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 creates an airtight seal on the blow chambers. 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 to avoid tuning the reeds a little sharp.
The reed profiles of the top octave may be such that those reeds only respond to harder breath. In that case, you will always have trouble getting the tuning to be perfect. In that case, focus on the lower octaves and tune the top octave when the plates are assembled to the comb using the Five Cent Tuner to make very small adjustments.
Tip number three: The waiting game
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.
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.
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.
Now, take a look at the middle octave of your harp. The six unbent notes played on holes 4, 5 and 6 are the tonic notes for each of the six scales you can play easily. Here's a chart to help you remember what key, breath pattern and position each scale represents when starting the scale from the middle octave.
Positions are indicated by number. Notes with matching colours have related scales. Capital letters are major scales, lowercase are minor.
Four blow and Six draw breath pattern: First and Fourth position breath pattern
The C scale on a C harp is first position. The C scale has a relative minor - A minor. They both share the same notes - they just have a different tonic (the note you start and end on). Therefore, they share the same breath patterns on the diatonic harmonica. Once you have mastered the major pentatonic scale in first position, play the A minor scale which starts and ends on the draw 6 and that's fourth position.
Starting on the 6 draw, go upwards as well as downwards. Concentrate on resolving on the 6 draw. Go crazy and add vibrato to the 6 draw - if you have mostly played second position you may find resolving on and adding vibrato to the 6 draw feels funny at first. But try to make that note soulful; land on it with purpose and you will begin to master playing in fourth position.
Five blow and Six blow breath pattern:
Second and Fifth position breath pattern
The G major scale is second position on a C harp and its relative minor is E minor. E minor starts and ends on the 5 blow and that's fifth position - again same breath pattern as second position, just a different tonic. As with fourth position, it will feel funny to add vibrato to the 5 blow. But once you become comfortable with making that note stand out as the tonic, you will be on your way to mastering fifth position.
Four draw and Five draw breath pattern: Third and twelfth position breath pattern
Third position is a minor scale starting on the 4 draw. Its relative major is F major - 5 draw and that's 12th position. I find the 5 draw can have a surprising amount of soul or "sass" if you carefully lean into it. We are used to wailing on the 2 draw or 4 draw and bending those notes as we bear down into them. The 5 draw can't be bent any more than a quarter step, but it can nonetheless be a very powerful wailing note.
Here's how this chart is a really useful learning tool: Pick any unbent note from holes 4, 5 or 6 - blow or draw. Play that note's pentatonic scale either upwards or downwards or in both directions. Pick another note and do the same. Try to cycle randomly through all six notes until you have gone trough all of them. Although you only have to master three breath patterns to play all those scales, the hard part is knowing where to start and stop the scale. Without a beginning or an end, it's one meaningless string of notes.
Once you "burn" this chart into your memory, playing these scales is a snap. Part of the advantage of starting in the middle of the harp is that you have the option to change things up and play the scale downwards instead of always starting scales going up (ascending). And that brings you closer to being able to use these scales as more than an exercise but as a music-making tool.
You will probably find that after a little while, you can resolve to the tonic note in the other octaves too without having to think about it. That's because you have learned the breath patterns and you have zeroed-in on how to get these scales to sound the way you think they should. Scales have a learning curve but once you get through it. their job is to make things easier for you.
The other advantage of this middle-octave stuff is that you can think in terms of positions, rather than key. This is helpful if you play a different key harp than C. You will now be able to figure out which key corresponds to which position on any key harp by naming the unbent notes of holes 4, 5 and 6. All you need to do is be able to name the notes of the major scale of that harp's key and start counting on the 4 blow!
I have begun the long and expensive process of making my own harmonica combs. I have found that I need to.
Currently, I only use stock combs - the combs that come from the manufacturer. I upgrade stock combs by making them more comfortable by rounding sharp corners, making the reedplate contact surface as flat as I can and sealing the wood so that they don't warp and resist damage. I can also colour the tips of the tines for aesthetic reasons.
