Why don't they tune the harmonica in thirds?

So I have just started playing the Harmonica, but the tuning system seems counter-intuitive to me. The most common tuning is:

blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A |

Honestly, this seems kind of dumb. Who thought this was a good idea?
First of all, why are there 8 inversions of the 1 chord? I understand that it’s important but do we really need 8?! That wastes the top row. Then on the bottom you first have 2 of the 5 chord, fair enough. But then there’s a diminished 7? And there’s another diminished 7th higher up? If there’s a limited number of notes why did they decide that the least important(and worst imo) chord should be there twice? I understand that it has it’s uses, but still, I would keep it to 1 at most. You get a couple of 2 chords and that’s it for the triads. Where are the 3, 4, and 6 chords?! Are yall really going to tell me you prefer the diminished 7 over those guys? What about 7ths? Forget about it! You get 1 dominant 7th and that’s it.

I am not really an expert but even at a glance I think a better system would be to just do the top row in thirds:

blow: |G |C |E |G |B |D |F |A |C |E |
draw: |A |C |F |A |C |E |G |B |D |G |

My basic thought process here:
On the top row I started at C, and went up in thirds. This means that you can play all 7 diatonic chords, and even do 7ths and stuff. There was 1 hole left-over so I put a cheeky lower 5th on the first chord.
On the bottom row, it’s basically offset by 1 scale degree so that you can play the whole scale. But also, I wanted to get those cool plagal cadances so it starts with the 4 chord. At the end, I wanted to avoid another diminished 7th so I pushed the last note up to a G to make a minor 2 chord.

This layout seems much better because you can play all the chords of the scale. I would love to have a harmonica tuned this way.

P.S. I am just poking fun here. I know I sound smug but I just like to rant about things because it’s funnier that way. This is mostly the dunnning-kruger effect talking, but I am also genuinely curious about this. Does anyone know if it would be possible to build a harmonica like this? Could I re-tune an existing harmonica or something? I would love to try this thing out and see how wrong I am XD

Seydel will build such a harmonica for you. Check out their web page for details (look under the tab item named “Custom Shop”). :point_left:

Now as for your proposed system of tuning: it might be good for those who like to play primarily chords or mix in some single notes that are not bent in the usual ways.

However, I see several problems (only looking at blues music here). For example: let’s say you wish to play a blues tune in G with nothing fancy, just the typical three chords (we can keep it simple: G C and D chords).

What is really difficult with your tuning layout is the blue third (Bb) for the G chord (chord I). At the low end you only get it by overblowing hole one (which is notoriously difficult to do). In the middle range you need to overblow hole 4 to get the Bb, and only at the high end is it relatively easy to get the Bb by bending the hole 8 draw. Just this one note (Bb) would make many blues harpists unhappy – not to mention (for example) trying to play a D over the G chord. :roll_eyes:

Moving on to the IV chord (C): it is somewhat better, but not ideal (and this chord is sort of “less important” in most blues music with many harpists just continuing to play as if they were still in chord I).

Now to the very important V chord (D): on the low end the note D is not even present, and Db requires an overblow of hole 2 (not sure that would even work …). In the middle range you get a D (but only as a blow note) and the Db is again an overblow (hole 5). You do at least get the V chord’s blue 3rd (F) as a draw in hole 3 and its 5th tone (A) as draw 1 and draw 4.

Playing a blues song in C might be interesting on your harp’s layout, but again the important V chord (G) only has the note G as a draw in the upper range – not the sexy lower to middle range.

Blues in D? Could be interesting with the V chord’s A occurring twice as a draw note in the low and middle ranges – but where is the root note (D)? It only first appears as a blow note in hole 6 – I think that is rather high and would like to see one occurrence of it in the lower register.

Blues in E? Also problems with the V chord’s root note (B).

Blues in F? This is probably the best for this harp – but I would still prefer the standard Richter layout (I will spare you the details but I think that you can now probably figure this out yourself).

Sorry to have been so long-winded with this reply – but it could have been much longer! :astonished: But, as I said, Seydel will build a harmonica for you in almost any layout you can imagine. So if you have some spare pocket change you might want to order one with your proposed layout and see if it is what you want for the style of music you wish to play.


– Slim


Wow, great reply! I’ll have to give Seydel a go.

Thanks for the feedback on the tuning system. I basically came up with that in like 5 mins as a first idea. I’ll have to refine this but I reckon that this idea could have some merit anyway.

Tbh, I don’t doubt that the harmonica community has figured out a pretty good tuning system for blues, so whatever I come up with won’t really rival that. I mainly play indie rock stuff, and I really like the way Harmonica chords sound, so it’s why I thought it was a shame that there weren’t more of them.


Hey - welcome to the forum! Happy to have you here.

First and foremost, I think you’d enjoy checking out this thread on various tunings.

In that thread you’ll see links to several different tunings pioneered by Brendan Power, which I’m guessing will be of great interest to you. I know @slim loves the PowerBender and PowerDraw tunings and I’m really looking forward to checking them out! Also in that thread you’ll see a link to the tuning chart on Brendan Power’s website.

The diatonic harmonica was originally tuned so that blowing will always play the I chord, and drawing in the first 5 holes plays the V7 chord.

The concept behind the tuning was to be able to play dance/folk tunes that were popular in the 1800’s in Europe.

The original designers never could have foreseen that the African slaves in America would figure out how to bend notes and that the instrument would evolve into the amazing blues instrument that it has become.

Your post here seems to be looking at the harmonica solely as a chordal instrument, which is only one of its functions, and probably less common than its function as a melodic instrument.

In the Blues, even when the harmonica is functioning as a chordal instrument, it often is just playing single notes, octaves, double-stops, or trills.

In the first half of the 20th century, harmonica groups were a HUGE phenomenon, as I mention in this thread.

They probably reached their height of popularity in Vaudeville in the 20’s and 30’s. In those groups there would typically be (at least) one harmonica covering the bass notes (a bass harmonica) one covering the chord notes (a chordal harmonica) and one for playing the melody, which was typically a chromatic harmonica.

The chordal harps that the players used in those groups were varied, and many of them were almost like wheels with three different harmonicas all attached and they were tuned in various ways. It sounds like one of those instruments may be what you’re interested in checking out.

I don’t know much of anything beyond regular 10-hole diatonic harmonicas, and all of Lee Oskar’s alternate tunings which you can check out in this vid.

OK, hope that helps!


Hey I missed this part of the thread somehow. I didn’t realize you’re into indie rock. If that’s the case, I think you might really like checking out Lee Oskar’s Melody Makers.

Are you playing another instrument and harmonica at the same time?


Thanks for the relies. I did some more research and I found a similar tuning called the “Spiral Tuning”: The Spiral Tuning

The main idea of that tuning is the same as mine: tuning each row in thirds, but they are more strict about it and also base it around the mixolydian mode. It’s interesting stuff. I also found a video of someone playing this tuning:

Sounds good to me!

Thanks for the interesting information and links concerning the spiral tuned harmonica! That really does look to be a very tempting instrument to try. Maybe I will order one someday and see how it goes …


– Slim