Here’s a sketch of several harmonica tunings I’ve messed around with.
Bends a Bonus, But Not Required – You can dive right into these first three tunings without any bending skill. If you can bend already, it’s always handy, but these tunings are particularly good for beginners.
Spiral / Circular – takes you straight up the diatonic major scale, no missing notes, draw is always higher than blow, and all bends are only a half-step. Two popular variations place the tonic note on 1 blow or 2 draw. Great for diatonic melodies, improvising, and fiddle tunes. Also has beautiful chords, can be folky or jazzy for rhythm work. If you’re crazy, you can use any scale as the basis for a spiral tuning: minor, harmonic minor, whole tone…the mind boggles.
Paddy Richter – just a plain ol’ diatonic harp with the 3 blow tuned up a whole step. Gives you the 6th scale degree in 1st position without having to bend. Great for pentatonic melodies, especially Irish fiddle tunes. Provides a nice minor chord starting on the 3 blow. Popularized/invented by Brendan Power.
Easy Third – 2 and 3 draw are tuned down a whole step. Gives you a giant minor draw chord with roots on the 1 and 4 draw. “Easy Third” refers to the ease with which this tuning plays 3rd position minor tunes, esp in low octave. Good for Dorian minor tunes that omit the major 7th. Also awesome for tongue blocking chords whilst playing minor melodies.
Bending is a Must – these next three tunings require skill at bending in the low octave…
PowerBender – normal layout from 1-4, then different from 5-10. Consistent breath pattern: all draws higher than blows, so lots of draw bends, hence “PowerBender.” Particularly cool in 2nd Position, allowing you to move low octave blues riffs up high to the next octave with basically no change in technique. Another Brendan Power tuning.
Dorian – 3 and 7 draw tuned down a 1/2 step, so you get Dorian Minor in Second Position. You could also call this the Mixolydian Tuning, because 1st position gives you a major scale with a minor 7th.
Natural Minor – gives you a minor chord on the draw and also on the blow. I’m mainly interested in this for rhythm work, but there’s no reason one couldn’t get great use out of it for natural minor melodies.
And then there’s this neat one that requires tongue blocking…
Bagpipe Tuning – as used by James Conway, you tune the 1 draw down so it matches the blow, and tune the 2 blow up so it matches the 2 draw. 3 and 7 draw come down a half step. The end effect is a really primal sounding tonic chord on the blow AND draw, allowing you to tongue block and keep a constant drone out of the left side of your mouth, regardless of breath direction, while playing modal melodies on the right side.
Simplicity vs. “The Right Tool For the Job”
Why fool around with any of this? Well, every tuning has something it does particularly well, and why not use the “right tool for the job?” I spent a year or two experimenting with alternate tunings and found that I played fiddle tunes MUCH more cleanly using Paddy Richter, for instance. I eventually found my way back to standard tuning, out of a desire to have a single set of techniques and scale patterns for all my music. But I can really see the appeal of alternate tunings for specialized purposes. Spiral works brilliantly for melodies and improv, and is so intuitive. It probably ought to be everyone’s first harmonica. Natural Minor is so strong for chord vamping, especially in reggae songs. And cross harp fanatics can get EVEN MORE CROSS HARP out of a PowerBender. Why not? Give some of these a try. Diatonic harps aren’t THAT expensive. Or, if you’re of a technical bent, use an old harp and tune one up yourself with files, poster putty, or reed replacement.