Blues Harp Review
From the "Ländler" to the Blues - Cross Harp versus 1. Position

Special tunings as optimizations for different purposes

Discussion of the 2nd Position in Richter System

1. Der Grundton in 2o

2. Die große Terz in 3o

3. Die kleine Sekunde als Naturton in 3-

4. Quarte und Quinte in 4- und 4o

5. Die große Sexte in 5-

6. Die kleine Septime in 5o

7. Die Oktave in 6-

8. Die Besetzung von 6-

9. Der Blasrichtungswechsel ab Hole 7


From the "Ländler" to the Blues - Cross Harp versus 1. Position→ Top of Page
When Joseph Richter from Bohemia designed a note layout for the harmonica around 1825 he would not have dreamed that it would later acquire as blues harp worldwide recognition. Richter had the traditional music of his homeland in mind when he developed his concept and might not have even heard of blues. But it was his "Richter Tuning" which was manufactured two years later by Johan Langhammer from Kraslice in significant quantity and came with the emigrants to the U.S..

Once in the blues kitchen the instrument was played no more in the first position as Richter had intended for the folk music of his homeland but in the second, the cross-harp position that was more suitable for blues ( → Blues inthe 2nd Position). With the change of position of course one also lost the advantage which Richter's concept was aiming at: the availability of tonic, subdominant and dominant executed as a dominant seventh chord.

The cross harper only had tonic, subdominant and a minor chord on the fifth stage and insofar lost of all the dominant function. On the other hand he could bend down smoothly the major to the minor third and reduce the fifth to the blue note - and thus achieve a bluesy expression that became highly influential. The history of blues and cross harp playing shows that for this preference the loss of the classical cadence chords was accepted. Additionally cross harpers also accepted the absence of the minor third in the next octave which limited the playing at least until the discovery of the overblow technique.

Only since the discovery of the overblow technique we know that the blues scale and even the chromatic scale can be played in the first position. Still it remains questionable if the first position with these high technical demands could have gained as much importance as the second position (→ Blues in the 1st Position).

Special tunings as optimizations for different purposes→ Top of Page
Although cross harp playing adapts the Richter system to the blues in the lower octave we shall see below in more detail that it can not compensate significant disadvantages of the layout. From the optimization potential of the blues harp result some of the many layout alternatives known as special tunings.

Other styles of music and other scales provide additional reasons for specific changes to the note layout. Certain special tunings like e.g. Chord, Spiral and Solo tuning are developed for specific purposes such as accompanying and melody playing.

Most radically breaking with the Richter Tuning are those tunings which even cast into doubt the general designation of the instrument as diatonic by aiming completely at chromatic playing. Thus the Diminished and the Augmented Tuning are provided for the use of a harmonica in all keys.
Discussion of the 2nd Position in Richter System→ Top of Page

1. The lowest root note of the blues scale is for the cross harp in the second channel where it is running as a draw note allowing perfect tone shaping. Besides the 1 1/2 step lower blow note in the same hole1 allows a wonderfully bluesy bending of the first through the major seventh to the minor seventh (hereinafter abbreviated as: 1, 7, b7).
 Hole 12345 678910
 Blow 4614614614
 Draw 5135b7235b72
 ½-bend  7
 Whole tone bend  b7
2. The major third in 3o (read: 3 draw) also lies ideally:

•  As a draw the note is optimally modulateable.

•  The 3 in 3o and the 2o complement one another to the tonic.

•  The 3 can be bend very bluesy to the b3 and the 2. Actually down to the b2; however -

this 1 1/2 step bend to the b2 is enabled by the repitition of the first in 3- (read: 3 blow). This duplication gives away the possibility of placing a fürther blow note on the harp without gaining anything in return: The fifth of the subdominant is dispensable and the three chromatic bends b3 - 2 - b2 are hard to pitch precisely in quick progressions.

3. If we place the b2 in 3- we obtain

•   a chromatic note that we find much easier than in a chromatic bending run.
 Hole 12345 678910
 Blow 46b24614614
 Draw 5135b7235b72
 ½-bend  b3
 Whole tone bend  2

4. Fourth and fifth in hole 4- and 4o also are well placed:

•   The fourth in the middle of the blues scale provides a good possibilty to regulate breathing as a blow note .

•   The fifth in 4o is optimally modulateable as a draw note and

•   allows as counterpart of 4- the typical bending to the blue note.
 Hole 12345 678910
 Blow 46b24614614
 Draw 5135b7235b72
 ½-bend  b3 b5
 Whole tone bend  2
5. The major sixth in 5- is an important note of the dorian blues scale but gets in the way of placing the b6 in 5- in analogy to the b2 in 3-. With b6 in 5- we gain

•  a good playable chromatic note for lead playing as well as

•  a nice bluesy sixth as a bend in the same hole

and lose

—  the major third of the subdominant chord for chord rhythms.

According to the intended use we may decide for a compromise in favor of either lead or rhythm playing (compare to → Alternative for Chord Rhythm). In this case I pursue the purpose of lead playing because a better compromise for chord playing is provided by other concepts (→ Spiral Tuning).
 Hole 12345 678910
 Blow 46b24b614614
 Draw 5135b7235b72
 ½-bend  b3 b5
 Whole tone bend  2
6. The minor seventh in 5o does not appear favorable: although the b7 in 5o is an important and well modulateable note we disclaim this way the b7 as a beautiful bend and at the same time the major third of the dominant chord. The missing b7 drawbend also means a disadvantage in terms of the overall impression of the sound because in this part of the blues scale bendings are underrepresented. Thus we transfer the arrangement of the major third in 3o to the major seventh in 5o and gain the analogous advantages:

•  The 7 in 5o can be bend bluesy to the b7 and the 6. Corresponding to hole 3 this results in a more coherent sound because the bends are allocated evenly upon the blues scale.

