Five things you can do to make a harmonica play better

See also Putting it all together: a quick reference to the process of upgrading a harmonica.

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.


A) I offer custom combs that are more airtight than factory combs. You may also flatten your harmonica's comb if it's a "sandwich-type" harmonica.

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.

This highlights the relationship between reed shape and gapping. Think of reed work as setting the gap of the whole length of the reed - not just the tip.

Number 1- Tuning

Nothing gives a harp more ability to get people moving than being in tune.

Read this blog entry about tuning (click here) and go ahead and tune your harps. Can't tell if they are in tune? Here is a way to check your tuning (click here). Warning! Once you start to notice tuning issues, you may drive yourself insane trying to attain perfect tuning!

Tuning tools

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.

Springy metal can store energy. Until you get rid of the tension in the reed, take a break between reed shaping sessions and reed tuning sessions. You'll find your results will be a lot more predictable. With practice, you'll be able to set the shape of a reed in one sitting.