Some Musings On Altered Tunings
For the Chromatic Harmonica

Pat Missin
Harmonica Player

By Pat Missin

Pat Missin plays harmonica, he has contributed a great deal to the harmonica community. Pat is an excellent harmonica technician and his harmonica retuning skills are highly sought after.

Be sure to visit Pat's Website and if you are at all interested in trying different tuned harmonicas check out Altered States.

Solo Tuning

First of all, let's look at Solo tuning, the typical layout of the chromatic harmonica.

It is based on the following pattern, repeated in each octave:


Solo tuned harmonicas in the key of C do not always start with C as the lowest note, but the pattern is essentially the same even regardless if it starts on C, E or G. Solo tuning was first used a few years before the first chromatics were made, being patented in 1908, as an "improvement" on the Richter tuning. Up until the 1950s, 10-hole chroms were available as either Solo tuned or "Regular" (ie Richter) tuned.

The Richter layout (as used on a typical diatonic) was designed to play a simple major scale in holes 4 and above (with a note in the upper octave skipped), with a tonic chord and a dominant available in the lower octave, to accompany simple melodies.

The point of the solo tuning was to give three full diatonic octaves, at the expense of the accompaniment chords - hence "Solo" tuning. OK, you can play C major and D minor and, with some clean double-stops, you can fake G7 and F major, but you lose the "instant accompaniment" of the Richter tuning - hence the name "solo" tuning, as it was intended to be a single-note instrument accompanied by something else, rather than being self- accompanying. As soon as you add the second reed bank to give you a similar layout one semitone higher, you have a complete chromatic scale and despite the instrument's limitations a lot of great music can be played, much more than the original inventors ever expected.

However, Solo tuning does have certain limitations and many folks have tinkered with it to extract other possibilities.

Chrom Retuning Approaches

There are a number of common approaches to retuning the chromatic harmonica:

The first is to alter the layout of the harp for a specific harmonic or melodic purpose. For example, Chamber Huang's Chordomonica tuning and John Infande's Boogie Tuning give chords that are not obtainable on the standard solo tuning. Brendan Power alters his chroms to give him slide ornaments that are likewise not possible with Solo tuning. The trade-off is usually that you lose some chromaticity, - for example, with the Chordomonica in C, you no longer have Db, Ab or Bb. You could also use the sldie to switch between, for example, a C reedplate and a G reedplate. This might be very useful for many traditional styles (Irish music springs to mind), but you lose even more chromatic notes. Similarly, in the 1920s, there was a "minor tuned" chromatic. This used the slide to switch between a major key and its relative minor key - with even greater los of chromaticity.

The second approach is to retune the "redundant" notes, such as the paired Cs and C#s. For example, the BeBop Tuning replaces the first of the paired Cs with a Bb and the first of the #s with a B. William Galison retunes the C to A and the C# to Bb. This adds some nice possibilities without much of a trade-off and without having to spend much time making the alteration.

A third approach is to reverse the "normal" operation of the slide, so that pushing the button gives you note lower than the open note, instead of higher note, favouring certain types of phrasing and ornamentation. This can also simply be done by turning the slide the other way around. In fact, I'm not sure that this should be considered a retuning in it's own right, particularly as it can be used in conjunction with any other retuning of the instrument, but it has become popularly known as Irish Tuning.

The fourth way is to abandon the standard tuning all together and use something based on what is called "modes of limited transposition". Before getting into that, let me say that the so-called "chromatic" harmonica is not particularly chromatic!

Certainly, you can get all 12 notes of the tempered scale, but essentially, the solo-tuned chrom presents you with a C major scale and a button to provide the accidentals.

(Alternatively, you could look at it as two diatonic instruments joined together, but let's not go there right now.)

Similarly, you could say that the typical piano-type keyboard isn't really chromatic, as the white notes give you a C major scale, with the black notes "filling in the gaps".

