Andrew's blog

Most of my products are made partly or entirely by hand

Most of my products are hand-crafted / hand-finished and made to order.

Please expect a production time of up to 7 business days when ordering combs and tools. Up-to-date production times for my custom harmonicas are displayed on my custom harmonica page. This is due to a high workload and the amount of time it takes to ensure each item meets my specifications.

For quicker lead times, visit these dealers who usually have my products in stock:

Dealers page

The production of high-performance harmonicas, hand-flattened combs and precise tools is as much an art as it is a science. These things cannot be mass-produced without sacrificing quality. Thanks for your understanding.

It's difficult to make an embossing tool

My Embossing Tool is a safe and effective way to increase the tolerance of the slot. I make each of my Embossing Tools by hand.

This is how an embossed slot should look:

While making a batch of tools today, I tried using a different method to create the tip - a method that's faster than my standard method. Although it looks like my original tool, it's not at all the same. This one rips the slot to shreds instead of smoothly re-shaping it. Lesson learned: You don't get quality by cutting corners.

Don't worry! I've gone back to my original method and re-done these tools. They now work like they should.

I make every tool myself and I test each one rigorously. These are the tools I use to make custom harmonicas. I will not ship anything that I wouldn't use myself.

Prototyping

I've been working on a prototype of a hands-free frame for my Reed Replacement Kit. It adapts the current freehand tools to work in a frame. After trying it out, I am scrapping this idea.

Prototype flattening:

Prototype pieces:

Prototype reed removal:

After getting a working unit together, I can't say I am happy with it. It feels harder to use than working freehand. I also miss the sensory feedback of doing things freehand.

Freehand:

I will not be moving forward with this. It's more complicated, more expensive and the results aren't as good as my with current method.

Marine Band comb in Original Hohner Meisterklasse (pre-MS)

Every wonder why my Marine Band Dark combs have such an interesting clearance hole pattern? It's to make the comb compatible with many different vintage Hohner models.

Over the years, Hohner has made many different diatonic harps that are based on Marine Band Specs. This includes Pre-MS Blues Harps, wooden-combed Old Standy and novelty harmonicas like Herb Shriner Hoosier Boy harmonicas.

My Marine Band Dark combs have hole spaces which makes them compatible with these models.

Original (pre-MS system) Meisterklasse harmonicas were a high-end model that featured chrome-plated reed plates and sturdy full-length covers. The model was changed and made a little bigger and become part of the MS-system line. Current MS-Meisterklasse harps work extremely well with my MS-Series combs.

Specimens and parts of the original (pre-MS) version can still be found and enjoyed.

The original version shares the same dimensions as the Marine Band. They have six extra reed plate screws but if you pay attention to the flatness of the reed plates, these extra screws can be omitted.

Although I make a specialty comb that has these extra clearance holes, you can use my standard MB comb as a drop-in replacement.

A new comb color

I am introducing a new color for my Dark Combs™.

As soon as I decide on a name, I will be adding them to the website.

Is a custom harmonica "better" than a stock harp?

Will a custom harmonica help students make progress faster?

Some would say that a custom harp should be reserved for experienced players who have learned breath control. I disagree. I think it's easier to learn breath control from the very start. Playing with too much force is a bad habit and it can be hard to correct these behaviours.

A custom harmonica is extremely responsive and allows you to focus on fine motor control. It's also more fun to play which can lead to a better outlook and more hours spent practising.

Will a custom harmonica make you a better player?

Some pro players use custom harmonicas, some don't. Many professional players can make music on any harp - no matter how bad it is.

But will they play each harp exactly the same? Will they play the same riffs? Will they take as many risks? I'm sure they can find a way to express a feeling no matter what instrument they've got because they've put in the years of practice.

A stock harp has the notes, it's just harder to play them. I think it's easier to play a cheap harp once you have developed fine motor control using a responsive harp like a custom harmonica. An unresponsive harp just needs more force.

I believe the opposite is harder - It's a greater challenge to develop fine control if you start off with lots of force.

