Restoring old harmonicas can be rewarding. Some of those old harps have a lot of soul!
Some Vintage Marine Band harmonicas are worth restoring because they have the potential to become responsive instruments with that earthy Marine Band sound.
But some are not.
Hohner went through a difficult time in the late 80s and early 90s and the quality of their harmonicas suffered. No matter how much work you do on such a harp, the result will be a serviceable harp at best. When they were first bought, a lot of them were hardly played because of the poor quality and they were simply put away. Today, these harps are surfacing on online markets as Vintage harmonicas in great "cosmetic" condition! They are cosmetically excellent because they have had barely any use due to their poor quality out-of-the-box.
How can you tell the difference between the good and the bad vintage Marine Bands? Here's a simple way. This method can help you spot a lemon over 90 per cent of the time.
Take a look at the back of the harp. Flip it upside down and look closely under the cover plate. How many nail heads can you see in between the reeds on the draw side (the bottom reed plate)? If you can see three, the harp is from a good period - either before or after the difficult time in the 1980s and 1990s.
If you can only see two nail heads, you have a harp that is most likely not going to be as playable as you would like it to be no matter how much work you do on it.
Harmonicas like the Lee Oskar, the Hohner Special 20 and the Suzuki HarpMaster (Bushman Delta Frost) have a "recessed" plastic comb that surrounds the reed plates. Your lips don't make contact with the front of the reed plate, instead, they are in contact with the plastic comb. To replace the stock comb with a "sandwich-type" comb, you need to round off and smoothen the front of the reed plate so that it's comfortable in your mouth.
Here's how you do it
Start with some fine sandpaper. Sand down the draw reed plate as described in the document "Preparing a reed plate for use with a flat comb." This gets rid of the protruding riven ends and allows the reed plate to sit properly on the comb. It makes the harmonica more airtight and is recommended on all harmonicas, even Suzuki harmonicas which have no rivet ends.
Next, hold the reed plate at an angle and sand the front edge of the reed plate in a circular motion.
Next, do the same to both sides.
Using a piece of 600 grit (or higher) sandpaper and polish the front edge. Be sure to avoid contact with any reeds.
Place the side of the reedplate on your working surface and run the 600 grit sandpaper back and forth over the edge. You are making a nicely rounded edge along the side of the reed plate. Don't be afraid to rub pretty hard. Just be sure to not catch any reeds when you work on the draw reed plate.
Once you are done, the corners should look smooth and comfortable.
This is a very comfortable and airtight harmonica made from Suzuki reed plates with a sandwich-type comb and a set of Special 20 cover plates. You can't buy a harp like this in stores!
Special note regarding Lee Oskar harmonica comb swapping:
The cover plate on a Lee Oskar just barely sits on the edge of the reed plate. When converting a Lee Oskar harmonica to a sandwich-type comb, moving the cover plates back will help improve airtightness. A very easy way to accomplish this is to enlarge the cover plate holes. Simply drill the existing holes with a 1/8 drill bit.
Once assembled, you will be able to position the Lee Oskar cover plates further back.
One of the time-tested methods of improving the Marine Band harmonica is to flat sand the comb. This makes it much more airtight and removes the waterproof seal (on current Marine Bands only - the old ones don't ever have a seal) and can sometimes cause the comb can swell. It can become distorted and leak air, causing the harp to play poorly. The tines can also start to peek out and that can make the harp very uncomfortable to play.
This can happen in a week, a month or with a little luck can sometimes take years before the comb wears out. But this unpredictability means that the flattened, unsealed Pearwood comb is usually immediately replaced with a third-part aftermarket comb in most custom harmonicas.
So how can you experience the "gold-standard" unsealed, perfectly flat Pearwood comb? If you send me a Marine Band harmonica for Service, I will automatically provide you with a high-performance, flat, waterproof comb. For a very small extra fee, I will provide you with your harmonica's original comb, drilled for screws and flattened to my standards in addition to my replacement (long-lasting, waterproof) comb. You get the best of both worlds!
Compare for yourself. You may fall in love with the authentic tone of unsealed Pearwood. Or you may not notice a difference between the two - equally flat - combs. Either way, you get the choice.
More information on combs
The very early Hohner Marine Band harmonicas used Peachwood as their comb material until about the 1920s . They switched to Pearwood and have continued to use it to this day. Some feel that the wooden comb gives the Marine Band its signature warmth. Others feel that comb material has very little to do with the overall tone and that the way to get that warm tone is to make the harmonica airtight by making the reed plates and comb as flat as possible.
