Andrew's blog

Quick Videos

I have revived an older project and completed it.

I had not been happy with the final cut of these videos so I went back and made the necessary changes. Now is the time for this.

Because of the Covid19 pandemic, many folks are stuck at home and with a reduced income. I hope that these videos can help you bring the best out of your instruments and allow you to become self-reliant in keeping your harps in top shape.

I'm releasing this at half price for the duration of this pandemic.

You can get this set two ways:

1- As a 650 Meg download from my website.

2- As a USB drive shipped from RockinRon's.

This set of videos is a guide for hands-on learning. Harmonica customization is a hands-on art.

These videos cover a lot of ground. A lot about the diatonic harmonica is not well understood - There's a lot of misinformation on the internet about what's supposed to work to get your harp to perform. These videos will set you straight. Had I had access to this information when I first started repairing harmonicas, it would have taken years off my learning curve.

Opening the back of a Special 20 or Marine Band 1896

This is a simple and effective way to open up / fold the backs of the cover plates.

It may be more interesting to modify the back of the cover a different way, though. Some versions of the pre-war Marine Band had a much smaller "lip" but because of the 90 degree angle, it can provide a lot of support against crushing. It's still very open.

This is a modern cover plate modified in that way:

This is how it looks assembled:

Covid19: (How) should I clean my harmonica?

(How) should I clean my harmonica?

I am getting asked this question a lot.

A dirty harmonica will not increase your chances of catching Covid19 (or any other flu). Social distancing and hand hygiene will protect you. Anything else is a false sense of security.

I don't see any realistic cleaning regimen that will somehow allow you to avoid social distancing but not catch the virus. If someone is coughing, singing or playing harmonica near you, they will transmit the disease to you via aerosol droplets.

Yes it will get into your harp but if it's gotten to your harp, it's already gotten to you. And that's the thing we need to avoid.

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- Wash your hands before you pick up your instrument every single time. Wash your hands before you even open up your case.

- Stay away from others until the virus has subsided. Stay more than three feet (1 meter) away from anyone who is sick or stay home.

Follow these rules and clean your harps as usual.

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What happens if I get Covid19?

Hopefully you get better.

Once you are better, it's time to clean your harps. Harmonicas create aerosol particles and you will spread the virus if you play harps you were in contact with while you were contagious.

Won't the virus be dead if I leave my harps to dry for a few days?

Possibly but not certainly.

I reckon the virus could survive quite a long time inside a harmonica with a porous comb. The inside of a harmonica is not like a surface such as a counter top. I assume that we could find biofilm on the inside of most harmonicas which would harbour microorganisms including viruses and help them survive dry spells and even a decent cleaning.

Biofilm is not visible to the naked eye.

Do not sanitize your instruments by dunking them in alcohol. That doesn't work.

Take them apart and clean them thoroughly with soap and water and then sanitize them. Hydrogen Peroxide is really great for that. It won't ruin any of the finishes on the tips of the tines and it is extremely effective at killing microorganisms. It doesn't have a harsh toxic odor and it's earth-friendly. It's cheap and easy to find, too.

If your comb is made of wood, you will have to face the fact that you may cause your comb to swell as you clean it. You really need to scrub and soak it. If the comb swells, I would recommend replacement rather than trying to re-seal it. It will eventually fail again. Replacement combs are easy to find.

This crisis is taking a toll on musicians. Contact me if you are looking for less costly replacement combs.

It may be worth considering putting some of your harps away for the duration of this crisis. If you are fond of some harps with unsealed wooden combs, I think it may be a good idea to keep them separate from your more frequently used - and easier to clean - harmonicas for the time being.

I hope that helps!

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': https://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.

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