Working this way on stock combs leads to excellent results, but the material can sometimes be unpredictable and occasionally may require a lot of time before it is perfect. It can be done, but there are only so many hours in the day... So the answer is to start from scratch and make my own combs.
But why not buy a replacement comb that's "ready to go"? There are plenty of aftermaket combs available.
A custom harmonica requires an outstanding comb. I feel that a mass-produced comb is not as flat and therefore cannot offer the same performance as a comb that I work on myself. I would never just throw in an aftermarket comb into one of my harps without first flatsanding and sealing by hand. The cost of these aftermarket combs is not worth it if I still have to do all that work.
Some aftermarket combs are made of solid surface materials that don't need to be sealed, but getting them flat and polished still requires lots of work. It can also require expensive products to make them look and feel smooth. Not to mention they can be brittle and are subject to breakage if dropped. Lastly, some of those products are foodsafe, but have are manufactured using materials and processes that are environmentally damaging.
Also, I have yet to find one comb that can accommodate all the different kinds of Marine Bands I work on. Most Marine Band harmonicas have the draw plate nail holes positioned in a way that you can use them as pilot holes to convert to screws. The holes on current Marine Bands line up differently than on Marine Bands from the 50s, 60s and 70s (The Hicksville period).
So I may as well just do it myself.
I am working on a comb that has the screw clearance holes positioned to be used with current Marine Bands including the Crossover and Deluxe as well as vintage Marine Bands and their relatives such as the pre-MS Blues harps, Old Standby and Hoosier Boy Harmonicas.
Making prototypes is extremely expensive and time-consuming. I am fortunate to be dealing with some very nice and helpful people locally and in the US.
Here is what I am aiming for:
- Outstanding performance. I want to offer a comb that is flat and airtight. I want it to enhance tone and response. I will flatten each comb to my standards by hand.
- Ecologically sensible. I am looking for a material that has a very low impact on the environment (recycled or renewable fibres), made of natural substances, non-allergenic, and from a company that has a good reputation insofar as the environmental impact of their practices. A great example is a company that encourages users like me to use their off-cuts. This is ecologically sound (no waste!) and financially responsible (if I pay less, you pay less!)
- Straightforward Production. I will not compromise my design because it's technically challenging to CNC mill or Laser cut.
- Finish. I want a comb that has a lasting smooth and comfortable surface. I want to be able to produce that smoothness relatively easily without relying on costly or environmentally harmful products.
I think I have found a suitable material. I have sent my design to the CNC shop to be turned into something I can test-drive.
Be picky about tuning! Don't avoid playing octaves or chords because they don't sound right. It's normal to have to tune your harp. This tuning check is the first step to getting your harps in tune.
Check your harp's tuning often - it only takes a few moments. Don't be afraid of what you might find.... Then go ahead and tune your harp!
Playing all the octave-splits on a harmonica is a fast way to pinpoint tuning problems.
Here, I play octaves throughout the harp to hear whether the two notes are in tune or not. The harp I play in the video is far from being in tune. You can tell by my facial expression the first few times I hit a "beating" octave. This exercise is mostly ear-training.
Warning! If you get proficient in this technique, you may begin to become afflicted with tuning-obsession-syndrome and get the feeling that most out-of-the-box harps are out of tune! In extreme cases, keen-eared victims raise an eyebrow when listening to over half of the recordings of blues greats such as Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton and Walter Horton!
Tuning check instructions:
I play the 1-4, 2-5, 3-6, 4-7, 5-8, 6-9 and 7-10 octave splits on the blow side.
Then, I play the 1-4, 2-5 (seventh chord, not an octave. so expect beating to be difficult to hear), 3-7, 4-8, 5-9, 6-10 splits on the draw side.
Then I play the 2-3 blow and the 4-5 blow. I play the 1234 draw chord and listen for dissonance.