The harmonic minor tuning is the original alternate tuning for diatonic harmonica. Harmonic minor tuned harps appeared in the late 1800s and over the years, various companies have made 10-hole diatonics, tremolo and octave harps using this tuning. There have even been so-called minor tuned chromatics - these are made like standard chromatics, but instead of the button shifting between a C and a C# set of reeds, it shifts between a major tuned set of reeds and a set tuned in the relative harmonic minor.
For many years, the Hohner Orchester was the most well known harmonic minor harp, first made in the 1930s, but not marketed in the US until the late 1960s (see picture at top of page). These were discontinued in the 1980s, but a few years later, Lee Oskar made his signature diatonic model available in all 12 harmonic minor keys.
However, despite the number of harmonic minor harmonicas sold over the last century and a bit, very few of them seem to have turned up on commercial recordings. Here I present a list of those that I know about, in chronological order.
Thomas Garlick Hopkinson, a Police Constable by profession (hence the initials P.C.), recorded this tune, his own composition, in London, back in January 1929. Released as Columbia 5319, it features a C major harmonica and a harmonic minor harmonica in Am, although the recording plays slightly sharp. You can hear it at archive.org.
Recorded in Dallas, Texas, in October 1929 and issued on Brunswick 373, this medley features an A harmonic minor for the opening section. Given MacBeth's fondness for the new-fangled chromatic harmonica, this may be one of those minor-tuned chromatics mentioned above. You can hear it on my harmonica 78s page.
A third recording from 1929, this time from November. Recorded in Paris, France and issued on French Odeon 165825, this features the Am harmonic minor again. The Vagabonds were the same group known to the English-speaking world as the Harmonica Rascals. This track has been reissued as part of the French CD "Harmonica Swing" (Frémeaux & Associés FA 5096), available in the US as "Harmonica Jazz Essentials". You can hear a snippet of this track at Amazon.com.
I have no idea who STROBL was, or why he deserved capital letters, but British Pathé felt he deserved a minute of motion picture time, back in 1932. He is playing either an Eb harmonic minor with the recording playing slightly flat, or more likely, a Dm harmonic minor with the recording playing slightly sharp. The clip can be viewed at BritishPathe.com.
Even before he got into manufacturing his own harmonicas, Lee Oskar was a fan of the harmonic minor tuning. The first side of his debut solo album from 1976 was taken up by a three part composition entitled "I Remember Home (A Peasant's Symphony)", all played on a harmonic minor harp. You can hear snippets at Amazon.com.
Not surprisingly, Lee still uses the harmonic minor tuning extensively. His recent albums usually have liner notes detailing the keys and tunings used on each piece.
From his 1977 album "Lovin' In The Valley Of The Moon", "Hangin' Tree" featured a Dm harmonic minor harp for the flourishes on the intro and the ending to the tune. Sadly, these parts are not included on the Amazon.com preview, but you can hear the DmH harp vamping in the background.
These days, P.T. Gazell is more well known as a jazz/swing player, using half-valved harmonicas in standard tuning. However, this track from his 1978 debut solo LP "Pace Yourself" uses harmonic minor tuned Hohner Orchesters in Am and Dm. You can hear a snippet on Amazon.com.
Around 1980, British-born harmonica player Chris Turner recorded a rather unusual solo LP on what I assume was his own label, entitled simply "Harmonicas" (Bent Reeds CSRV 2635). Featured was a lovely composition by Turner called "Dancers in the Bullrushes", played on a Hohner Orchester in harmonic minor tuning. The LP is long unavailable, although it turns up on eBay from time to time. However, Alec K. Redfearn filmed a performance of this tune by Turner, played on a Cm harmonic minor, available for viewing on Vimeo.com:
Swiss harmonica player Roland Van Straaten generally plays his unique music on standard harmonicas, although he often uses unorthodox techniques. However, his solo piece "Orientango", first recorded on his 1991 CD "Ivory Tower Blue, (Phonag P 81205) uses a harmonic minor harp. Here is a live performance of this tune, with a harmonic minor harmonica in G#m:
Originally recorded on the 1987 album "Buddy Greene & Friends - Live", this Dm harmonic minor workout is also included in his 2011 "Harmonica Anthology". You can get more details from Buddy Greene's website.
The Chris Turner composition (see above) was recorded by Richard Hunter for his album "The Second Act of Free Being" in 1997. There are no preview clips, but the CD is available from Amazon.com.
Last and definitely not least, one of my all-time favorite harp players, the late Sam Hinton. His superb double CD set from 2008 "Master of the Solo Diatonic Harmonica" features a ton of great stuff, including a couple of superb harmonic minor performances. "Rebbe Elimelech/Pseudoslavian Rhapsody" uses a standard C major harp and an A harmonic minor. "Ot Azoy Neyt A Shnayder" uses just the A harmonic minor. No previews at Amazon, but I highly recommend this CD set to anyone interested in hearing a true master of his craft. Click here for more details from Amazon.com.
If you are looking for more tunes to play on the harmonic minor harp, may I humbly recommend my own book The Harmonic Minor Tunebook - One Hundred and One Tunes for the Ten Hole Harmonica in Harmonic Minor Tuning, available from Amazon.com.
As the title suggests, this is a collection of more than one hundred traditional tunes specially selected for the harmonic minor harp, presented in both tablature and standard notation.
If you are hungry for even more tunes to play on the harmonic minor harp, you may want to check out the follow-up volume, Son of the Harmonic Minor Tunebook - One Hundred and One More Tunes for the Ten Hole Harmonica in Harmonic Minor Tuning, also available from Amazon.com.
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