For generations Blues Harmonica players have been experimenting with different reed tuning setups for their instrument, to increase the musical possibilities in their repertoire.
To name just a few there is, Paddy Richter, Country or Super Country, Harmonic Minor, Natural Minor and even patented tunings by famous musicians such as the Wilde Rock Tuning by Will Wilde.
Why do these different tunings exist and why is there not simply a standard tuning which suits all styles of music?
Well it is quite a detailed discussion, but essentially it all comes down to the fact that the standard tuning of your common 10 hole blues harp was originally designed for playing chords and Major melodies as an accompaniment to band parades.
As such its chromatic capabilities or range of native keys is extremely limited.
Of course, since the discovery of various employable techniques such as bending and overblowing, these ‘limitations’ have almost, at least for the most part, become extinguished by a new ‘class of embouchure expertise’.
The once merely diatonic harmonica, became with the evolution of study and collaborative research, practically 100% chromatic ~ purely from embouchure technique alone.
Yet a hard truth remains.
Most learned players of the Blues Harp, whilst experts in the field of note bending, cannot or at least do not enjoy the challenge of the advanced technique known as ‘overblowing’.
Without employing this technique, your 10 hole diatonic harmonica is only 75% chromatic.
Spiritually, and as I have written before on the Seydel Big Six, it is only a natural understanding that the 10 hole Blues Harp should not ever become a fully chromatic instrument. For to actually grant these notes to the player in turn destroys the very philosophy of the instrument itself.
Blues Harp was born from the good souls of the poor and oppressed black folks of America, who’s very music spoke of a hope inside amidst the pain and gloom of their impoverished lives.
It was about making the most of all that one has.
In fact I have personally always found the limitations of the instrument to be a wonderful adventure into advanced development of musical phrasing and thus composition.
“A little box of magic,” is what I’ve always called it.
To pull out of your pocket this little metal box and take flight the most profoundest of a Flying Blue Persian Carpet is a ride beyond fantasy… beyond all dreams.
To the listener it is next to, if not true to, no less than a miracle.
In reality, learning to recompose phrases of popular tunes to marry the instrument’s native language, is what Blues Harp is all about.
Yet there is a pain.
Regardless of your expertise, techniques such as ‘overblowing’ inevitably produce a harsher tone than usual and oftentimes a very unpleasant noise. This is due to the unnaturally invoked mechanics of their sounding.
Or at least, certainly not the kind of voice you want to have sound in the middle of a piece of soft jazz.
Inevitably then, one will always stumble over a very hard rock whence trying to write certain pieces of music. This ‘very hard rock’ is made evermore so hardest, by the very fact that oftentimes all the player needs to solve their paradox… is one simple note change.
Enter… Blue Cross Tuning.
I have previously written about a similar kind of tuning, known as Country Tuning which likewise only entails the altering of a single reed frequency.
Yet the tuning I am describing here today is, although somewhat well known already, never given anywhere near as much prominence and publicity as it deserves.
Hell, until today… it didn’t even have a NAME.
Blue Cross Tuning, as I myself have decided to call it, involves the flattening of Hole 7 Draw. This note on a C Key harmonica, would be the Major 7th natural B flattened to a Bb.
As I am about to reveal, Blue Cross Tuning actually opens a hidden door into a most secret magical garden of the most exotic flowers.
Yet it is merely a one note change. This begs the question, if ‘Country Tuning’ which is also merely a one note change can gain so much popularity in the commercial market, then why can’t Blue Cross Tuning?
Here then, let me prove its divinity.
Thine Flying Carpet
To start, let me first reassure you that the natural Major 7th of the scale still actually exists, even though it has been flattened.
This is because the distance in frequency between Hole 7 Draw and Hole 7 Blow has now also changed, and sufficiently in fact to allow the player to bend down Hole 7 Blow by a full semi tone to the natural Major 7th of the scale.
Here then, are some further points of Blue Cross wonder.
- Playing in 1st position grants you a Blues 7th.
- Playing in 2nd position grants you a Minor 3rd.
- Playing in 3rd position grants you a Minor 6th.
- Playing in 4th position grants you a Phrygian 2nd.
- Playing in 5th position grants you a Blues 5th.
Now, when I say ‘Flying Carpet’ I am NOT joking. The various jazzy, meditative and mystical chords available in the now altered top end are something truly to admire.
The combination of A root, Bb, D, F & A tonic is quite exquisite. So in addition to the “Bb Maj 7” variations, we have ‘F Maj Sus 4‘, ‘G Min 7‘ (root arpeggio), ‘D Min Sus 6‘ and an ‘A Phryg Sus 4/6‘!
In fact merely running your lips up and down the top end will release a waterfall of exotic harmonies.
Why do I call it Blue Cross Tuning?
Exquisitely appropriate. That’s why. In fact it beggars belief why this particular tuning configuration has never been appropriately named before. Oh sure, it is often referred to as the ‘Flattened 7th‘ tuning, but only as a ‘Do It Yourself Knock Up‘.
The reason I call it Blue Cross Tuning is because it perfectly describes what is actually going on under the hood of the harmonica whence its biology has been altered in this way.
