Andrew's blog

Hand-Finishing

I finish my combs by hand. Here I am making the tips of the tines extremely comfortable before I put on six coats of varnish. The last step is final flattening.

Dark Combs™

Here is what the final product looks like:

Are you a customizer or harmonica service provider?

I provide combs to customizers and harp techs worldwide. I offer customizer pricing on my combs. These are for use in your finished product and not for individual sale.

Contact me if you would like to work together.

http://harp.andrewzajac.ca/Contact

Reed support tool prototype

I am prototyping a new support tool.

It's made of sturdy carbon steel that is very thin and very springy. The big change is the blow reed support tail. I recommend filing side-to-side rather than front-to-back. I am finding this is the very best way to tune a blow reed on the comb without altering its shape.

Everything affects tuning (even tuning!) so it needs to be the final job. Tuning cannot undo previous work because that would create an endless loop. So if tuning technique messes up the reed shape, we're going backwards.

What about a rotary tool?

There are many ways to feed a cat so everyone can have their own realities when it comes to getting these tasks done but I have found using a good file is the most consistent and least invasive way to tackle tuning.

Nine times out of ten, if you put a good quality file in someone's hand and offer them rudimentary advice on how to use it and avoid causing damage, they find success.

Side-to-side tuning is nuts!!! Do I need a "sharp" edge on the tip of the reed?

There is no evidence that a 90 degree angle is necessary for the tip of the reed to be efficient. In fact, a chamfer will reduce drag. The short segment of the tip of the reed is rather insignificant, though. So if you prefer to avoid the brightness that comes from aggressive chamfering, don't worry about that wee little bit - you won't be able to tell the difference. Just don't shorten the reed!

"Should I direct material removal towards the midline and away from the edge of the reed?"

Removing material from the midline of the reed is probably suboptimal. A sleek reed tip will conserve more energy than a convex soup spoon shape. We don't want to move air, we want to move reed (through air.)

What happened to breath control in the 1960s?

"... emphasising breath control as a basic, beginner-level concept makes a lot more sense than keeping breath control as an advanced topic for experienced players only."


Reeds set for best response
It's time we stop glorifying harmonicas based on how loud they play. Breath control and response to a wide dynamic range are far more important qualities to expect from a diatonic harmonica.

For over 100 years, makers of the diatonic harmonica focused on building an instrument that would play pleasant sounding chords as part of German Oompah/folk music.

Starting some time in the 1960s, the diatonic harmonica began to change. I believe that the focus shifted from building an instrument with a strong foundation in playing chords to building an instrument more focused on playing single notes.

I feel it has been a somewhat downhill journey from there. Modern diatonic harmonicas aren't optimally configured for either type of playing.

The basis for this opinion is drawn from historical accounts, my knowledge of the inner workings of the diatonic harmonica as a Hohner Affiliated Customizer and direct observation of vintage harmonicas.


DeFord Bailey
(Marilyn K. Morton - David C. Morton)
The early masters - DeFord Bailey, Little Walter, Big Walter, the Sonny Boy Williamsons to name a few - played Hohner Marine Band harmonicas which resembled today's custom harmonicas in some ways.

Those early harmonicas required much less breath to play and they responded to a wider range of dynamics compared to modern-day harps. A player could play notes with intensity while still being able to exercise a lot of control over how loud the notes sounded. The harmonica could be played quietly without the fear of an unresponsive instrument dropping notes.

The superior response to a wide dynamic range was a byproduct of manufacturing a chordal instrument.

Putting an importance on chords forces the factory to make sure some important details are just right. If strong-sounding chords are not considered important, the factory can let some details slide for the sake of saving time and money.

The process of tuning a harmonica at the Hohner factory was the final and most lengthy part of the manufacturing process and involved three separate steps. Mass-production will inject defects into a product but I think it's reasonable to assume the production team carefully avoided causing the defects that would make tuning more difficult to save time and effort in the long run.

From my examination of vintage Marine Bands, I believe the setup of the reeds was tailored to playing the notes on the low end together as a chord rather than playing the lower holes as single notes. All of the reeds needed to have a very consistent and similar response so that each note of the chord was exactly right.


Marine Band from 1940s
It's likely that these instruments were deliberately set to respond to a light attack because the pitch of a harmonica reed is not stable. It changes with the amount of breath force you play. Chords go out of tune when a harmonica is played with too much force.

I suggest that the setup of the instrument at the time happened to be ideal for second position bending notes on holes 1, 2 3 and 4 when played with a light touch. This was not intentional or even recognised by the Hohner company at the time.

Conversely, I believe it's harder for beginners to learn the blues harp using today's harmonicas because present-time off-the-shelf harmonicas are not set up the same as they were back then.