Brendan Power and Vern Smith used the scientific method at the 2010 SPAH convention and enlisted an army of pro players to test various comb materials on a single harp before a live audience. One comb at a time, players played the same lick before the audience; neither the players nor the audience were told what comb material was. Both the audience and players rated the tone and response of each comb sample.
The quick-switching mechanism was a point of conflict as some of the pro felt the test harp was not airtight and therefore the instrument's tone was not representative of real-life... One surprising conclusion was that despite the range of responses from the pro players testing the various comb materials, the audience couldn't tell the difference between comb materials. They could distinguish between players, though.
A similar event was held at SPAH 2013, but admittedly, that event was far from scientific. The audience and players had a lot of fun showcasing the product line of a harmonica comb company. That event successfully engaged the audience and got people talking about combs without as much vitriol as in 2010. But there can be no conclusions drawn from this experience due to the lack of standardisation used in the process.
So the jury is out as to whether the comb material really changes the tone of a harmonica.
To further complicate matters, no out-of-the-box harmonica has a perfectly flat comb. The Marine Band is a paradox because every single one ever made has the potential to be a world-class instrument - the one-of-a-kind favorite harp in your case. But none of them are set up from the factory to fulfil that potential.
My very first "real", professional-grade harmonica was a Lee Oskar. I always had the hardest time bending notes on that thing. Had I known then what I know now, it probably would have become my favorite harmonica. Instead, I spent years fighting with Lee Oskar harmonicas.
One of the biggest problems with these kinds of harps is that they are not airtight. They seem to me to be pretty difficult to play up in the high end. I think I found out why. Whenever I sand the draw plate of a Lee Oskar harmonica, I notice that holes nine and ten share a low spot. They share common airspace. This is right where the serial number is stamped on the other side of the plate.
After sanding the plate down half-way, this is how it looks. The low spot is the dark area on the plate:
After some more elbow grease, this is the result. Everything is shiny and all the same color.
Once reassembled, the harmonica is much more airtight and the bends are much easier to control - especially the blow bends.
With good reed work and a little embossing, any harp can play overblows as passing notes.
The overblows in this video can be hit cleanly. They cannot be played with any more expression such as being sustained or bent. That's the difference between a regular harp that can play overblows and an "Overblow" harp. The overbends on the Overblow harp are meant to be played with expression and will not squeal or drop out when bent up.
Someone asked me what an overblow bent up 6 semitones sounds like.
Here is is. (You may need to right-click to download the MP3 file.)
This is a Bb Overblow harp in production. It is far from done and has no wax to help make the note more stable. All this harp has so far is reed work and heavy embossing.
The unbent 6-overblow on this harp about 20 cents flat of Ab. Six semitones up from that is D, which is the same note as 8 blow. In the audio clip I play the 8 blow first to get the pitch into my head. Then I play the 6 OB and bend it up.
I aim for an Overblow harp to be able to play a bent overblow 5-6 semitones before I consider it ready to go. Will someone ever play that note as an overblow in a performance?
What's the point, then? Well, without an objective way to assess performance, how can you know what you are getting?
It follows that the higher you can bend that note without it falling of or squealing terribly, the better the overblow will sound in its more-often played range - usually bent up a maximum of 2 semitones in a performance.
This is not the best measure of the quality of a harp, but all the other qualities are hard to measure or even put into words. So for now, this is probably the most obvious way to determine the level of performance of an overblow harp.
In doing a final cleaning on a wooden comb just now I noticed it warped! I checked the other combs from the same batch and they warped too! These were cut from a new board that was produced from huge piece of Maple. I had used another one of those boards with excellent results - maybe it was from the opposite end of the piece?
I now have doubts about being able to consistently produce a quality final product out of wood. I want to make harmonicas and offer combs that you can drop into an ultrasonic cleaner (or even just a sink of water) and not worry about warping. I don't think I can ever achieve that reliably with the wood I can source locally. And the woods that would work well (like bamboo or bamboo laminate) are shipped in from across the world. Unless I can find re-purposed bamboo that would otherwise be waste and therefore have a smaller ecological footprint, I'm just not going to offer wooden combs.
MS comb made from re-purposed kitchen cutting board
To be perfectly honest, I never liked wood. I got into making combs to get away from dealing with how wooden harmonica can warp unpredictably. I was told to offer a wood comb because the demand would be there - and it has. And I think my choice of reclaimed wood is the best in terms of quality and environmental responsibility. I don't think I can get better results from any other source. The pieces of wood I used yielded outstanding results - until today.
But there will always be an element of uncertainty. I simply don't have time for that. I can't afford to spend a few days on a batch of combs only to find out they are crap.
