Tuning with Poster Putty

Introduction

Want to try out an altered tuning but hate using a file?

I’ve had a lot of fun lately using poster putty (known outside the US as “Blu-Tac”) to drop the pitch of reeds and experiment with alternate tunings. Here’s the really neat part: if you don’t like the results, unstick the putty and you’re back to normal. No harm done; it’s completely reversible. Brendan Power pioneered this technique years ago, and I either heard about it from him or from Pat Missin. There’s also been a good amount of discussion of tuning harmonicas using putty / Blu Tac on Harp-L and the ModernBluesHarmonica forum.

Dorian Tuning
One of the easiest tunings to attempt is “Dorian,” which turns 2nd position cross harp from major to minor. While Dorian Tuning is usually thought of as a really easy way to get jazzy sounds in a familiar position, it also turns 1st position into Mixolydian, which is a neat modal major sound for Celtic music. But I digress.

Just change two notes: drop the 3 and 7 draw by a 1/2 step.

Because these are both draw notes, they’re accessible on the outside of the reedplate, which means you don’t have to fully disassemble the harp to retune them.

On a C harp, the 3 and 7 draw will be a B. You’ll retune them both to B-flat. If you use a different key harmonica, just make your target pitch for 3 and 7 draw a half-step lower than the original note.

Let’s get started!

Supplies you’ll need:

1. Poster Putty or Blu-Tac ($5 at office supply store)
2. X-acto style craft knife
3. C Harmonica
4. Chromatic Electronic Tuner
5. Paper receipt or other thin shim
6. Small Screwdriver

Prepare the harp:

1. Remove cover plates of harmonica
2. Turn harp over, so draw reeds are visible.
3. Insert paper or shim gently under the 3 draw reed

Prepare the putty:

1. Cut off a TINY corner with your Xacto knife.
2. Roll it on the table until it’s a TINY thin tube.
3. Cut off a TINY piece of that thin tube.

Did I mention you’ll only need a TINY amount of putty? You’ll get a feel for how much is enough after you’ve experimented a bit, but generally, start with less than you might think you’d need.

Tuning:

1. Make sure the 3 draw reed is supported by the shim. Use the Xacto blade to place a tiny piece of putty on the free, weighted end of the Draw 3 reed. Press the putty gently so it sticks to the reed.

2. Use the Xacto blade to shape the putty so it doesn’t squish out beyond the edge of the reed. That’ll ensure the reed swings freely without catching in the slot.

3. Remove the shim and play the 3 draw. Your tuner will tell you if you’ve made it to the target note.

Fine Tuning:

1. Lower Pitch: If you’re too high and need to lower the pitch further, cut off another TINY piece of putty from the tube you rolled out, and stick it on top of what you’ve added so far. Use the knife blade to shape the putty so it doesn’t squish beyond the edge of the reed.

2. Raise Pitch: If you’re too low and need to raise the pitch a little, remove the putty, cut off a TINY bit from it, and reapply.

3. You can also adjust the pitch moving the putty closer or farther from the free end. Closer to the free end lowers the pitch, farther from the free end raises it.

4. Smaller reeds require less putty.

Repeat this process until 3 and 7 draw are tuned a half-step lower. That’s B-flat, if you’re starting with a B.

Afterward
Have fun with your new, custom-tuned harmonica, and rest easy, knowing it’s reversible! To get back to standard tuning, just remove the putty and you’re home free. Or leave it on! If the reeds are dry to start with, the putty seems to stay put pretty well. If a piece gets unstuck, disassemble, find the rogue blob inside the comb or coverplate and reapply, or use a new tiny piece of putty.

Exhilarated by this new world of altered harmonica tunings? Check out Pat Missin’s great guide, titled “Altered States

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