We need an evidence-based study to shed light on these questions.

Some would say that it will always be a subjective experience and therefore the question can never be answered (all answers are correct.)

It is possible to get an objective assessment of something subjective. Take pain for example. You cannot tell exactly what someone's pain feels like but you can objectively compare treatments and rate how pain scores change. This is what inspired 'the assessment': http://harp.andrewzajac.ca/TheAssessment

As for an objective study, I've started the conversation with a few instructors. It would require a lot of work over several years.

My idea so far is as follows:
- recruit several top instructors to have their students enter the study.
- all levels of progress would be welcome but I think the least experienced students would provide the best data because they would have developed fewer bad habits.
- each student will receive two harps from me. On the outside, they will be identical. One will be defect-free stock and the second will be high-performance (custom). Which harp is which will be randomised. The student's won't know nor will the instructors. (Randomised, double-blind.)
- each student is given a schedule to use a particular harp exclusively for study and practice that week. The schedule will give equal time to both harps over a period of a few months.
- after each lesson, both the student and the teacher complete an evaluation. Questions are about objective (teacher evaluated) progress (did they achieve the lesson goal? ) , subjective (student evaluated) progress (how do you think you did?) How may hours did you practice this week, how fun was practising this week, etc...
Possible outcomes to look for are:
- do students make better progress with custom or stock harps?
- do they put in more hours when using one harp over the other
- do they have more fun?
- can the evaluator guess which harp they are playing without asking or getting any hints?
- which type of harp has a greater propensity for blowing out a reed?
- etc...

I think we would need to gather data from 50-100 students being followed over a few months of lessons to reach significance.

I estimate I would be able to provide both harps for CAD $200.00 which is slightly more that the retail price of two performance level instruments.

Possible weaknesses include:

- Bias from instructors evaluating their own students.
I feel that this would be controlled because both the student and teacher are blinded to the type of harp. It would be ideal to have an independent evaluator measure progress, but this would be complicated and I fear compliance rates would be low due to the extra time and effort required after each lesson. Using the instructors for evaluation would be straightforward since it's something that could be done in the final minute of each lesson.

- Different instructors would have different criteria, lesson plans and teaching styles and therefore absolute progress would not be expected to be the same between instructors.
I feel that this would be controlled because we could measure relative improvement instead of absolute improvement.

- The expense of the instruments and lessons may correlate with the level of interest or emotional investment of the student. If instructors charge different rates for lessons, this introduces another variable that can have an impact on outcomes.

2019-12-15

Contact me if you have any suggestions or questions about this idea. I'd love to hear from you.

Question: Why are the positions numbered like that?

I recently got asked a great question:

Q: I've got a question for you about position numbers.

I get that if I play in first position I'm on a C harp in the key of C. Simple enough. And I get that if I use a C harp and change the tonal center to A minor that I can play a C harp easily enough in the key of A minor. It's just the relative minor game. But what I don't understand is how they've come up with the position numbers. So first position is C harp in C major. And now they call fourth position C harp in A minor. Why call it fourth position? Or take third position playing a C harp in D minor. Why is that called third position. And then again if I use the relative major of D minor and play a C harp in the key of F major they call that 12th position. I get that there's 12 notes in our western chromatic scale. But I don't get how these numbers get assigned to the positions.

The answer is the reason why the diatonic harmonica is the coolest instrument.

It's because it's diatonic.

Diatonic means the instrument is tied to one key. In comes down to the fact the instrument was made to play simply in that key.

But each key has many scales. Some scales are related to others. And some scale degrees are more closely related to others. Fifths, for example, are the interval that are the most consonant with and have the strongest affinity for the tonic.

So the answer to your question is: Harmonica positions get their names from their position on the Circle of Fifths.

The Circle of Fifths is a concept of music theory that helps one see the relationships among pitches.

It makes sense that if you play a diatonic instrument in the key that's a fifth from the tonic, you have a pretty good chance that you can work something out.

Bent notes were not taken into account in the layout of the notes of the diatonic harmonica. Draw bends have a particularly close connection with the player.

