I am looking for a material that has a very low impact on the environment (recycled or renewable fibres), made of natural substances, non-allergenic, and from a company that has a good reputation insofar as the environmental impact of their practices. A great example is a company that encourages users like me to use their off-cuts. This is ecologically sound (no waste!) and financially responsible (if I pay less, you pay less!)
- Straightforward Production. I will not compromise my design because it's technically challenging to CNC mill or Laser cut.
- Finish. I want a comb that has a lasting smooth and comfortable surface. I want to be able to produce that smoothness relatively easily without relying on costly or environmentally harmful products.

I think I have found a suitable material. I have sent my design to the CNC shop to be turned into something I can test-drive.

More to come.

Tuning check

Be picky about tuning! Don't avoid playing octaves or chords because they don't sound right. It's normal to have to tune your harp. This tuning check is the first step to getting your harps in tune.

Check your harp's tuning often - it only takes a few moments. Don't be afraid of what you might find.... Then go ahead and tune your harp!

Playing all the octave-splits on a harmonica is a fast way to pinpoint tuning problems.

Here, I play octaves throughout the harp to hear whether the two notes are in tune or not. The harp I play in the video is far from being in tune. You can tell by my facial expression the first few times I hit a "beating" octave. This exercise is mostly ear-training.

Warning! If you get proficient in this technique, you may begin to become afflicted with tuning-obsession-syndrome and get the feeling that most out-of-the-box harps are out of tune! In extreme cases, keen-eared victims raise an eyebrow when listening to over half of the recordings of blues greats such as Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton and Walter Horton!

Tuning check instructions:
I play the 1-4, 2-5, 3-6, 4-7, 5-8, 6-9 and 7-10 octave splits on the blow side.
Then, I play the 1-4, 2-5 (seventh chord, not an octave. so expect beating to be difficult to hear), 3-7, 4-8, 5-9, 6-10 splits on the draw side.
Then I play the 2-3 blow and the 4-5 blow. I play the 1234 draw chord and listen for dissonance.

Harmonica compromise tunings

Any harp I work on can be tuned to your preference. Here's a visual representation of some Richter tuning options. These are not altered tunings where the notes are changed - these are all standard harmonica tuning. Every manufacturer tweaks the tuning of the individual notes to get a unique sound. These tweaks either emphasize the sound of single notes or the sound of chords.

If you want nice sounding chords and melody notes at the same time, then you need to compromise.

There are many ways to compromise and this shows a few ways you can do it. It's a little like a burger joint - you can have it any way you like!

Chords on a Suzuki Manji are nicer than on a harp tuned to Equal temperament, but they are not as nice as the chords on a current Marine Band. Marine Bands in the 1950s used to be tuned to provide even richer sounding chords than they do today, but the 5 draw on those harps sounded very flat (about a half semitone flat!) So you can compromise in any direction, and you decide if the emphasis is on single notes or chords.

This chart provides you with a view of which notes are offset from ET with the intensity of the color showing how far they deviate. I'm a visual person and this sort of thing helps me grasp the tuning differences.

The differences can be subtle. If you are playing unaccompanied, you probably won't notice notes being out-of-tune. It is hard to tell if a note is ten cents off from ET when played all by itself. But if you and the band are playing the same note at the same time, the difference is easier to hear - or hard to miss! Likewise, a chord played on an ET chord still sounds okay. It is more dissonant than it could be, but it still gets the point across.

Click on the image to download it as a PDF.

PDF icon Tuning meter.pdf101.31 KB

Tune a harmonica using your ears and a simple chromatic tuner

Updated 2019/12/01

This is part of a series about tuning the diatonic harmonica

Part 1 - Tune a harmonica using your ears and a simple chromatic tuner
Part 2 - More Better - ultra precision tuning
Part 3 - Perfect Pitch: Using breath dynamics for tuning

There’s nothing like playing a harp that’s in tune! You can set up a harp to be as loud and responsive as you can but if it’s not in tune, it won’t have any mojo.

Tuning a harmonica with a guitar tuner can be a painful experience because the needle just seems to bounce around. Using an analog strobe tuner makes things easier but strobe tuners are bulky and are very expensive. No matter what equipment you use, you need to employ some breathing techniques to get the pitch of each reed right.

You can do it! Here’s a tuning method that relies on the use of a basic chromatic guitar tuner and the technique of fine tuning by eliminating "beating" while playing octave splits.

How your own harps need to be tuned is entirely up to your playing style. Use this method to get your harps in better tune than most out-of-the-box harps.