My dark combs are so much better than wood anyway. They are less expensive because I don't have to spend two days applying three coats of varnish to make them waterproof - they already are waterproof.
I am the first to admit that you usually don't need to replace the comb in your harmonica to make it play well.
I have been working on stock combs (the combs that come with the harmonica from the factory) for years. They need to be made more airtight to make the harmonica play as well as it should. It's possible to flatten these combs and make them waterproof to perform at a very high level.
The problem with restoring used wooden combs is that they can be very unpredictable. The comb shown in the photo on the right is a stock Hohner Marine Band comb that had been restored. It was perfectly flat all throughout the restoration process until the very last step - final cleaning. Despite having been sealed with three coats of varnish, it warped horribly after being exposed to water. This is completely unacceptable.
I've found that about one in fifty such combs will do this. It's possible to avoid the use of replacement combs and only work on stock combs, but it's too time-consuming to be cost-effective. And it offers no benefit. The factory wooden comb doesn't offer any better tone or response than another type of material. In fact, unless its comb is perfectly flat, it will worsen how the instrument sounds and responds.
I finally decided that the most effective solution would be for me to make my own water-resistant combs. I wanted to make combs that are very airtight, beautiful and made from sustainable, environmentally-friendly materials. This method is better, faster and cheaper than restoring the stock combs. I am extremely pleased with the result.
I am proud to use these combs in my custom harmonicas as well as part of harmonica service. I am also offering them to you for your own use.
You don't need bulky, expensive and complicated equipment to tune your harmonica with great precision. The French Tuner™ helps you use your mouth and ears to quickly tune the blow reed plate of a diatonic harmonica. The French Tuner helps you eliminate beating and provide smooth chords.
Its precision design allows the French Tuner to work on all major brands of 10-hole diatonic harmonicas including Seydel (which have wider spaced holes) and many 12-hole harps.
Use it to help adjust reed profiles too! The French Tuner will isolate individual reeds and provide an airtight chamber for you to assess and make fine-grained changes to reed shape. Pucker or tongue-block embouchure can be used to best help you adjust your reeds to your playing style.
The notes of the blow plate are organized in a repeating pattern. The root note, the third and the fifth. This pattern makes it very simple to tune the blow plate.
Hold the French Tuner over both notes of the octave and use your mouth to play both reeds at the same time or just one at a time. Lay the reed plate back down on your workspace and adjust the pitch of either note and recheck.
Precise tuning means you will be doing lots of small adjustments. The French Tuner allows you to quickly make adjustments and recheck the pitch of the reed without having to reassemble the harmonica every time.
Tips and Tricks:
Tip number one: Special 20 harps
On Hohner Special 20 harmonicas, the reed plate has extra openings next to a few slots to accommodate the recessed comb. This can cause an airleak when using the French Tuner to tune these notes. You may notice that these notes sound quieter or are harder to hit. This can make you unsure of how to tune them. But there is a very simple solution to this problem.
Just hold the French Tuner as usual and block the leak with your fingers. Just be sure to not cover up the slot.
Tip number two: As you go up...
You will notice that you will need to keep a larger difference between the pitch of both notes of lower octaves than the difference in pitch on higher octaves. Use these example values to get the idea: Tune hole 4 right on pitch. Tune hole 1 about 2-5 cents sharper than hole 4, depending on the key. Tune hole 7 about 1-2 cents flatter than hole 4. Tune hole 10 about the same as hole 7, maybe a hair to the left. It will be flatter, but your tuner may not pick it up. Use your ears and the flowchart to eliminate beating.
Be careful with your breath force. The French Tuner is airtight, but the lower holes have long, wide gaps. Once you put the reed plate back on the comb, the channel will not be so tight any more because the draw reeds will create more of an open space. When using the French Tuner, keep light breath force on lower holes of you will find your reeds are a little sharp.
Tip number three: The waiting game
Some reeds stay in tune while others will fall out of tune in a short time. They often will go sharp over time. I believe some reeds even go flat for a few days only to become sharp again - if you try to fix them right away, you will end up chasing your tail!
Be patient. Tune the harp and let it be for a few days before you attempt to adjust the tuning again. In the long run, that will save you a lot of time and avoid some confusion or frustration.
Here are five things you do to a diatonic harp to make it play better. These are all the important parts to working on harmonica. You can't expect more advanced techniques (like embossing) to have a big impact unless you got these things covered. If you haven't started working on harps and are thinking about it, these are the things you want to start with.
Most of these things take very little time and effort to do.
Number 5 - Make it airtight:
The harp needs to be airtight or it won't play as well as it should.
