Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Cheating with Altered Tunings
Cheating with Altered Tunings
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723 posts
Jan 13, 2018
9:47 AM
I love Manji harps, but I also love Lee Oskar Altered Tunings! A couple of Slide/Rack Harp improvisations I did yesterday.

Paul Cohen aka Komuso Tokugawa
HarpNinja - Learn Harmonica Faster
Komuso's Music Website

Last Edited by Komuso on Jan 13, 2018 9:48 AM
2 posts
Jan 14, 2018
12:28 AM
Good music, but I just gotta comment... I love when people think of something which makes certain activities easier as "cheating." It's like the end goal is the effort, not enjoyable music.
11 posts
Jan 14, 2018
7:49 AM
Nice! I think they sound awesome.

On the subject of alternate ttunings and cheating:

I think there a few different reasons to use an alternate tuning. Here are a few I can think of.

1. The song is in a key that is not one of the modes of the major scale.

2. The song is in a style that has a signature sound, better produced by a harp tuned a certain way.

3. To spark new creative ideas. This happens when people start experimenting with alternate tunings on guitar too. Certain things just happen because of notes not being where you are used to them being.

4. To play an idea more naturally because of not having to fight to hit certain notes. I think especially if you are playing on a rack while playing guitar, it is ok to make things a little easier on yourself by grabbing a minor tuned harp, for instance.

5. Unfortunately most of the time I run into harp players using alternate tunings irl, it is solely as a substitute for learning their instrument. I know several guys personally who, any time you call a minor tune, reach for a Lee Oskar minor tuned harp. If they don't have the right key they just don't play the song and say 'I don't have that key.' This is when it is OK to call alternate tunings cheating...and with a lot of contempt and disdain in your voice as well! Haha

I am kidding about the contempt and disdain (sort of), but this does really annoy me more than it should.
3255 posts
Jan 14, 2018
8:32 AM
What's up Paul! Long time since we last chatted... You know my feelings on alternative tuning layouts. It ain't cheating, it's just different. Lol! Anyway, you are sounding good as ever on those cuts, my friend!

Super Awesome!
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1258 posts
Jan 14, 2018
9:15 AM
I find it interesting that whenever guys talk about alternate tunings, Lee Oskar harps inevitably comes up. The most common alternate tunings, IMO, are Natural and Harmonic Minor. At least, that’s what I get calls for most often. It is sort of amusing that guys do not realize that Hohner and Suzuki both offer minor tuned harps and Seydel, with their Configurator Tool, offers anything you can think of. Nothing against Lee Oskar at all, but just thought I would throw that out there. The fact that many guys who play customized Hohners or Suzukis, still tend to lean toward Lee Oksars is a testament to Lee’s branding and marketing.

I had a couple of long conversations with Lee last year. He’s a very nice man. Everyone knows that the trend in the diatonic harmonica world is to find ways to play new kinds of music with them. Tricked up harps capable of producing overblows and overdraws are a big part of that. So are half-valved harps and extra-reed harps like the SUB-30. Lee’s approach is to use alternate tunings. For any of you who have ever taken apart a Lee Oskar harp, they have very simple construction. Two cover plate screws. Three reed plate screws, and they are completely disassembled. Lee’s concept is totally modular. He is not a fan of overblows, etc. He actually has a vision of guys swapping out reed plates in the middle of live performances while on stage in order to make the instrument suitable for a song that requires a different tuning. That doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me, but that is what I gathered from our conversations.

So, I am sure that Lee would agree with Explorer that using alternate tuning is not “cheating”. It is pretty much exactly what his strategy is.

Tom Halchak
Blue Moon Harmonicas
Blue Moon Harmonicas
2410 posts
Jan 14, 2018
9:42 AM
As a serial tuning offender, let me speak.
First of all, there should be no reason you can't have the altered tuned harps all available onstage when you start, harps aren't that expensive.
Al and Judy Smith did this, with orchestral harps, that was probably expensive.
Secondly, horses for courses--I played a gig recently, and an audient told me that from a distance, the harp sounded like an accordion.
That was the desired effect, chords other than the ones available on the German standard tuning I'm not supposed to refer to as Richter.
And scales--I recently made a Double Harmonic Major diatonic, it was weird--but then I found a Power Chromatic I had retuned to Harmonic Minor, and it was even cooler.
Here's the video.
9704 posts
Jan 14, 2018
2:40 PM
Sweetblood, on the subject of creativity, I've got two songs... one is a Irish jig, the other is a Klezmer tune, that are basically just the same main riff played on a different tuning (Major and Harmonic Minor). Completely different sound, and I change them a bit after the main play through, but basically it's a 2fer.

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724 posts
Jan 14, 2018
4:26 PM
Hey all!

Of course I don't think it's "cheating" just thought I'd be a little title provocative to poke the forum bear;-)

Thanks for the perceptive replies, I agree with all your points re: Musicality, cognitive load, ease of use, creativity etc

It would be great to hear more examples of altered tuning use!

Paul Cohen aka Komuso Tokugawa
HarpNinja - Learn Harmonica Faster
Komuso's Music Website
725 posts
Jan 14, 2018
4:30 PM
@Gnarly Interesting tuning! Hungarian minor is really useful, that gypsy scale is bluesy roots world music style.