Tuning Bias

Even standard woodwind fingering does something similar
if you take a tenor sax, close all the holes then lift each finger in sequence, you basically get a Bb major scale and use cross-fingering to get the sharps and flats. (OK - it's a simplification, but not an unreasonable one). This gives all of these instruments some sort of "bias".
If you are only playing in a few closely related keys, this is no problem at all. However, if you are playing in a heavily chromatic style (jazz perhaps, or modern classical music) or you need to be able to transpose quickly and easily, it is less helpful.

For example, to transpose from, say, Bb to B, you have to learn an entirely new fingering pattern, unlike a guitarist, who merely uses the same pattern moving it up one fret higher.
The situation is even worse for the harmonica player, because of the additional complication of the change of breath direction between blow and draw. This means that no matter how well you know your harmonica, or how much you practise, a certain phrase may be easy in one key, a little harder in another and sounds like hell in a third key.
Douglas Tate's approach to this is to try to get everything as smooth as possible, then essentially to make every phrase as rough as your roughest phrase!

(This may seem odd, but one of the things that stands out in most people's playing is that they make some bits sounds easier than other bits, which can make the overall performance seem uneven - but I'll leave that topic to Douglas Tate!)

Modes of Limited Transposition

The use of "modes of limited transposition" (hereafter MoLT, to save my typing fingers) as the basis of a tuning, works on a similar principle.

Instead of having "easy keys" & "difficult keys", you make all the keys equally as easy/difficult. So instead of basing the instrument's tuning on a given diatonic scale and adding accidentals, you divide the octave into repeating "shapes", each covering a certain number of semitones.

The simplest MoLT are the ones which divide the octave into an equal number of parts.
First is the chromatic scale, where you simply progress semitone by semitone, dividing the octave into twelve.
In practice, there is only one chromatic scale - a chromatic scale beginning on C has the same notes as one beginning on Db (although the notes are "spelled" differently).

The second simplest MoLT is the wholetone scale, where you progress two semitones at a time and the patterns repeat after two semitones, dividing the octave into six equal parts - for example, the C wholetone scale uses the same notes as the D wholetone, the E wholetone, the F# wholetone, the G# wholetone and the Bb wholetone.

If you divide the octave into three equal parts of four semitones each, you get the augmented chord, repeating itself in major third intervals - Caug has the same notes as Eaug and G#aug.

If you divide the octave into four equal parts of three semitones each, you get the diminished chord, repeating itself in minor third intervals - Cdim has the same notes as Ebdim, F#dim and Adim.

There are many other MoLTs, but these are the ones that can be most usefully applied to the harmonica. If you need more information on the general topic, you should read what Olivier Messiaen has to say about them.

MoLT Tunings

Here I'm going to focus on the basic harmonica tunings derived from this concept. They all have similar principles in common. They are often described as making life easier for the ear player, but I might add that they also make it easier to read for the instrument. On the downside, they could be described as removing some of the "personality" of the different keys. It all depends on what you want from your instrument.

First of all, you could build a harmonica where each hole contains a reed one semitone higher than the last. This is what the various Chromatica and Polyphonia harmonicas do. They are great for special effects, but only a few players have been dedicated enough to learn to play real music on them.
However, they are similar to the guitar in that once you learn to play a C major scale on them, all you have to do to be able to play a Db major scale is simply to use the same patterns starting one hole higher. However, chords are pretty much out of the question and large interval leaps are tricky, to say the least. Even small intervallic leaps can be a problem.


Next is the simple Wholetone Tuning where each note is a wholetone above the one immediately to its left and the draw notes are a semitone above the blow notes. An octave of this tuning would look like this:

Blow  F# G# A#
Draw  C# D#

A C major scale would be played by "blow, move right and blow, move right and blow, draw, move right and draw, move right and draw, move right and draw, move right and blow". A D scale would be played exactly the same way but starting one hole higher. Ditto for any major scale that begins with a blow note. Major scales that start with a draw note would be played by "draw, move right and draw, move right and draw, move right and blow, move right and blow, move right and blow, move right and blow, draw". So you can play any phrase in all twelve keys by learning just two different patterns.

