I recently blogged about the Seydel Big Six and how the attempt to chromaticize Blues Harmonicas only destroys the very philosophy of its own original voice.
That philosophy, born from the oppressed good black folks of America, speaks of the strength to make the most of what little you have and the meditation therefore, to create more from less.
It is only natural then of the Blues Harpist, to recreate or arrange melodies from other genres in a way that satisfies both the instrument’s demands and the listener’s ear.
More than often this means not only an alteration of style, but to manipulate the existence of notes which are not naturally sounding in the Harmonica.
This is a technique called ‘bending’.
Whilst they may sound harsh if held too long, or whence unnaturally forced to support a piece of weighty Bach, whence employed as careful “passing notes” they can often convey a very subtle beauty of speech.
Yet therein, due to their unnatural sounding, there is an element of truth in what modern harmonica players say, that sometimes if just one note of their instrument were changed, then so would their entire world.
The problem is which note, or notes, to change and how to integrate these without sacrificing the fundamentally natural characteristics of the Blues Harp’s voice.
The way I see it there are two types of Blues Harmonica player.
- One who plays mostly blues and sometimes everything else.
- One who plays mostly everything else and sometimes blues.
Yet the ONE thing both these types of player have in common, is that BLUES HARP however often played, is a VITAL requirement of their instrument.
Thus if you are going to change the instrument’s tuning to accommodate more genres, you need to do it in a way that DOES NOT CHANGE the fundamentally natural characteristics of the Blues Harp’s voice.
Straight off the bat, this means keeping the two primary blow and draw chords, the 1st and 4th, which on a C tuned harp are G Major and C Major.
Furthermore, the G Major requires a blues 7th more than regularly as this is a pinnacle note of all blues music.
Indeed, whilst decreasing in priority, a cascade is then created of further notes which must remain easily accessible, such as the flattened 5th, a howling blue note defining many a tune.
The flattened 3rd again is paramount, and so in the end we realise when putting all these notes together, they are each and all as vital a component of any Blues Harp tune as the very existence of the instrument itself.
Woe behold, CHANGING how a Blues Harmonica is tuned, in order to allow melodies of all other genres to be played in a way that they sound NATURAL, would only destroy the very infrastructure that allows a Blues Harpist… to play Blues Harp.
Or would it?
I had looked at Country Tuning once or twice before, yet at the time did not feel the urge to study a tuning which eliminates the blues 7th from my chordal arrangements.
After all, what was the point in a Blues Harp, without blues chords?
Then, this year the one thing that drives me red with rage forced me to revisit. And that is the missing Major 7th.
Without a shadow of a doubt, no matter what gently melodic pastime of a tune you wish to play on the Blues Harp, the one most aggravating note you are going to pull your hair out over each and every time, is the missing Major 7th in second position.
Basically the f# on a C harp.
Granted, as is the skillful craftywork of a Blues Harpist, the idea is to arrange the tune into a different key or position that brings more of the available notes within your grasp.
It’s a neat little trick… but it doesn’t work all the time. In fact if you want the notes to resonate naturally, without sounding tortured to perform miracles, you may find yourself running out of options very fast.
Options you will find, all revolving back around that missing Major 7th.
How it works
Country Tuning is actually exactly the same as standard Diatonic Richter tuning, except for one note and that is the Five Hole Draw.
This Major 4th of the harp’s key, or flattened 7th of the harp’s cross key, is basically SHARPENED by a semitone, to become the Major 7th of the cross key.
So basically an f# on a C harp.
When I realised everything else in this tuning remains identical to the standard, it dawned on me that there might not be much lost for what is gained.
I said to myself, if I can still BEND that 5 Draw note back down to the flattened 7th, then I will still have the blues notes of a standard Blues Harp.
Ok so the actual blues CHORD won’t sound the same, but it will nevertheless be passable with practice.
EUREKA STRIKES for as I begin to submit my mind to the concept of a sharpened 4th, a myriad upon myriad of seemingly orchestrally colourful patterns overwhelm my consciousness.
No, there is no G7 chord.
Instead however, there is not only GMaj7… but BMin7, DMaj, DMaj+6, F#MinAug5… and more. In fact with tongue blocking, arpeggiation and phrasing a ZILLION new melodic possibilities endlessly flourish from one’s lips.
It’s nothing less than a jazztastic playground!
Furthermore, not only can the blues 7th be bent BACK into the scale, but the blues 5 chord can now be played AS A CHORD instead of an arpeggio!
Aye, that is indeed DMaj on a C harp ~ yet brace yourself again, for with some clever bluesgrassy bending… thoust doth prepare to make thineself cryeth ~ trust me.
So there we have it.
There is definitely a good reason Country Tuning was created and whatever that might have been way back in its birth days, you can bet your life there are more reasons today.
At the beginning of this article I spoke of two kinds of Blues Harpist. If you are the second…
… grab some Country.