What happened?

Something slowly started to change in the 60s and the quality of the instrument started to decline. In the 80s and 90s a much sharper decline in the quality of Hohner harmonicas was seen. Marine Band harmonicas became leaky, harder to bend and as such required a lot more breath to play than they had in the past.

This decline in quality was due in part to the fact that Hohner was producing a wide range of other instruments that were more profitable to make than the harmonica. Producing harmonicas seemed like an afterthought.

Players of the time slowly adapted to the changes by simply playing with more breath. But as quality continued to fall and harps became even less playable, they started to complain. There are anecdotes that players like Paul Butterfield and Lee Oskar would buy eight or ten Marine Bands so that they could find one that played well. There are stories of players driving to remote music stores seeking out Marine Bands packaged in the white cardboard boxes - old stock compared to the new plastic cases.

That opened the door to Hohner's competition getting a bigger foothold on the diatonic harmonica market.


Lee Oskar/War 1976
Lee Oskar began making his own brand of harmonicas in 1983. Other companies benefited from players' frustration at Hohner too and began selling more harmonicas.

I believe that instead of aiming to create an instrument that played with a lot of responsiveness to a wide dynamic range as the Marine Band of the 1950s and earlier, the competition catered to the new generation of players who had gotten used to instruments which required a lot more breath to play.

The aim became to make instruments that could last longer when played with harder breath. They were tuned sharper to compensate for the flattening of the pitch that comes with playing harder. My feeling is that this event affected the market and profoundly changed a generation of players.

Is harder, louder and stronger better?

Better or not, this became the new standard. You can't blame the harmonica makers for catering to market demand. But adjusting a harp to respond to hard breath will make it less responsive and harder to bend.

And the trend continues. We are seeing new instruments with reeds that are made from more and more massive materials than brass. Also, new harps are designed with reed plates that are thicker than in the past. Adding mass to the reeds and making the reed plates thicker are two easy ways to design an instrument that plays louder.

There is a trade-off. They play loud but these instruments offer much less dynamic range than ever before.

Search YouTube for reviews of these new wave made-in-china harmonicas and you will find that more often than not, the new harp is declared to be fantastic simply because it's louder than another brand.

But try to play these harps quietly and all you will get is air. This does not permit you to add a lot of dynamics to your playing.

There is a school of thought in the blues harp community that encourages "building chops" which implies working extra hard at articulating notes so as to develop muscle. It is implied that a beginner should stay away from a more responsive type of harmonica so as to foster muscle development.

"Play hard, but play with finesse" is contradictory and confusing to a beginning diatonic harmonica player yet it seems to be the dominant ideology.

It is claimed that building bending muscle this way will allow a beginner to progress faster. There is no evidence to support this theory.

Most evidence-based teaching methods advocate working at playing things slowly and with precision before building up speed and intensity. The anatomy of the vocal tract is such that less tension leads to better tone and better control. This is corroborated by any qualified singing instructor. Practising precision control of bends with a responsive harmonica builds chops quite effectively because you are working the correct muscle groups.

It makes sense to me that beginners and players of all levels would make progress faster using breath control but there is no evidence to support the claim either. There has never been a study done which compares the rate of progress using more responsive versus less responsive diatonic harmonicas.

There is the perception that a player who gets used to very responsive harps will never be able to play less responsive off-the-shelf harps. I believe the opposite is true. I have observed many players who play custom harps exclusively make low-quality harmonicas sound amazing. Low-quality instruments are a lot more work and aren't fun to play but these players are no worse off in any way for playing custom harmonicas. They have the chops.

Evidence shows that a better instrument will foster more enthusiasm, elicit fewer bad habits and evoke faster progress. Proper instruction (a good teacher) is also proven to speed up learning progress. This evidence is not specific to the harmonica and applies to learning any musical instrument.

Harmonica teachers agree that a relaxed embouchure is essential to good tone. This is true even of the harmonica teachers who paradoxically advocate for using less-responsive harps to build chops. Some of the worst "bad habits" that we pick up as beginners are related to using too much force. I'm sure 100 per cent of us tried to play our first bends by increasing breath force instead of controlling our embouchure. Most of the time we realise this is wrong and eliminate this bad habit quickly but sometimes it persists for years or never stops.

Some players almost never blow out reeds while others replace their harps (or learn to replace reeds themselves) nonstop. It's recognised that the difference between the two groups is breath control.

I don't want to tell anyone how they should play their instrument - that remains a personal choice. But I think emphasising breath control as a basic, beginner-level concept makes a lot more sense than keeping breath control as an advanced topic for experienced players only. We should teach beginners to avoid bad habits from day one.