Each scale has the same number of breath changes and thus the same opportunities (and obstacles) for legato. At a harmonica convention, I once demonstrated playing all twelve major scales at high speed using this tuning and I don't think anyone believed me when I told them that I had probably spent less than an hour total playing time on that harp!

This tuning was patented in 1950 by H.M. Stevenson (US pat #2511302) and several reworkings of it were included in Dr. John Yeadon's 1991 patent (UK pat #2259802). It's not really practical to retune a harp to this layout without doing some major reed replacement, although you could take a solo-tuned 270 in G, raise the lowest note to a C and lower the highest note to a B, adjusting all the other notes appropriately.

I've done it, but it's a hell of a lot of work. I have a slideless version of it based on a Special 20, as well one based on a Hohner 270 where the slide raises each note by a quartertone (I used it whilst toying around with some Arabic scales).

In Richard Hunter's book "Jazz Harp", he mentions a similar tuning where the slide raises each note by a semitone, making each note available as either a blow or draw note, so entire scales can be played perfectly legato with no breath changes. The downside is that large intervals are still tricky and the harp has a much reduced range - my converted 270 now covers just short of two octaves instead of three.

One solution to this is to set it up so that the slide raises each note by a perfect fourth or fifth (something I've been meaning to try out, but been too busy to do). Chords and double-stops are a bit limited and unless you have a big mouth and a square tongue, you can forget about playing octaves!

Diminished Tuning

If you set up the harmonica so that adjacent notes are a three semitones apart you arrive at a diminished tuning. These layouts have been patented by both Salvitz/Beauregard (US pat# 5166461) and Dr. John Yeadon (UK pat #2259802) and can take several different forms. Perhaps the commonest is this one:

Blow  Eb Gb
Draw  Ab

This tuning is quite easy to make from a standard solo tuned chrom, but even easier is Dr. Yeadon's favorite version:

Blow  C# Bb
Draw  Ab

As you can see, this is very similar to the standard solo tuning, requiring a minimum of retuning and relearning. If you have the slide set up to raise each note by a semitone, then there are only six altered reeds per octave, although having the slide raise each note by a wholetone is another possibility.

As the diminished chord repeats itself every three semitones, then any phrase can be played in all 12 keys by learning only three patterns. Actually, if you tune the harmonica so that the slide raises all notes by a semitone, then there is a fourth alternate pattern for three of the twelve keys, as the draw notes with the slide held in are the same as the blow notes with the slide out.

These alternate patterns can be used in a similar way to using B# and E# on the solo tuning. This tuning gives all twelve minor third intervals available as trills, ideal for the blues or jazz player. Better yet, if you realise that the diminished triad can be viewed as a dominant seventh chord with the root omitted (C#dim = C# E G; A7 = A C# E G) then you have twelve partial 7th chords available - another plus for the jazz player.

Jazz players will also like the tritones (all 12 of them) that are available as double-stops. Octaves are played with a five-hole span as on a Solo tuned chrom. This is probably my favorite MoLT-based tuning and I've built several of them for my customers. (As well as using this tuning on a slide chromatic, there a few players using the first diminished layout on a diatonic harmonica. In this case, the chromatic scale can be played without overblows, by the pattern blow; draw bend; draw; move right; blow; etc.)

Augmented Tuning

If you tune the harmonica so that adjacent notes are four semitones apart, you get the augmented triad tuning. I prefer this to the more common name of "wholetone tuning", in order to avoid confusion with the wholetone tuning described above. If you play any three adjacent blow or draw notes, you get an augmented chord, however the name "wholetone tuning" seems to have stuck. Hohner produced a limited run of CX-12s in this tuning and Hering promised them, but failed to deliver. Customisers such as myself, Brendan Power and Siegfried Naruhn have built them and this is the tuning that jazz maestro Wim Dijkgraaf uses exclusively [Wim has since gone back to Solo tuned chromatics but only because you currently cannot buy Augmented chromatics off the shelf, given the choice he'd go back to Augmented chromatics in a shot - 2004, G.]. The basic layout is this:

Blow  G#
Draw  F# Bb

Usually the slide is set up to raise each note by a semitone (although, of course, it would work similar if the slide were to lower each note, or if the blow notes were tuned higher than the draw notes). This gives the most compact arrangement - twelve reeds are used to cover twelve notes, unlike the solo-tuning which uses sixteen reeds to cover the same range.

