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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.


The typical single reed diatonic harmonica is constructed in a fashion that is is known as the Richter system. (Note - this term is commonly used to refer to the arrangement of notes, but strictly speaking refers to the style of construction. For more on this, please see this page.) This includes the Hohner Marine Band and Special 20, the Lee Oskar, the Suzuki ProMaster and Manji, Seydel 1847, 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, tuned one octave apart. These are called Concert harmonicas, or Knittlinger Octave harps. These were once an extremely common type of harmonica, but at the time of writing, there is just one Knittlinger harp currently in production, the Seydel Concerto. Hohner used to make several Knittlnger models and you may find old stock of their Marine Band Full Concert and Auto-Valve-Harp models still available for purchase.

Knittlinger System harmonicas have two rows of long rectangular holes in the mouthpiece, each hole containing a blow and a draw reed. They are typically tuned in a similar way to the Richter System harmonicas. For example, a key of C Knittlinger harp would have C as the blow notes of the first vertical pair of holes, with D as the draw notes; the next pair of holes would have E as the blow notes and G as the draw notes, etc.

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


The most common form of the double reed harps is the Wiener or Viennese system. Examples of this type of harp in tremolo tuning would be the Hohner Golden Melody tremolo and the various Echo models, the Seydel Sailor Steel and numerous discontinued models that are still to be found for sale. 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 and the Seydel Club Steel. They are also commonly available as two-sided models and they often (but not always) feature a curved playing surface. Both the tremolo and the octave versions of these harps use a similar arrangement of notes to the Richter and Knittlinger System harmonicas, drawn from this extended pattern, given here in the key of C (the down arrows indicate blow notes, the up arrows indicate draw):

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. For example, here is the layout of notes on the Seydel Club Steel:

Fortunately, there is a relatively 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.


Another tuning sometimes used on double reed diatonics is Solo Tuning, the tuning that is used on most chromatic harmonicas:

Huang used to make the Musette and Cathedral Concert harmonicas, which were solo tuned tremolo and octave harps. Both of these harps 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 discontinued Hohner Tremolo Soloist and the Seydel Fanfare. The Tremolo Soloist was 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.


There is another variation of the tremolo harmonica that has long been the commonest layout in Asia and over the past few years has become very common in the West. The Hohner Ocean Star and Big Valley models and Seydel's Skydiver use this arrangement, as do various tremolo models made by Yamaha, Suzuki, Tombo and most Chinese made tremolo 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 42 reeds in two rows of 21 holes, with 10 blow notes and 11 draw notes. In the key of C, it look like this:

As you can see, this is similar to a three octave solo tuning layout, minus the duplicates of the tonic note. The Asian-style 21 double hole tremolo is a little more consistent than the Western-style tuning, with the lowest blow reeds always sounding the key note of the harmonica (note that the lowest blow reeds are in the second pair of holes, the first pair of holes being fitted with draw reeds). 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:

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:

How to establish whether your tremolo harp is a Western or Asian style layout? Sometimes the manufacturer is a clue - some Western companies (Hohner and Seydel included) now make Asian-style tremolos, but very few Asian companies make Western-style tremolos (Tombo is one notable exception, making a couple of Western-style tremolos alongside their Asian-style instruments). The number of holes is often a useful clue - if there are two rows of 21 holes, it is almost certainly an Asian-style tremolo; if it has two rows of 14, 16, 20 or 28 holes, it is more likely a Western-style instrument.


Just to confuse matters, some harmonicas combine elements from different tunings. For example, several of the older Seydel tremolo harps used 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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