Little Walter
Breath control is nothing new. We've read first-hand accounts of Big Walter achieving amazing tone playing with whisper-quiet breath. We also have evidence that top players from the 40s 50s and 60s preferred to play with light breath. Little Walter is quoted as saying his reason for playing amplified was "so I don't have to be blowin' so hard." Even James Cotton is reported to have achieved his powerful sound using a much lighter touch than one would expect.

Some of the best players of current times play with breath control: Rick Estrin, Dennis Gruenling, Howard Levy, Charlie McCoy, Curtis Salgado, Todd Parrott, Ronnie Shellist, Kim Wilson and many more...

These names conjure up thoughts of very powerful playing. But they all achieve that power using much less breath than you would expect.

Breath control does not mean low volume. It means playing the whole range from quiet to loud using a good harmonica and avoiding hard breath.

Less is more. It's time we put the emphasis on harmonicas that can handle a proper dynamic range and playing with breath control rather than focusing on making harps that can blast out sounds the loudest.

It's not necessary for every beginner to practice on a full custom harmonica but it's time we demanded harmonica manufacturers produce more responsive instruments.

Until they do, it's possible and straightforward to upgrade the responsiveness of stock harmonicas yourself or find a competent harmonica service-provider who can do it for you.

What about reed failure?

A more responsive harp doesn't have to mean you will wreck the instrument and blow out reeds. If you improve the control over your breath you will be solving the underlying cause of frequent reed blowouts. It's not the harp's fault, no matter what type of harmonica you play. With good breath control, players can play extremely responsive harmonicas and still only rarely suffer blown reeds.

What do you think the great blues harmonica players from the days before 1960 would think of present-day instruments? Who can say? I think they would be able to make some great music with them, but I reckon they would not find them as fun to play because - as they say - "they don't make them like they used to."

Thanks to Barbeque Bob Maglinte and many others for their historical recollections and perspectives.

Popular altered tunings

Here are some of the most popular altered tunings that come across my workbench.

I have made some charts with scale degrees and the available chords which are color coded.

How do you tune all these chords when there are so many options? The same reed can be part of four different chords at the same time!

You can't - nor would you want - to tune every chord to be in perfect harmony. Use these charts to help you decide between tuning some chords to be in harmony and tuning to play melody notes.

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Standard Richter:

This is the standard tuning scheme for diatonic harmonica. It offers a pretty interesting choice of chords. "Compromise tuning" refers to tuning only the major triads to be in harmony and compromising everything else (minor chords, sevenths, and diminished chords).

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Paddy Richter (Brendan Power):

This is the most common altered tuning. The three blow gets raised a full tone.

This gets rid of the redundancy between two draw and three blow and allows you to play melodic runs with more agility in the lower register for things like Irish reels. You also get the relative minor chord on the low end of the blow plate.

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Country (Major Seventh Tuning):

The five draw gets raised a semitone.

This turns the minor seventh of second position into a major seventh which is useful in country music where you don't want a minor sound. It's also very useful in Jazz as a melody note and chord. You get a draw bend on the five hole with this modification.

To tune your harp to country tuning, see Country Tuning.

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Natural Minor:

2, 5 and 8 blow as well as 3 and 7 draw are all lowered by a semitone.

All major third chords are turned into minor thirds. The draw bends on the low end open up new possibilities for soulful sounds as the 2 draw now has three bends.

Here's Brandon Bailey playing on a Natural Minor harmonica:

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Harmonic Minor:

2, 5 and 8 blow as well as 6 and 10 draw are all lowered by a semitone.

The blow plate is tuned to minor chords and the draw plate offers diminished chords all the way up starting from hole 3.

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Powerbender and PowerDraw (Brendan Power):

All of Powerbender's draw bends are dual-reed bends which means both reeds collaborate to make the sound. You get a much stronger and smoother sound than you get from single-reed bends like overblows and overdraws or half-valved bends.

PowerDraw is Standard Richter with only the top four holes (7,8,9 and 10) modified to PowerBender configuraiton.

See Altering Standard Richter to Powerbender.

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Melody Maker (Lee Oskar):

3 blow is raised a full tone and 5 and 9 draw are raised a semitone.

You get an interval of a sixth, the relative minor chord as well as a minor major seventh chord (of the relative minor) on the low end of the blow plate and you get the major seventh on the draw plate. The five draw also gets a draw bend. Draw bends on the low end are simplified but that still allows you to get that soulful sound.

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Parrott (Flat Tenth Tuning):

The seven draw is lowered a semitone.

This allows you to play the minor third as a seven draw note in second position, it gives you a blow bend on the seven hole (the major third) and it makes the overdraw easier to hit (the flat fourth). Second position gets a sweet overhaul in the upper register.

