Harmonica Tunings Explained – Low Tunings and Range
We’ve examined keys, tunings and playing positions in previous posts, but it recently occurred to me that some players, especially beginners, can be confused by specific pitch designations when buying a harmonica. Questions like ‘is a G harp lower than a C harp?’ or what’s a “Low Low F?’ crop up with surprising regularity in my job, so perhaps it’s time to look at the key naming conventions and try to achieve some clarity.
Let’s look first at a 10 hole Richter-tuned diatonic in C. The first hole blow note will be C4. To put this into a more easily visualised context, C4 is also known as middle C, and is found very close to the middle of most piano keyboards. The 10th hole blow note will also be a C, but it will be 3 octaves higher, making it a C7. It’s interesting to note that C7 is considerably above the upper range of a soprano, so we’re talking about a fairly high note here!
Taking C as our starting point, we can then visualise the relative positions of all of the standard keys: Db, D, Eb, E, F and F# are all higher than C (ie, with their lowest note to the right of middle C on a piano keyboard), whilst G, Ab, A, Bb and B are all lower than C (ie to the left of middle C on a piano keyboard).
Now we know the relative pitches of the standard keys, we can examine the high and low keys that fit on the extremities. High G is the only high key typically encountered, and this occupies a slightly squeaky place one semitone above standard F#. The low keys start with Low F#, which, given that F# is close to the highest standard tuning, and Low F# is an octave below this, means that it’s not strikingly low in pitch, being around half an octave lower than standard C. This explains, perhaps, why Low Low F, which is a further octave lower in pitch, is available in many low tuned harmonicas.
So, in order of pitch, from highest to lowest, the keys look like this: Low F#, Low F, Low Eb, Low D, Low Db, Low C, Low B, Low Bb, Low A, Low Ab, Low G, Low Low F.
It’s worth noting that the lower the pitch of the harmonica, the harder it is to bend notes effectively. The reasons for this are quite complex and relate both to the greater mass of the lower tuned reeds and to some complicated physics theory involving resonance, which is somewhat beyond the scope of this article! Just be aware, though, that you’re unlikely to be able to do the same sort of bending on a Low Low F harp as you can easily achieve on one tuned to standard C.
So, why would you want a low tuned harmonica if they make bending harder? The reasons are multiple, but perhaps the most common use for a low tuning harp is for playing along with a guitar, either in a band or a solo situation. E is a popular key for guitar-based pieces, but a standard E harp is rather on the high side when accompanying in first position. Low E, in comparison, has a deeper, richer sound, and is not so low as to make bending off limits.
Similarly, many bands detune a semitone or a tone in order to suit the vocal range of the singer. This is where Low F# and Low F harps come in, for the reasons listed above.
Of course, some players just like the sound and depth of a low tuned harp, or want to occupy a lower frequency range in the mix than traditional tunings.
Makes and Models
Now we’ve got an understanding of the relative pitches and uses of low tuned harps, it’s time to examine our options in terms of manufacturers and models. Seydel, Suzuki, Hohner and Lee Oskar all make low tuned harmonicas, although the range does vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Seydel has, perhaps the largest range, with low tunings being available for most of its 10 hole diatonic harmonicas. The least expensive is the Session Standard, which is a great entry point for any player looking to dip their toes into the waters of low tunings. At the top end are the 1847 harps, which share the same construction and great tone as their standard tuned counterparts, but are available in a complete range of low tunings.
Our pick of the bunch, though, due to its offering the most bang for the buck, is the Session Steel, which features extremely durable stainless steel reed plates and is available in all of the popular low keys.
Hohner’s low tuning range is restricted to two main harmonicas; the Rocket Low and the Thunderbird. The Rocket Low is part of the Progressive Series (which also features the Special 20) and is essentially a low tuned version of the standard Rocket – basically a louder Special 20. The Thunderbird, in comparison, is a low tuned Crossover, so shares its bamboo comb and is positioned at a similarly premium pricepoint. Both are great sounding and playing harmonicas, so your choice is really a question of personal preference and budget.
Suzuki offers low F as a key for many of its harmonicas, but it is only the Manji that is available in a full range of low tunings. This has a wood/resin hybrid comb, which is perfect for players who like the sound and feel of a wooden comb, but want the durability and swell resistance of plastic.
Lee Oskar has recently introduced a full range of low keys in its major diatonic range. It’s worth noting that he new low tuning reed plates are compatible with any of the Lee Oskar harps, so if you have an old Lee Oskar harmonica sitting in a drawer you can upgrade to a low tuning one just by purchasing a set of reed plates.
What if you want to be able to play very low notes, but not sacrifice the upper range, though? Luckily there is a harp for you in the form of the Brendan Power Lucky 13. These feature a standard tuning pattern (Richter, Paddy Richter, Powerdraw or Powerbender) on holes 4-13, with a low tuned octave on the additional holes 1-3. They sound great and are decent value considering you’re effectively getting two harps for the price of one!
As ever, let us know if you have any questions.