Bending will be harder, the tone will be weak and it may even squeal if it leaks air. If you have a particular harp in your collection that just doesn't play as well as you think it should, I can bet that making it more airtight will fix the problem. Do this by making sure the comb and reed plates are flat.
B) The draw reed plate can be made more airtight with a few minutes of work. On my custom combs page you can download a PDF document (it's free!) with the details of making the draw reed plate flat. Flattening the draw reed plate will improve your harp even if you use the regular stock comb.
C) I offer The F tool which will allow you to make both the blow and draw reed plates flat.
Other simple things that can lead to air leaks are screws that have been over tightened and misaligned cover plates. If the covers click into a groove in the reed plate, make sure they sit in the groove the whole length.
Number 4 - Reed shape:
A reed sounds loudest and is most responsive when it’s full length passes through the slot at the same time. All reeds must have a curve at rest. Got one note that won't play right? Try to shape both the blow and draw reeds so that they will be straight when passing through the slot.
Look at the shape of the reed from the side. Focus your attention on the light you see through the slot as you push the reed down through the slot.
Change the shape of a reed by focusing pressure with a tool onto a specific spot. Use a finger to provide counter pressure from the other side of the reed. Plink the reed about ten times after every change you make to its shape.
When in doubt remember that if the tip of the reed is curved down and enters the slot before the rest of the reed, you will not (never, ever) get a good result.
Number 3 - Gapping
Gapping is setting the resting point of each reed. It refers to how high the tip of each reed is above the reed plate when it is at rest.
If the tip of the reed is at the level of the reed plate (or lower!) your breath would not be able to make the reed start to move. The tip should be above the level of the reed plate at rest. How high should it be? It depends on how hard you play.
Each player has their preference between a harp set to soft, medium or hard breath. Players who use soft breath force have better control, better tone (especially amplified!) and don’t blow out reeds as often as player who use harder breath force.
No matter what your breath force preference is, consistency is extremely important. Try to make all the reeds respond to the same breath from top to bottom. A harp with a mix of high and low gaps will not be fun to play.
Gaps also affect timbre. There is a “sweet spot” between gaps that are too high and gaps that are too low. Try to find the gap with the best effect on timbre. If you have trouble optimizing timbre, that may be a clue that you need to go back and look at airtightness or reed shape.
Number 2 - Adjusting the gaps for bends.
There are only 19 "straight" notes on the diatonic harmonica. There are 19 more notes that you can play using bends and overbends. All 38 notes are the chromatic scale over more than three octaves.
Both draw bends and blow bends rely on both the blow and draw reeds to work together. It takes two reeds to bend a note.
True or false? To make the 3-draw bend work better, you need to open up the gap on the 3-draw reed.
Answer: Usually false. It depends.
The 3 hole has one blow note and four draw notes. The three 3-hole bends are hard to execute correctly, but some of the best blues harp involves using the 3-draw bends in expressive, soulful, vibrato-soaked wail notes. It's important to get the three hole properly set up.
Close down the 3 blow gap as much as you can without sacrificing it's playability. If you gap the 3 blow too tightly, those draw bends will become very easy to hit, but at the expense of the 3 blow note!
Make sure it doesn't choke under hard pressure, but don't open it up any more than you need. Next, close down the 3 draw reed until it freezes under hard pressure. Then open it up until you can play the unbent note quite hard. Play the three bends. You should have fairly good control of them at this point. It that's not the case, you need to go back and do some more work on airtightness or reed shaping. That will allow you to reach your goal of being able to play all the note available without having to sacrifice any of them.
Adjust the bends on the other holes in the same way. It gets more complicated when you want to optimize unbent notes, bend notes as well as overbends and make sure all three varieties have optimal response and tone.
You can't always attain all three (regular notes, bent notes and overbends) just by gapping an out-of-the-box harp - you often need to do extra work so that you don't have to overtighten your gaps or sacrifice one kind of note for the other.
Number 1- Tuning
Nothing gives a harp more ability to get people moving than being in tune.
So there you have the five fundamental concepts in making a harp play better. I can guarantee you will get results and improve your harps by learning how to do these five things. You may master these elements and stop there without even wanting to dabble in the more advanced topics.
One last thought. Now that you have poured sweat for the last hour trying to work on your favourite harp, put it down and walk away. The next time you pick it up, be it in a day or a week, it probably won't be perfectly set up anymore. This is not a sign that you are an unskilled harp technician. In fact, it's nothing personal at all. It's just physics.
Shaping springy metal is not an exact science. The metal takes time to settle in its final position. Come back some time later and make it a little better. Each time, the adjustments will be smaller and smaller. Repeat until you get to where you want to be.