•  The 7 as a draw note is good modulateable and doesn't have to be played as an overblow.

•  The 7 in 5o and the 4o complement one another to the dominant.

 Hole 12345 678910
 Blow 46b24b614614
 Draw 51357235b72
 ½-bend  b3 b5  b7
 Whole tone bend  2 6
Instead of the 7 we might of course also place the root note in 5o. The result would be a very clear and tight layout with only three holes for all the twelve notes:
 Hole 12345 678910
 Blow 46b24b614614
 Draw 51358235b72
 ½-bend  b3 b5  7
 Whole tone bend  2 b7
 1½-bend  6
This way we would have designed a layout related to the Augmented Tuning with a lower degree of difficulty though as long as we stay in the key. However I would like to stay with the major seventh in 5o because I think that the resulting concept is better for most players in terms of degree of difficulty and compromise between chordal and lead playing.

7. Putting the eighth in 6- as a blow note brings the disadvantage of worse modulation capability and above all leads into a break of the foregoing playing pattern. We know that Josef Richter's priority objective of having the tonic in all blow holes forced him to this step but for the cross harper this is without any benefit. On the contrary the fifth of the subdominant is disposable and does not justify neither putting the eighth as a blow note nor changing the playing pattern.

The same playing pattern in every octave is ideal especially for the imporvising musician and should not be given up for no good reason. So I decide for the eighth in 6o.

8. Now 6- is free and if we look at the first in 2o and the associated blow we might also put the major sixth in 6-. On the other hand we already have the major sixth in 5o and would waste the chance of placing a further note. The major sixth in 6- would allow us bending the eighth to the b7. But the b7 too we have as bend in 5o. So the reason for sytaying with the major sixth here would be the very nice slide from the eighth to the b7 and vice versa.
 Hole 12345 678910
 Blow 46b24b664614
 Draw 513578 35b72
 ½-bend  b3 b5  b7 7
 Whole tone bend  2 6 b7
Instead of the 6 in 6- we could choose the b7 to use the blow hole for an important note of the scale. The minor seventh would now be available both as a bend and as a plain note being advantageous for quick playing. On the
Optimized Blues Tuning I have chosen this alternative but I think that it is a matter of taste.

9. The change of the breathing direction beginning with hole 7 probably has irritated many beginners. "Why are all of a sudden the blow notes higher than the draw notes? And why are no draw bends available any longer?"

As soon as we think of Josef Richter we understand: Richter wanted to complement the 5o with the major sixth in 6o to the subdominant and at the same time continue his tonic alignment in 7-. So he needed a scale note between 6o and 7-. As a solution he placed the missing major seventh in 7o and turned the succession of blow and draw.

In the given example of a Richter Tuning in D major:
 Intervalle der Tonika 13513 51351
 Blow df#adf#adf#ad
 Hole 12345 678910
 Draw eac#egbc#egb
 Intervalle der Dominante 5135b7 93 5b7 5
 Intervalle der Subdominante 139 b51313 b51313
Even from the point of view of someone who exclusively plays 1st position and plain notes one may ask whether Richter's decision was that fortunate or if another note arrangement like the
→ Spiral Tuning makes optimal use of the possibilities the construction of the diatonic harp provides. But for the cross harper the change of the breathing pattern more than ever does not bring advantages but considerable disadvantages:

—  The essentially important blue notes 3, b5 and the b3 in the topmost octave are only available by the demanding techniques overblow, overdraw and blowbend which will often be at the expense of musical modulation, intonation and a smooth flow of playing.

—   Playing patterns of the lower octave are not transferable to the upper and topmost octave.

—  The change of the breathing direction asks for a rethinking in the upper third of the harp which is confusing for beginners and aggravating for musicians who improvise.


With only three changes of the lower cross harp octave we now have won a note arrangement that combines best sound modulation, consistently bluesy sound, well manageable bending techniques, effortless chromatic playing and reasonable note sequences. The optimized chromatic playing pattern, which is repeated in all the octaves of the harmonica, gives the Optimized Blues Tuning a striking internal logic and is ideal for lead playing in blues, jazz, rock and pop music.

Playing pattern of the blues scale on the Optimized Blues Tuning:
 Hole 12345 678910
 Blow b6b7b24b6b7b24b6b7
 Draw 713571 3571
 ½-bend  b7 7 b3 b5  b7 7 b3 b5 b7 7
 Whole tone bend  2 6 2 6

Playing pattern of the blues scale on the Richter Tuning:
 Hole 12345 678910
 Blow 4614614614
 Draw 5135b7235b72
 ½-bend  b5 7 b3 b5b2
 Overblow b3
 Overdraw b5

For further comparisons see → Optimized Blues Tuning

1 A draw note can only be bend up to a half step towards the lower blow note in the same hole. Is there a "c" in 4- and a "d" in 4o the "d" can be bend to a "db" and not any lower. ↑