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How is my double reed harmonica tuned?

By double-reed harmonica we mean those diatonics that use two reeds for each note. These pairs of reeds are either tuned an octave apart, giving a full organ-like sound, or they are tremolo-tuned, meaning that one reed is slightly higher in pitch than the other, giving a wavering shimmering effect. They are tuned diatonically, but it can sometimes be a little difficult for a beginner to make out the precise note layout of these harps.


First of all, the typical single reed diatonic harmonica uses what is technically known as the Richter system. This includes the Hohner Marine Band and Special 20, the Lee Oskar, the Suzuki ProMaster and FolkMaster, Hering Master Blues and Black Blues, Huang Silvertone and Star Performer, etc., etc. - all commonly known as "blues harps", "short harps" or just simply "diatonics". Some octave harps are essentially two Richter harps, one above the other. These are called Concert harmonicas, or Knittlinger Octave harps. Examples include the Hohner Marine Band Full Concert and Auto-Valve-Harp, the Seydel Concerto, etc. These have two rows of long rectangular holes in the mouthpiece, each hole containing a blow and a draw reed. They are tuned in a similar way to the Richter system. In the key of C, the tuning would be like this (blow notes on the upper row, draw notes on the lower row):

C E G C E G C E G C
D G B D F A B D F A

The upper set of reeds is tuned an octave below the lower set of reeds. Just to add a little confusion, in the case of some Knittlinger harps, including older versions of the Seydel Concerto, a higher key harp would start on the equivalent of hole two of a lower harp. For example, a C harp might start on E and add an extra blow E and draw B at the top end of the harp. (Seydel have also made some single reed diatonics with this layout):

E G C E G C E G C E
G B D F A B D F A B

I am informed that more recent production of the Seydel Concerto places the key note in hole 1 across the full range of keys.


Probably the most common layout for the double reed harps is the Weiner or Viennese system. Examples of this type of harp in tremolo tuning would be the Hohner Goliath and the various Echo models, Hering Vencedora and Seductora series, the Seydel Mountain Harp and Shanty 32 (but not the Shanty 40 and 48) tremolo harps and Club octave harps. They come in a wide range of sizes, but all of them have two rows of square holes, each containing a single reed. Some models are two-sided, with a different key on each side - these are called "Wender" models. There are also octave harps with the same layout, these include the various Hohner Comet models, the Hering Sonhadora and Serenata series, etc. They are also commonly available as two-sided models and they often feature a curved playing surface. Both these harps use a similar arrangement of notes, drawn from this extended pattern, given here in the key of C:

C E G C E G C E G C E G C E G
D G B D F A B D F A B D F A B

Obviously, a harp which included all the notes in this sequence would be a very long harp indeed, so depending on the size of the harp, it will include only a portion of this sequence.

Again, the catch is that not all models begin with the key note of the scale, so you can't rely on the lowest blow note to give you the key of the harp. Often a C instrument will have either E or G as the lowest note. However, there is an easy method for establishing the harp's key. Starting from the lowest blow note of the harp, climb up the scale note by note, blow-draw, blow-draw. After a few notes, you should find a point where there is a blow note with exactly the same pitch as the previous draw note - this is the key note of the draw chord of the harp (this would be G on a C harp, D on a G harp, A on a D harp, etc). Now, the blow note immediately to the right of the repeated note is the key note of the harp. From there, you should be able to figure the rest of the layout yourself.


Huang make a tremolo harp called the Musette and an octave harp called the Cathedral. Although they have those little square holes with one reed per cell, they use a similar tuning to that used by most chromatic harps, covering a range equivalent to a 12-hole chromatic. This layout is called Solo tuning and in the key of C looks like this:

C E G C C E G C C E G C
D F A B D F A B D F A B

Both or these harps are (or at least they were) available as a twin pack, including one harmonica in the key of C and one in the key of C#. By holding the two harps one above the other, the pair of harps could be used much like a chromatic harmonica. This style of playing has been developed to a fine art in the Far East (see this page for more about this technique). Solo tuning is also used on the Tombo 3624 tremolo and on the recently introduced Hohner Tremolo Soloist and Seydel Fanfare. The Tremolo Soloist is a variation of Hohner's venerable double sided Echo, this one having two octaves of solo tuning on each side, one side in C the other in G. The Seydel Fanfare is essentially a three octave chromatic harmonica with the slide removed and the C# set of reeds tuned down so that they are a fraction above the C reeds.


Speaking of the Far East, there is one last variation of tremolo harp layout that is very common in Asia and becoming more popular in the West. Some (but not all) of the Hohner Weekender models and the new Hohner Tremolo Deluxe use this arrangement, as do various tremolo harps made by Yamaha, Suzuki, Tombo and many of the cheap Chinese clones of these harps. It is often called "scale tuning" (presumably because the lower octave is designed to play a complete diatonic scale, rather than a pair of chords) and in its commonest form it has two rows of 21 holes, with 10 blow notes and 11 draw notes. In the key of C, it look like this:

C E G C E G C E G C
D F A B D F A B D F A

As you can see, this is similar to a three octave solo tuning layout, minus the duplicates of the tonic note. Tombo make a 44 reed/22 note version of this layout (model number 1722) which adds a draw B at the upper end. Several other manufacturers produce a 48 reed/24 note version which adds a draw B and a blow E at the upper end and a blow G at the lower end:

G C E G C E G C E G C E
D F A B D F A B D F A B

Tombo makes a 60 reed/30 note version (model #3330) which extends the layout over more than four octaves and other manufacturers offer shorter versions which omit notes from either end. Of course, these are also available in keys other than C, as well as being often available in harmonic minor tuning. Here is an example of a 48 reed/24 note Asian tremolo in Am:

E A C E A C E A C E A C
B D F G# B D F G# B D F G#


Just to confuse matters, some harmonicas combine elements from different tunings. For example, several of the larger Seydel tremolo harps and some of those made by Seydel for other companies such as Weltmeister, use one or two complete octaves of solo tuning and add additional notes to the upper and/or lower range of the harp in a way that does not strictly conform to the solo tuned layout. So although I hope this article has given you some useful advice, perhaps the only way to be truly certain of the layout of your double reed harmonica is to check each note against a piano, or electronic tuner.

As regards fine tuning, as a sweeping generalisation, Asian tremolo harps tend to be tuned higher in pitch (often at A=445, or above) than Western-made models. They are also usually tuned in equal temperament, whereas Western-made harps tend towards just intonation. Also, the Western tremolo harps often have less tremolo than Asian ones - ie. the difference in pitch between each reed of the pair, is greater, producing an more intense "beating" effect.


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