Use a swiss file, a good emery board or a diamond-tip engraving tool to remove brass from the tip of a reed to raise its pitch. Remove brass from the base of the reed to lower it. Support the reed from underneath with paper or a tempered steel support tool.

Remove some brass and then recheck. Don’t bet on a hole-in-one, it’s far too easy to overshoot the mark!

Believe me, overshooting the mark is the number one harmonica tuning frustration and will account for most of the time you spend tuning unless you address the problem. Aim for getting halfway to the pitch you want in one shot. Then, go back for more, this time aiming to get halfway again until you “sneak up” on the target pitch. You will save a lot of time going about it this way. If you can land on the pitch you are aiming for on the fifth attempt, consider that success!

Warm the harp by playing it for a few moments and then tapping out the moisture before reading the pitch. If you forget to warm the harp, you may end up with unpredictable results.

It takes time. Don’t aim for completing the task in one sitting. Tune it and the come back to it to double-check.

Should you tune it today? Brass needs to rest/relax and work itself out - if you have made changes to the reed shape, let the harp sit for a few days before you expect to be able to tune it with accuracy.

A chromatic tuner doesn’t have the accuracy to be able to get the pitch as close as you need it to be to play octaves, splits and chords that sound right. If you never make use of chords or other combination of notes, you can get away with less accuracy and tune your harps to Equal Temperament.

To tune a note by “using your ears”, tune notes in pairs. Most notes in Standard Richter have one or more of the same note one octave away on the same reed plate.
First use the tuner to get the pitch of one reed as close as you can. Then find its octave and tune that one, too. Play the notes together and listen if it sounds good. When two notes are out of tune, you will hear beating - a pulsing wobbly unpleasant sound.

Although your tuner may indicate that two notes are of the same value, it's not accurate enough to get it perfect and they probably will still sound out-of-tune (you will hear beating) when you play them together as an octave split.

Play the octave harder for a moment. If the beats disappear, the lower of the two notes is tuned too high. If nothing happens or the beats get worse, the lower note is too low. That will give you the information to decide which note to tune and in what direction. Obviously, if you just tuned a reed using some reference, don’t adjust that reed, rather adjust the other note in the octave split.

Make small changes to each reed and recheck often. Higher reeds require surprisingly little work to change pitch.

If you are not sure which note is out-of-tune or if you overshot the mark and have lost your point of reference, try playing each note individually and looking at the tuner again for hints. Try using other hints, too. You can play each note with another audio source like a keyboard or another instrument. Or, depending on the adjacent notes, play a chord and listen for extra notes that appear when the harp is in tune. Getting the harp in perfect tune is a difficult process. It gets easier with practice.

Also, it’s normal to hear beats when playing octave splits very softly, that is playing well below normal breath force. Force on any reed will lower the pitch of the note being played and normal tuning is adjusted for this amount of force - if you play a note with far less breath force than normal, it will sound sharp. The lower the reed, the more sensitive it is to this phenomenon. Lower reeds need to be tuned a little sharp to compensate for this effect. Aim for getting the octave split in tune when playing with your everyday breath force level.

What to do when the tuner says two notes are in tune, but they sound out of tune:

Tuning Method for octaves and chords:

The old-fashioned method of tuning a harmonica involves using a table of offset values for each reed. (See the table at the end of this document.) You would need a very precise tuner and have super-human breath control to be able to get each reed to those exact values. Most inexpensive tuners are pretty accurate about indicating when the needle reads zero so we use that to our advantage and change the calibration reference of A concert pitch instead of trying to figure out exactly what value the needle is showing. Changing the reference of A 440 by one Hz changes the pitch of each note by about four cents. For example, to bring a reed to -12 cents we change the reference of A from 442 to 439 and then tune the reed to get the needle to read zero.

Using a chromatic tuner that has an adjustable reference (at least A=436 to A=444) do the following:

(The needle must read zero unless specified.)

Root (Tonic) notes
Tune Blow 4 to A=442
Tune Blow 1 to match Blow 4 (use your ears to find beating and then try to eliminate it by fine tuning)
Tune Blow 7 to match Blow 4
Tune Blow 10 to match Blow 7
Tune Blow 6 to A=442, with the needle just to the right of zero.
Tune blow 3 to match blow 6
Tune blow 9 to match blow 6
Tune Blow 5 to A=439
Tune blow 2 to match blow 5
Tune blow 8 to match blow 5

You are done the blow plate. Verify your work by playing the 1234 chord and listen for beats. Go up the harp that way.