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Solo Tuning:

The reeds are altered to be tuned like a chromatic harmonica with the following repeating pattern: C-E-G-C for the blow plate and D-F-A-B for the draw plate.

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Here is a list of offsets for tuning intervals in harmony:

You can find more information about tuning using offsets here:

Tuning offsets

Top Six Geeky Harmonica Tuning Wallpapers

Here are some pretty cool looking (and useful!) wallpapers for your computer screen. Not only do they look awesome, use these charts and tables to help you as you work!

HD Richter Tuning Notes:

HD Dynamic Breath:

HD Tuning and Offsets for Altered Tunings:

HD Tuning:

HD All the charts:

HD Quick Customizing:

SD Richter Tuning Notes:

SD Dynamic Breath:

SD Quick Customizing:

Question about tuning a harmonica "correctly'

Don't stress out about all the numbers! I just got asked a question about how to tune a harmonica "correctly" using 442Hz and offsets. Here's my answer:

Don't worry so much about tuning "correctly" when trying to wrap your head around all the numbers (443 Hz, 442, 439, etc...) Know that harps that are tuned to Equal Temperament at the factory are usually tuned with an accuracy of + or - 6 cents! That is a very large margin of error. We only need more accuracy when we want the chords to sound in harmony (as in "harmonica").

Let your ears decide. Play single notes and play chords. If something sounds not right to your ears, you have the means to fix it. Play various pairs of notes and figure out which note(s) is/are the culprit. Then use "the numbers" and your ears to fix them. The "numbers" (offsets) are a tool to *help* you make the harp sound right. But it doesn't work the other way around. There is no expectation that you need to validate the tuning of a harmonica by looking at a number on a tuner. Single notes on harmonica are so unstable that using that method is very inaccurate. Just play it and if it sounds good, success!

Tuning by numbers as I describe in the tuning sheet you got is a quick way to do things. You will not achieve perfect accuracy using numbers alone. You need to use dynamic breath force while playing two notes at the same time and let your ears guide you. The methodology to do that is on my website and the link is in the documents that came with the tools. There is also a breath chart on the sheet.

The numbers do serve as a landmark to get you close. It's generally a little easier to set the tuner calibration to 339 and tune to make the needle aim for the zero mark instead of leaving the calibration at 442 and tuning to -12 cents. That's why I recommend changing to 339 Hz when tuning major thirds. Fifths are only about two cents sharp so somewhere in between 442 and 443. But we will hit the 2 draw a little harder so it's maybe best to tune it a little sharp, hence tuning the tonic of the draw plate to 443 instead of 442.5. Also, since those reeds are on the low end of the harp, we naturally tune them a little sharp anyway so the 3 blow may indeed be tuned to 443 anyway once you are done.

I hope that helps! Let me know how it goes!

French version of my Quick Customizing Videos

Traduction en cours.... "Tuning Repair" translation in progress....

I will be releasing both an English and French version of my Quick Customizing Videos. Both will have an equal amount of typos and grammatical mistakes.

Vintage Hohner reeds

The Hohner Marine Band is the reference-standard, classic diatonic harmonica. It has gone through a few changes over time, but it is still the same design. It uses a Pearwood comb and brass reeds that have that classic sound and response.

Vintage Marine Bands were excellent instruments. Some of the best classic harmonica records were made using the Marine Band.

Some pre-war versions of the Marine Band are sought-after by collectors. Up until the late 1970s, the quality was excellent. Hohner experienced a few years of poor quality in the 1980s and early 1990s. They attempted some money-saving strategies which were poorly-received. Quality rapidly improved in the late 1990s as they re-tooled their shop.

When buying a vintage harmonica, how do you know if is was made during the good years (before the late 1970s and after the late 1990s)? Will it be worth the time invested to fix it up?

You can look for a few clues as to how the Marine Band was assembled like the number of nails on the bottom side, you can look at the address on the cardboard box, the color of the blue ink on the box.

But these clues don't apply to a Golden Melody or some other models of a vintage Hohner harp?

A sure-fire way to tell is to look at the reeds. This works for every model of Hohner harmonica.

The tips of the older reeds from the "bad" period are chamfered or rounded.

Click on the photo to enlarge.

Click on the photo to enlarge.

Click on the photo to enlarge.

If you are considering spending some time restoring or re-tuning a vintage harmonica, make sure the reeds are *not* rounded at the tips.

A harmonica from the "bad" period will take a lot of time and effort and yet still not ever play well. Be warned and don't waste your time.

Some of those old harps were held together with brass pins instead of screws. Here's a video on a neat way to get those pins out. You can tap out one side with an M2 tap and enlarge the opposite hole with a 3/32" drill bit for clearance and re-assemble with an M2 screw.

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