Term "Spiral Tuning"
The Spiral

Potential of the Spiral Tuning

Richter Tuning

Solo Tuning

Historical Background of the Spiral Tuning by Pat Missin

Bending Capabilities of the
Spiral Harmonica by Michael Rubin

The Spiral → Top of Page
Spiral tuning (or circular tuning) means the arrangement of a diatonic scale with an odd number of notes (like the major or minor scale) on the conventional blow- and draw-succession of a harmonica without discontinuations or duplications of notes.

Therefore the spiral tuning actually is not a specific tuning layout but a principle of note arranging upon the harmonica.

With the absence of discontinuations and duplications, the notes change from one octave to the next. If you imagine the arrangement of notes visually you get the impression of a spiral:

In contrast to the most common tone arrangement, the Richter tuning, you find note duplications as well as discontinuations in notes.

Potential of the Spiral Tuning → Top of Page
The spiral tuning has because of its sequential arrangement of notes two specific characteristics:

1. The spreading of a major or respectively minor scale upon the change of blowing and drawing results in the ingenious effect, that all chords of the scale become playable:

In the given example: C, C6, C7+, Dm, Dm7, Em, Em7, F, F6, F7+, G, G6, G7, Am, Am7, Bdim

Spiral Tuning D dorian
Hole 12345 678910
Blow notes cegbdfaceg
Draw notes dfacegbdfa
Therefore only the Spiral Tuning taps the full potential of the harmonica offering solo as well as extensive harmonic rhythm playing.


2. For each scale there are two different patterns of playing which alternate from octave to octave. Here is an example of the minor pentatonic scale:

Hole 12345 678910
Blow notes 724 61 35 72 4
Draw notes 13 57 24 613 5
Pattern I Pattern II Pattern I
Richter Tuning → Top of Page
Richter Tuning
Hole 12345 678910
Blow notes cegcegcegc
Draw notes dgbdfabdfa
The lack of notes in the lower and upper octave, which have to be generated by bending and overblowing techniques, makes it difficult for beginners to become comfortable with the harmonica.

Compensating that handicap changes the primary disadvantage into an charming advantage - especially the essential bending techniques have their very own melodious appeal, which in many cases may be seen as the distinctive character of the blues harmonica.

Chord playing, however, is limited.

C, G, Bdim, Dm

It also takes getting used to that for one and the same scale in every octave you have quite different patterns of playing.

Within the solo tuning, the notes in each octave system keep the same position.

Solo Tuning → Top of Page
Solo Tuning
Hole 12345 678910
Blow notes cegccegcce
Draw notes dfabdfabdf
However, you also get three disadvantages: the gamut of the harmonica decreases, avoidable long ways of playing result and the chord playing is very limited:

C, Dm, Bdim

Historical Background of the Spiral Tuning by → Pat Missin → Top of Page
The excellent harmonica player Pat Missin has a very informative → website concerning all kinds of aspects of the harmonica. Pat also gave me some background information about the history of the spiral tuning:

I'm sure many people have thought of the spiral idea independently. In fact, I've seen many posts to magazines and online forums with someone asking why the blow/draw pattern reverses in standard tunings and asking why they don't simply use what we call the spiral tuning.

However, the first person I know who actually made harmonicas in this tuning was Mike Photis of London. He published his ideas in Harmonica World magazine in the late 1980s and inspired several people to try out his idea. I corresponded with him for a while and devised some variations on the basic principle.

Magic Dick's 1992 → patent (US patent 5166461) shows the basic spiral layout in figure 33 and variations of it in figures 34 and 35.

A couple of years later, Laurenz Wiskott was granted German patent 9404910U, which also includes the basic spiral layout. Of course, both of these patents are rendered invalid by the prior publication of the idea in Harmonica World magazine.
Bending Capabilities of the Spiral Harmonica by → Michael Rubin → Top of Page
Heiner Krüger posted on harp l how much he liked Circular tuning. I went to his website and heard many nice sample recordings of his. The harp layouts on his site did not include bends and overblows and niether did his recordings. I had an instinct as to where the bends would be, but I wanted to ask him.