Paul Cohen aka Komuso Tokugawa
HarpNinja - Learn Harmonica Faster
Komuso's Music Website
2411 posts
Jan 14, 2018
8:47 PM
@Komuso It would be more impressive if I have mastered the tuning before making a video 8^)
What I found interesting is that, after thinking that one up (and manifesting it), I went looking thru my boxes of altered tuned harps, and found the Power Chromatic I had retuned to Harmonic Minor--it's also fully chromatic, and the chords are more useful.
The best tuning is the one that lets you let the music out.

And my YouTube channel is lousy with altered tunings, check it out . . .

I like the one with the wizard hat where I play Amazing Grace on a LeGato tuned slide harp--talk about cheating . . .

Last Edited by Gnarly on Jan 14, 2018 8:52 PM
2412 posts
Jan 14, 2018
8:57 PM
Also, check out what Rory Hoffman is doing with a custom tuned slide harp he had Seydel make for him--
I haven't taken the time to reverse engineer it, but it's harmonic minor of some sort.
He wrote me to say he has two tunings he has developed--but he didn't tell me what they are!
73 posts
Jan 15, 2018
10:12 AM
It's not cheating if it sounds good.
It's called innovating.
If it sounds bad it's still not cheating,
it just sounds bad.
Jim Rumbaugh
1284 posts
Jan 15, 2018
10:42 AM
If you have the money and room and organization for specially tuned harps, I say go for it.

If you think you NEED a special tuned harp, I like to quote a conversation I had with Pat Misson. He said, "special tuned harps makes some songs very very easy to play, but it makes also makes other tunes very very hard to play"

theharmonicaclub.com (of Huntington, WV)
727 posts
Jan 15, 2018
3:45 PM
>> I like to quote a conversation I had with Pat Misson. He said, "special tuned harps makes some songs very very easy to play, but it makes also makes other tunes very very hard to play"

Nice quote, but that applies equally well to "standard" tuning.

I firmly believe Musicality should be the guiding principle for harp/tuning selection on a song. Sometimes you want those bent Richter reed sounds, other times they just don't fit the song - tonally, ergonomically, or otherwise. Using another tuning just makes musical sense. Another key benefit, as mentioned previously, is they move you out of your comfort zone and stimulate you creatively as well as force you to learn more about what you're doing.

Actually I've been working on these two new tunes (and a bunch of others) using 4th and 3rd position and it was on a whim that I decided to try the other tunings for them this time.
Undecided which I'll go with eventually but having flexibility to explore musically (and musicality) is the real value of altered tunings.

Tunings are also an open window into defining your own sound/style.

Guitar isn't any different. I don't play so called standard tuning on guitar at all, I've only ever played so called altered tunings. On Trembling Slow in Dm I would normally use Open D but this time I decided not to retune and did it in Dm on Open G tuning. It gives it a different feel and flavor to using Open D which I might stick with.

Altered tunings, whatever the instrument, open up worlds of musical possibility (and learning!) that you're not experiencing if you limit yourself to so called "standard" tuning. It's just a tuning, nothing more, nothing less.

That said, I'm talking about using harmonica musically in a much wider context than "traditional" blues (whatever that means, see recent MBH threads for that can of worms) - so if you're only playing a very core blues style then you may well be quite happy to work that groove via position playing on a richter tuned harp.

Paul Cohen aka Komuso Tokugawa
HarpNinja - Learn Harmonica Faster
Komuso's Music Website

Last Edited by Komuso on Jan 15, 2018 4:27 PM
197 posts
Jan 16, 2018
7:17 AM
I am addicted to Am and Dm natural minor harps.

Play along to these 2 songs and you will be addicted, too:

Try The Animals' House of the Rising Sun using the Am natural minor, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd's Blue On Black with the Dm.
2413 posts
Jan 16, 2018
7:23 AM
And you don't have to use Lee Oskar harps, the Suzuki Manji comes in natural minor--and Seydel will make any tuning you want (within the limits of their reedstock).
I like to "roll my own" because it's faster and cheaper, but Seydel is a great resource for altered tunings.
198 posts
Jan 16, 2018
8:21 AM
Btw, I'm talking about SECOND POSITION playing !! Gnarly can tune one up for you for 2nd position playing.
2414 posts
Jan 16, 2018
12:46 PM
Right, the Manjis are labeled in first position, but we make sure they play in second position just like the Lee Oskars and Seydels.
Does Hohner still make natural minor harmonicas?
The Iceman
3444 posts
Jan 16, 2018
2:18 PM
I admit I used to think that using altered tunings was "cheating" until I actually started to play around with a few - perhaps my resistance was due to the fact that one must learn a new map for where all the notes live.

What got me excited was playing different altered tunings in different positions - beyond the usual first and second ones. A whole new world of possibilities seemed to open up, especially using TB technique for that back beat chording.

So, I'm a believer now in alternate tunings. They suggest new vistas/possibilities.
The Iceman
59 posts
Jan 16, 2018
6:36 PM
It's only cheating if you use it to play bad music.

Otherwise it is expanding the range of what your instrument can do.

Simplest alt tuning is paddy. I don't love it but if you play music that relies on a low A that needs to be long, clear, and steady...then you would be messing up by staying with richter tuning.
440 posts
Jan 16, 2018
8:39 PM
I agree that a Paddy raised blow 3 can be a nice variation.
It gives you the 5th on the V chord as a strong note that is a lot easier to 'hang' on than the step bend on the the 3 draw.
It can make a nice change of dynamics if for instance you are playing a lot of solos in a particular tune if you swap from your standard harp to a Paddy.
Also of course it is a big bonus if you play in third position.

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