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What is a solo tuned diatonic?

The typical 10-hole Richter harmonica uses a tuning that omits certain notes in the upper and lower octaves, as well as giving the same note on both 2 draw and 3 blow, in order to allow chordal accompaniment in the lowest range of the harp. One of the oldest variations on this layout is the so-called Solo Tuning, patented by in 1907 by William Benjamin Yates, of Alviso, California. This is a tuning that places a complete diatonic scale in each octave of the harmonica and is currently the most common tuning used on chromatics. There have been a variety of solo tuned diatonics made over the years, but there are only a few currently in production. Most of them are 12-hole harmonicas, including the Hohner Marine Band 364S (not to be confused with the regular 364, which simply uses an extension of the typical diatonic tuning), the Huang Cadet Soloist and the Hering Master Solo (formerly known as the Master Country). The Huang and Hering use the same hole spacing as a standard 10-hole diatonic, whereas the 364S is a somewhat larger harp. I have seen a couple of cheap Chinese made clones of the Huang and I some years ago obtained a 16-hole solo tuned diatonic (covering the same range as a 64 chromatic) made in China under the name "Blue Danube". Seydel also have recent additions to the solo tuned market with their Solist Pro 12, which is available in low C solo tuning and their 10-hole Orchestra S (tuned similarly to the Hohner Educator I - see below).

It should also be noted that Hohner used to make a few different solo-tuned diatonics that you might be lucky enough to find in an antique store or on eBay. First there were the School Band models - both of them were 12-holers, but the tenor version (1816T) was slightly larger than the soprano version (1816S). Each one was available in both C and G, the tenor version being tuned an octave lower than the soprano version. I believe these were made from the late 1930s to the 1950s.

(From a 1930s wholesale catalog)

They also made something called the Marine Band Soloist 584. This was a 12-hole harp only slightly larger than a regular Marine Band (just over 4"), with the same spacing of holes as a regular MB, unlike the larger spacing of the 365. This was discontinued in the mid 1970s.

(From Hohner USA's 1968/69 catalog - used with permission)

The Educator I was like a 12 holed version of the Golden Melody. According to the catalogs, it was only available in the key of C, but they were apparently produced in a variety of keys, including minor tuned versions. The Educator I in C major had a G as the lowest note, as did the Chromatic version, the Educator II. The lowest two holes were unnumbered, with the third hole numbered "1", giving the same notes as hole 1 of a standard chromatic or diatonic in C. Both the Educator I and Educator II were discontinued in the late 1970s.

(From Hohner UK's 1972 catalog)

Solo tuned diatonics are often marketed as a cheap way for a beginner to learn the note layout of the standard chromatic. However, for blues and rock players the solo tuned harp offers some useful possibilities. Most solo tuned diatonics are unvalved (although the Educator I had valves on the lowest reeds), allowing typical blues harp-style note bending. Most often they are played in 3rd position, giving the option of playing typical 3rd position licks in both a higher and a lower than in possible on a standard tuned 10-hole diatonic. Walter Horton played solo tuned harps on several tunes - see this page for more details. Slim Harpo was also a fan of the solo tuned harp, using one on "Yeah Yeah Baby", "Snoopin' Around", "Blues Hangover" and "Moody Blues" (from the "Live - In Concert" album, not his well known hit with the same title). One of my all-time favorite solo tuned diatonic performances is from Alan Wilson on Canned Heat's "I'm Her Man" from their album "Hallelujah" - there is a somewhat less impressive performance of this tune on the additional footage from Woodstock, where you can clearly see Wilson playing the Hohner 364S. I've been told that James Harman and Paul Oscher have also used solo tuned diatonics, although I'm not aware of any recordings of their that feature one.


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