The Blue Cross Tuned harmonica is by name, a CROSSING of various scales over 10 holes. It is also by name, natively accomodating of the Blues 3rd, an essential note to playing in the most popular CROSS HARP position.
Again as I said earlier, it BEGGARS BELIEF why a note so VALUABLE to playing in the most common Blues Harp position is NOT a commercially available tuning setup.
Anywho, let me clarify what I mean by ‘Scale Crossings’.
A standard 10 hole diatonic harp accommodates any scale which would naturally cross with the Major scale it is tuned to. So for example on a C Key harp, we find A Minor and D Minor, yet only partially G Major and F Major.
Whilst the scale G Major continues to miss out on its natural Major 7th in the middle register of the harp, a whole new encyclopedia of alternative scales now await the Blue Cross playing enthusiast.
Hitherto, these are all the new additional scales available on a C Key harmonica whence Blue Cross Tuned.
- F Major. (Now incl. the 4th)
- G Minor. (Now incl. the 3rd)
- Bb Major. (Now incl. the 8th, but excl. the 4th)
- D Minor. (Now incl. the 6th)
- A Phrygian (Descending from the 2nd)
- C Persian (Now incl. the 7th)
Indeed some scales still require bending, for example Bb Major begins in the lower register with a Hole 3 Draw bend.
However these bends are truly irrelevantly easy to play and are of nowhere near the divine importance of the new naturally resonating relative notes now available in the top end.
The incredible irritation of a standard tuned 10 hole diatonic is that all these scales are virtually right there in the background, but because Hole 7 Draw is made the Major 7th instead of the Minor 7th, it literally BLOWS all these wondrous possibilities out the window, right before your very eyes.
Behold, for when it comes to Miles Davis’ “All Blues”, I now have a choice of playing Cross Harp position on a C Key Harmonica or mellowing away in 5th position on a Low Eb Harmonica.
Although to be honest, I find the G register on any C Key Harmonica Low or High, to be a terrible match for frequency when it comes to Miles Davis… and so in fact, with my new Blue Cross Tuned Low Eb Manji… why not play solo in Bb Cross?
It is time.
I believe Blue Cross Tuning should be a commercially available option, on the shelf right there next to all the others.
Granted, as I am about to show you, it is possible to turn your standard tuned 10 hole diatonic into a Blue Cross Tuned harmonica, at home, and with very little knowledge of harmonica manufacturing.
But at the end of the day, not everybody has nimble fingers, or a steady hand… or even the eyesight to see what they are doing.
So let’s get Blue Cross Tuning on the menu.
DIY Blue Cross
The image at the top of the page shows my finished workmanship after having successfully Blue Crossed my Eb Suzuki Manji. As you can see in the photo, one of the reeds has been given a white coloured tip. This is the Hole 7 Draw reed.
Lowering and raising the pitch of a reed isn’t necessarily a difficult process, but luckily, lowering the pitch is actually the easiest of the two.
- To raise the pitch, you remove a small amount of metal from the surface of the reed at its tip.
- To lower the pitch, you can either remove a small amount of metal from the surface of the reed at its base or add material, such as solder or heavy putty, to the surface of the reed near its tip.
The ‘white colour reed tip’ seen in the photo of my Suzuki Manji is actually… wait for it… TipEx.
I don’t own any putty, or particularly like spending money on things when I will only need a molecule or two of its contents. Luckily then, TipEx is a self bonding cement-like substance that is extremely easy to apply.
TipEx, whilst toxic if swallowed or inhaled, is only such a danger if not dried and bonded to the reed. For certain, the reeds themselves are also guaranteed life threatening if swallowed or inhaled, so MAKE SURE ALL IS WELL AND SECURE in your harp.
Disclaimer: I advise seeking more professional alternatives if convenient and as such I do not assume responsibility for any accident resulting from the guidance given in this article.
The screw on cap of your TipEx bottle contains an application brush, perfectly suited to this task.
Make sure there is only very little TipEx on the brush, so that you can be sure not to make a critical mess! You will only require an extremely tiny amount of the fluid.
With your brush only slightly damp, gently stroke the tip of the reed, coating over the end’s soldering. You will need to do this two or three times, letting each coat partially dry before applying the next.
With a small pin or file, gently ‘ping’ the reed to check its pitch each time you apply a new coat of TipEx.
Also be very careful not to put TipEx fluid in the gaps around the reed, or along the side or end of the reed where it vibrates up and down. Any fluid here will choke the reed, preventing it from sounding and probably causing it damage.
Penultimately, whence the TipEx is almost dried, support the underside of the reed with a very thin file or similar tool, whilst applying pressure with another similar tool to the top of the reed where you have painted, so as to make firm the bonding of the cement.
Be very careful in this process not to dislodge, knock, bend or otherwise misshape the reed as this will deem it unplayable.
Finally and this is very important… once you are sure the TipEx has dried, take a toothbrush or similar soft implement and gently brush over the reed tip so as to remove any loose particles which may have not completely bonded, blowing across the surface as you brush.
Et… voila! You now have a Blue Cross Tuned harmonica.
Thank you for reading and see you again soon!