Every so often a new innovation in harmonicas piques the interest of the author and Seydel keep pumping them out like no one’s business. My interest was twofold: firstly, the ability to play Irish jigs and reels by huffing and puffing and secondly, that the developer of this new tuning was an Aussie.
The Major Cross Tuning by Tony Eyers provides us predominantly cross harp players the ability to play fluently (without any need for bends) the major scale across the entire ten holes of the harmonica in second position.
Thanks to Seydel & MandoHarp of Nambucca Heads (sole distributors of Seydel harmonicas), I was able to purchase and test the harp and now an Irish reel is heading for my repertoire. I also had the opportunity to discuss the Major Cross with the man himself, Tony Eyers.
SD: Welcome to Harmonica Riff Raff Tony and thanks for your new major cross tuned harmonica.
TE: My pleasure Shep.
SD: I’ve been told the beginning is the best place to start, so let’s begin with the origins of how you took up the ten hole tin can. What artists inspired you and how did you learn to play?
TE: The first time I remember hearing harmonica was in 1974 when Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee toured Australia. The following year I moved to America for University and met Jim Fitting, and was (and still am) entranced by his harmonica style. A year of backpacking then gave me the time to get started. I purchased bargain double album Chess re-issues of Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howling Wolf and was off. Back then there were no teachers or books, you had to figure it out yourself.
SD: Jim Fitting isn’t a name I’m familiar with. Can you tell us more about Jim?
TE: He played with Treat Her Right and The The, and was part of the group of friends who set up Fort Apache studio in Boston in the 1980s, recording Radiohead and other iconic bands from that era. He now plays with an outfit called Session Americana. Jim is not widely known in the harmonica world, but is highly regarded by those like myself, who are familiar with his music.
SD: How did your involvement with the people’s instrument evolve from there?
TE: I was lucky to fall in with good musicians early on, including my brother, who owned a recording studio. He still does. After a few years playing with various acoustic guitarists, I landed back in Adelaide and formed a blues band, inspired by a Hollywood Fats cassette given to me by Greg Baker. We were called the Full House Blues Band, and through persistence and luck we landed a weekly residency with decent money. I was then able to hire the best players in town, and spent several years playing and singing to good crowds every week. This was the 1980s, a golden age for Australian pub music.
SD: Why did you develop Major Cross Tuning?
TE: Heading into the ‘90s I started a family and post graduate studies, a combination which left no time for bands. By the mid 90s I had gained my PhD and lost my marriage (a common mix), and was looking to get back into music. Being a part time single dad precluded bands, so I started attending bluegrass festivals, rekindling an interest in music I had encountered 15 years before when living in the USA. The key aspect of these festivals was the jamming culture, you could play with excellent musicians without needing a band. However you did need a repertoire of bluegrass fiddle tunes, and to join with the best players you really had to play them well. I set to work learning this music, and soon realised that my harmonicas would need to adapt. I hit upon the idea of Major Cross tuning at the National Folk Festival in the late ‘90s, while watching the button accordion players. Major Cross tuning is based on the Lee Oskar Melody Maker, where you play in second position, but can hit all of the major scale notes without bending, which enables the much faster playing style needed for bluegrass tunes.
SD: So how does the Major Cross differ from the Lee Oskar Melody Maker harmonica, Tony?
TE: The basic idea of Major Cross and the Melody Maker are the same. However Major Cross applies the Melody Maker principle, i.e. major scale in second position over the entire instrument, which changes another 4 notes, on holes 1, 2 and 10. A byproduct of Major Cross is that it has triads of all the important chords.
SD: How did you go about setting up a prototype?
TE: I released a CD with this music in 2003 called Black Mountain Harmonica, played on my Major Cross harmonicas, which were set up for me by Neil Graham. This CD gained some attention in the harmonica world. I also created a series of teaching sites, in Chinese, Spanish and English. The English language one is at HarmonicaAcademy.com and still chugs along. Through the Chinese one I ended up as a judge at the Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival. This is where I met the great American player PT Gazell, some years later he was instrumental in getting Seydel to release a Major Cross model of their Session Steel harmonica. I play Seydel harmonicas these days, and am glad to be associated with the company.
SD: Seydel gave your harmonica its own colour comb? Looks a bit like their latest summer session steel!
TE: Seydel have a range of comb colours in addtion to the orange used for there regular Session Steel model. They decided on blue for the Major Cross, to set it apart from the others. However Seydel regularly changes comb colours for limited periods, particularly during summer, the current summer model appear to be the same colour as the Major Cross.
SD: It’s great to have your own standout model as well as a drop down option on Seydel’s harp configurator. Could you enlighten us on the configurator?
TE: Seydel is a small company (about 30 employees), and so have the flexibily to provide custom tunings on demand, a service which other manufacturers do not offer. The online harp configurator has long been a Seydel feature, which pre-dates my Major Cross model.
SD: What would you say to the traditionalists who proclaim you may as well play another instrument if you can’t get all the notes on a standard tuned diatonic.
TE: I would suggest they listen to Brendan Power, Howard Levy, Carlos del Junco and other great masters who use the harmonica in non conventional ways. The music is what matters, not what some folk may think about what should or should not be done.
SD: You mentioned Brendan Power there and he has a Paddy Richter tuning harmonica. How is this different from the Major Cross?
TE: Paddy Richter tuning changes one note only. The 3 blow note is raised a tone. Given that 3 blow and 2 draw are the same, the note remains available, despite the change. The Paddy Richter 3 blow note is the same as the 3 draw whole tone bend on a regular harmonica, but is clearly much easier to hit. Hence first position melodies, which often need this bent note, become easier with Paddy Richter.
Tony has a great harp here which I can thoroughly recommend. Just a wee little suggestion. It would be great if the harmonica could arrive with instructional Major Cross material to get you started rather than the accompanying sheet that had Oh Susannah in first position for a standard tuned harmonica. There is information on Seydel’s web page. Tony’s specifically helped me with the Temperance Reel. It’s going to take a bit of practice to get up to speed as there’s still a different mental muscle programming required.