Second position taps into those notes very well and happens to offer the strongest and most expressive scale choice for playing the blues scale as well as major and minor Pentatonic and Myxolidian scales. Second position is by far the most widely used position for diatonic harp.

Third position - the next step in the Circle of Fifths - also has a very strong layout (I would say the next strongest from second position....) The bottom octave makes great use of the available draw bends again in third position.

In second position, a I, IV, V (12 bar blues) progression uses scales from the tonic (I - second position breath pattern), one step backwards in the Circle of Fifths (IV - which would be first position breath pattern) and one step forwards in the Circle of Fifths (V - which would be third position breath pattern).

There is a lot of potential there for Jazz, too. You can play a ii, V, I progression quite effectively on a diatonic harp because of the interrelationship between the scales. Using second position, the ii is the relative minor of the 1 blow note (so you can use the same breath pattern as first position major, just use the relative minor as the tonic), the V is the major scale played starting from the 1 Draw note (so you can use the breath pattern of Third position major) and the tonic is 2 Draw (or three Blow) using the breath pattern of Second position.

So by framing the positions using the Circle of Fifths, we are using an existing tool to help us see how each scale is related with the next.

I hope that helps!

Here's some more information on playing major and minor Pentatonic scales on the diatonic harmonica.

What are the steps to customizing a harmonica?

In what order should you do things to make the perfect harp?

I think everyone is a little different and should come up with a checklist that works best for them. With that in mind, here is what I consider best practice:
(use these ideas to make your own checklist)

Always do framework before reedwork. Always complete the reedwork before tuning. Never tune the same day as you do reedwork - unless you are tuning to ET which means you are not looking for precision. Wait as long as it takes. How long depends on how you work the reeds. Start by waiting two weeks. You may need to wait longer.

Framework includes correcting defects, flattening, embossing, etc.... It won't matter that the reed is perfectly straight if the slot is higher on one side than the other or the base of the reed is not centered. By bringing in the edges of the slot, embossing may be useful to help make the frame perfect. For example, some reeds are off-center but that doesn't become noticeable until you emboss. (Don't try to fix an off-center reed with embossing!)

You should be able to do reedwork in one sitting. That is, you set the shape (and gap) of the reed and you are done. That being said, I go back the next day to check my work because I may have missed something the first time around. But it's not because the reeds decided to change shape spontaneously. If you find you need to go back and forth gapping and checking for many sittings before you get it right, I think you should focus on your frame. For example, if you set the reed work relative to the view of the reed from one side but once you put the instrument together, it doesn't perform as expected. You then go back and try setting the shape of the reed relative to the view from the other side. If that doesn't work you try going halfway between both.... Round and round we go! If the frame is perfect and the reed is perfect, no need to fiddle. It will perform as expected whether the plate is on or off the comb, covers on or off. In the long run, this is by far the fastest way to achieve success.

Once it's time to tune, your reeds are perfect and ALL respond the same. This will help you tune. If some reeds need more air than the others, forget about precise tuning. Absolute pitch is never accurate on the harmonica but relative pitch is. Tune notes relative to one another.

Proper tuning technique will not affect the shape of the reed so no need to go back and make corrections to reed shape after you tune. Just like reed work, you should be able to tune to perfection in one sitting. That being said, I go back a little later to check my work because I may have missed something the first time around. Don't check the next day. Reeds can temporarily go sharp. Don't chase your tail. Give yourself a realistic time frame for tuning.

All of these details are explored here:

http://harp.andrewzajac.ca/Learn

I hope that helps.

Andrew

Comb Density

I did a little experiment to see what would happen if I decreased the density of my Dark Combs™. I modified the design to make the non-essential parts lighter (i.e. not there.)

Results: The combs are lighter but there is no difference in tone or power.

This experiment was not a failure despite not having created a better comb. The fact that less density in the non-participating areas doesn't contribute to tone, volume or performance is a good thing to have found out.

I won't be making more of these "holey" combs; I've found out what I need to know from doing this. I hope others find this info useful too.

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