We discussed it through email. Heiner stated he did not use bends and overblows in his playing and that the circular tuning really helped with that style of playing. I suggested, I would review it for him and post my findings.

The harp I tested is a Seydel Blues Favorite „Zirkular D“, which Heiner thinks of as an E minor harp.

It seems the harp is based on the D mixolydian scale, which should make for some nice blues in D, E Minor and blues, F# Phrygian with a flat five,G major, A dorian (good for A blues and minor) B locrian, C lydian without using any bends.

Stylistically I feel like the F# Phyrgian with a flat 5, the B locrian and the C lydian are fairly useless on their own, but may come in context for a chord change in a jazz flavored song.

This leaves the D mix (D blues) E minor and blues, G major and A dorian (minor and blues) for straight out of the box playability with little understanding of the harp layout for me. I can play in these keys by feel and ear with relative ease and instinctive understanding. I am not using bends or overblows when I jam in these keys, although the bends and overblows can add some nice accidentals. I played along with the radio for about a half an hour and quite a few random songs were easy, some took lots of thought.

Straight out of the box hole number one and two are not overblowing, hole number 3 overblows but produces a repeat of hole number 4 blow, hole four easily overblows a handy Eb, not repeated anywhere else in that octave. Hole 5 overblows a repeat of 6 blow. Hole 6 blow overblows to the Bb, which is handy but try as I might is remains very low in pitch. I do not experience this problem on Special 20's, my main overblow axe.

On a standard diatonic, hole numbers 1-6 have the blow notes lower in pitch than the draw notes. This sets the bends to be on the draw notes and the overblows to be on the blow notes. On holes 7 thru 10 this reverses, the bends are on the blows, the overblows becomes overdraws.

On the circular tuned Zirk D, holes 7 thru ten continue to have the blow notes lower in pitch than the draw notes, meaning the bends are on the draw and the overblows on the blow notes.

Hole 7 overblows (not overdraws as on standard harps) to a C# that can play on pitch with a very controlled embouchure, meaning it would take lots of practice to hit it every time. Hole 8 overblows overblows to an F, but I had to shift from my normal pucker overblow to placing the tip of my tongue underneath the hole and covering 1/2 of the hole with the top front of my tongue. This is actually something I do for a lot of the high note techniques so it is no real surprise. The F is squeaky and also tough to get on pitch.

The 9 blow overblows to G#, also squeaky but relatively easy to get on pitch. The 10 overblows to C and is difficult to get on pitch.

Holes 2, 7 and 9 move one half step higher from the blow note to the draw note, therefore they do not need to bend except for tonal color, similiar to holes 5 and 7 on a standard diatonic.

On all the other holes the draw notes are one whole step higher than the blow notes and therefore allow for 1 half step draw bend. The bends seem very sensitive and therefore take a light touch to achieve a correct pitch.

The first octave, 1 thru 4 draw is repeated in layout on the third octave 8 thru 10, with the exception of hole number 4 which is not doubled.

The second octave actually starts on hole number 4 draw. This could cause some confusion as everything seems to flip over from blow to draw and vice versa. However, let's consider how confusing the standard diatonic is therefore I cut the circular harp a break when it comes to layout confusion.

So far this is my sense of the layout:

Overblows fg#cd#ga#c#fg#c
Blastöne df#acegbdf#a
12345 678910
Ziehtöne egbdf#acegb
Bends d# a#c#fg# d#  

Of course holes one and two do not overblow out of the box, so I am assuming the notes are correct.

It is fully chromatic, with limited bend pitch issues since all bends are one half step lower than the draw note, instead of multiple bends on the standard diatonic. Only two octave layouts to learn, instead of three on the standard diatonic. Easy access to a chords D major, D7, D9 D11, D 13 (with a big mouth) (the last two chords assume a major 11th and 13th), F# diminished, F# half diminished (F# Minor 7 flat 5), A minor, A minor 7, C major, C major 7th, E minor, E minor 7th, G major, G major7th, B minor, B minor 7th.

So lots of chords.

I'll fool with it for a week and give another report.

Michael Rubin
→ MichaelRubinHarmonica.com