Root (Tonic) note
Tune Draw 2 to A=443. It should match blow 3 by ear.
Tune Draw 4 to A=443, with the needle just to the right of zero
Tune Draw 1 to match Draw 4
Tune Draw 8 to match Draw 4
Tune Draw 7 to A=440
Tune Draw 3 to match Draw 7
Flat sevenths
Tune Draw 5 to either A=436 (1950s tuning), A=440 (current Marine Band), A=443 plus a hair (19-limit)
Tune Draw 9 to match Draw 5
Tune Draw 6 to A=444
Tune Draw 10 to match Draw 6

You are done the draw plate. Play the 12345 draw chord and listen for beats. Go up the harp.

Use the French Tuner™ to speed things up! Here's a video about using a simple tool to help tune the blow plate. Although this tool is optional, it makes tuning the blow plate faster and easier than putting the harp back together every time you need to play the reed you are tuning.

See this page for more information on tuning your harp with accuracy: Ultra Precision Tuning

Here’s a comparison of the most popular harmonica tunings:

Common Tuning offsets from zero (equal temperament)

Pentatonic scales - Play in six different keys on one harmonica... With no overblows!

Here's a chart that lays out pentatonic scales in six positions (click on the image to download the full-sized chart pdf):

A member of the Modern Blues Harmonica forum posted these breath patterns - His name is John Potts. I created the chart to give a more visual description of these breath patterns.

What does this all mean? How does it work?

First, what is the pentatonic scale?

If you play the tonic, second, third, fifth and sixth notes of the major scale, you are playing the pentatonic scale. A lot of popular melodies are based on this scale and you will find that you can improvise around quite a lot of music with only these five notes.

Try improvising along with a country song using the major pentatonic scale. Try doing the same with a song you hear on the radio. Quite often, the melody to a popular music song (mainstream, "top 40") is played with the major pentatonic scale. The major pentatonic scale is so simple and intuitive and yet so useful. It's a great place to start when learning to improvise.

The major scale has a relative minor. Three semitones below the tonic of the major scale is the sixth. If you use that note as the tonic and play the same notes as in the major pentatonic scale, you are playing the minor pentatonic scale. For example, A minor is the relative minor of C major. When you play in A minor pentatonic, you are using the same notes and using the same scale as the major pentatonic scale in C but you are resolving (ending your phrases) on A. And what's most relevant to harmonica is that you are using the same breath pattern. So if you learn the breath pattern for the major pentatonic scale in C, you also know how to play in A minor!

You only have to learn three breath patterns to access six different positions. Three major and three minor pentatonic scales are available without overblows or overdraws and a standard Richter-tuned diatonic harp!

Use this chart to learn the pattern for playing in the following keys on a C harp:

Play in G major (second position - 2 draw or 6 blow is tonic)
Play in E minor (fifth position - 2 blow or 5 blow is tonic)
Play in C major (first position - 1 blow or 4 blow is tonic)
Play in A minor (fourth position - 3 draw with whole step bend or 6 draw is tonic)
Play in F major (twelfth position - 2 draw with whole step bend or 5 draw is tonic)
Play in D minor (third position - 1 draw or 4 draw is tonic)

These scales are only the beginning. Try adding "blue" notes to the major pentatonic scale (flat fifth, flat seventh). Also, by adding just one note to the minor pentatonic scale, you play the blues scale in that position. Have fun playing in multiple positions!

Beginner asks "what harmonica should I buy?"

Dear Andrew,

I bought a $5 harp and it plays poorly. Can you fix it up and make it play better? What brand of harp do you recommend for a beginner?

I can't fix the cheap harp. Although it may be branded as a Hohner or Suzuki instrument, these harps are awful to play and do not have the potential to be improved - a terrible choice for a beginner. What harp to buy? As a general rule, I suggest you buy a harp that was made in Germany or Japan. I also suggest you buy a harp that can be taken apart with just a screwdriver if you need to set it up to your liking.

Harps that meet those criteria and are affordable include the Hohner Special 20 or the Suzuki Harmaster/Delta Frost. They are easy to find (in stores or online) and the quality is usually consistent. A good place to start.

I would encourage you to eventually buy other types (Seydel 1847, Lee Oskar, other Hohner Handmade harps like Marine Band, Blues Harp, etc...) Anyone who starts playing harp rapidly gets addicted and soon finds that they have bought a collection of instruments in various keys and from various manufacturers. Take your time before deciding that you want to stick with one particular make or model. It's good to change things up; for example, Seydel harps have wider spaced holes than other brands and that may take a week to get used to. That's a good exercise for your muscle memory as well as your brain. And overall, that workout will make you a better player.