Octaves are played with a more comfortable four hole span, rather than the five hole span required by the diminished and solo tunings.

Just four patterns are needed to play in twelve keys:

This same idea has occurred to many people - in fact, this tuning has been patented no less than three times: in 1978 by Capper and Capper (UK pat# 2009999), again in 1983 by J. Okumoto (UK pat# 2120442 and in several other countries) and yet again in 1992 by Salvitz/Beauregard (US pat# 5166461). Similar ideas are also covered in Dr Yeadon's patent and discussed by James McKenzie, in the patent for his all- blow, twin-slide chrom (US pat# 3674910). I also recall that it has been discussed in Harmonica Happenings and more than one person has suggested it to harp-l, unaware of its past history.

This tuning is most easily made from a Richter tuned chrom like the Koch or Hohner Slide Harp. However, the upper four draw reeds on each plate need to be raised by quite an amount, so it may be preferable to replace them. Also, it's probably better to use a G harp as a starting point, as the reeds at the upper range will be a bit to high for their length. A 10 hole version of this tuning will give you a rage of three octaves and a minor third. A 12-hole version will give you a range of almost four octaves, but retuning is not really an option for this one - reed replacement is the only practical way to go, starting with a the lowest C of a tenor tuned harp. A 16-hole version is would give you a range of more than five octaves, but I'm not sure that it is practical to build one.

The most common complaints about this tuning are its lack of chords and the difficulty in getting a good legato. Well, nobody complains about a saxophone's lack of chords! Besides, the only full chords available on a a regular solo tuned chrom in C are C, C#, Dm and Ebm. Great if you are playing "Malaguena" in the key if C, but a bit limited for general chord work. On hand, with the augmented triad tuning, you can fake twelve major chords by playing just the root and third (C and E for a Cmaj chord) and twelve minor chords by playing just the minor third and fifth (C and E for an Am chord).

As for legato, it is true that even the simplest phrases often require more changes of breath direction than some keys on the solo tuned harp (although the reverse is sometimes true)...

Altered Wholetone Tuning

... There is one solution suggested by Dr. Yeadon:

If the harp is tuned (in the slide out position) as follows:

Blow, Slide In   F# A#
Blow, Slide Out  G#
Draw, Slide Out  C# C#
Draw, Slide In   D# D#

The sequence C D E F on the typical augmented layout would require three changes of breath direction. Using the set-up shown here, it would require only one change.

James McKenzie Tuning

Finally, for the sake of completeness, I'll include the tuning which James McKenzie settled on for his twin-slide all blow notes chromatic. It is based on a repeating pattern of minor third/wholetone/wholetone/minor third. One way to lay this out on a regular chromatic would be:

Blow, Slide In   C# F# G# C#
Blow, Slide Out  Eb Bb
Draw, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide In   D# F# G# A# C# D#

This has several choice notes (the same pitches available as both blow or draw notes), a fairly consistent breathing pattern in several keys, a variety of intervals for double-stops. Different arrangements of it would give you a different range of possibilities.


Well, despite the length of this article, it has barely scratched the surface of this subject. If anyone has any more specific questions, I'd be happy to try to answer them.

Pat Missin
Harmonica Player

Ask Pat a more Specific Question.

Harp On! Harmonica Resources has a large amount of information regarding Altered Tunings including layouts in all keys, where scales lie over them, articles on the benefits and drawbacks, as well as references to other altered layout harmonica resources.


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