The advantages and disadvantages of the various kinds of good-quality out-of-the-box harps fall into two categories:

1- deficiencies such as the harp not being airtight, not being set up so that it is easy to play, or being out of tune.

2- matters of preference such as the size of the harp, the material it is made of, the shape of it in your mouth, shape of the cover plate.

All out-of-the-box harmonicas will have deficiencies. Some less that others but you can't expect a store-bought harp to be perfect. As a beginner, you need to figure out if you are having trouble playing a certain note because of your technique or because the harp is leaky or not properly set up. Even the most expensive out-of-the-box harmonicas suffer from this problem. That's because it's not feasible for the harmonica companies to mass produce harmonicas and give each instrument enough attention to ensure that each one is precisely set up. That being said, there is no problem that can't be fixed, and part of learning the harmonica is to either learn how to fix them/set them up yourself or get a guy like me to do it for you.

It's a chicken-or-the-egg situation, since you need to know what a proper harp sounds/play like in order to tell if a harp is not in proper order. I recommend you get a harmonica teacher and take a few lessons to start - if you have a questionable harmonica, your teacher will be able to help you troubleshoot.

Here's one last thought. I went to see a Curtis Salgado show last summer and I got to speak with him afterwards. I asked him what harmonicas he plays and he said "I'll play anything anyone gives me as long as it's in tune." Words to live by.

Cossover tuning

I have had many people ask me to tune their harps "like a Crossover", something I am happy to do. Here are my thoughts on this tuning. First of all, regarding Hohner Crossover tuning, Steve Baker posted the following on Harp-L:

0=443Hz w. minimal air pressure, all deviations are in cents, 1Hz = approx. 4 cents on most tuners
Blow reed plate:
Root notes (1, 4, 7 & 10) tuned to 0
Thirds (2, 5 & 8) minus 5 cents
Fifths (3, 6 & 9) + 1 cent
Draw reed plate:
1-draw is very difficult to measure accurately. With absolutely minimal air pressure maybe +8 cents, more in low keys. Like that it will sound right with normal air pressure. It's essential that it sounds good when played together with 2-draw and as an octave interval with 4-draw.
2-draw + 4-6 cents depending on the key, at normal air pressure it should sound at the same pitch as 3-blow
3- & 7-draw tuned to 0
4- & 8-draw 1 cent higher than 2-draw (i.e. + 5-7 cents)
5- & 9-draw + 2 cents (this will mean the 7th chord sounds rough, but sounds better as a single note. You can even tune it a little higher if you prefer that sound)
6- & 10-draw 1 cent higher than 4-draw (i.e. + 6-8 cents)

It's highly recommended to check that all perfect intervals (octaves, fifths and fourths) sound without interference beats. This is what
piano tuners do too. You'll find it's damnably difficult to obtain constant readings from your tuner and I can only recommend playing very softly indeed and holding the note for a long time so you get a fairly clear note value. I use a Korg MT-1200 tuner with a built-in spread which tunes the upper octaves slightly sharper (as do piano tuners) and use the smallest spread the machine offers. It's hard to work to this degree of accuracy with a tuner which only shows Hz values.
Hope this will be of assistance,
Steve Baker

His description of how he tuned the master plates is very telling. It's not a bunch of theoretical numbers but a recipe to follow to replicate the sound of his own harps. The blow plate is A=443 with the thirds being somewhat less flat that the usual Hohner compromise tuning. It's much like the Manji compromise tuning - closer to ET but still a compromised tuning.

The draw plate is real-world tuned. I think because draw notes are usually more expressive than blow notes, many people hit them harder. The harder you hit a note, the flatter it will be. By tuning the root note to +6 (draw 2), the draw plate is really tuned to A=444 or higher. But as you play it "in the real world" such as on stage or while jamming, the draw 2 should sound the same as blow 3. The thirds on the draw side are tuned to zero, but relative to the root note (2 draw) they are -6, almost like the thirds on the blow plate (-5). The rest is again compromise, but close to ET. The sevenths are a little flat, as flat as the sevenths on a Seydel - again, relative to the draw 2.

I know Jason Ricci used to like his harps tuned to 443 on the draw side and 442 on the blow side.

I think the Crossover is the only out-of-the-box harp on the market today to compensate for the fact that the 2 draw and the 3 blow need to be tuned to different values to sound the same - for some of people, anyway. Consequently, the rest of the notes on the draw plate need to be a little sharp.

Some people hate the tuning. I reckon than some people don't hit the draw notes very hard (or hit the blow notes just as hard) and in that case, the draw notes are sharp or just plain out of tune.

This is the way I interpret this tuning. If anyone else has a different take, I'd be interested in it.


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