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The Assessment

What makes a diatonic harmonica great?

Is it how loud it is? Is it Tone? How about how responsive it is?

Is it how fun it is to play? (and what does that even mean?)

Everyone has different criteria. Is there a way to measure how great a harp is without being biased?

I think so. I call it "The Assessment".

This test will not always produce the same numbers from person-to-person but the trend will be reproducible - the things that make a harp better will tend to make the numbers higher from person-to-person. When you can't rely on absolute numbers, trends are the next best way to go!

The Test:
Pick a standard riff from your repertoire. Make sure it uses bends in both holes 2 and 3 - these are the important holes to get set up right. If you use splits and chords often, pick a riff that includes them, too. As time goes by and you incorporate new styles of playing, your standard test riff should change too and reflect your style of playing.

- STEP 1: Play the riff at regular volume. Play it as many times as you need so that you can assign an score to the harp from 1 to 10 for tone and response.
1 is the worst harp ever and 10 is the best harp ever.
As a reference, most stock harps are a 5 at regular volume.

- STEP 2: Play it at the lowest possible volume. Play it as many times as you need so that you can assign an overall score to the harp for tone and response.
1 is the worst harp ever and 10 is the best harp ever.
As a reference, most stock harps are a 3 at low volume. **If you can't play this harp it at much lower volume than regular volume, the score is zero.

Add the two scores and divide by two.

Example:
Regular volume = 6
Quiet volume = 3

Total = 9/2 = a score of 4.5

Most performance-quality harps (not made in China) can be upgraded by one or two points with only a few minute's work.

Reproducibility: Everyone has different needs and tastes but the things you (or the factory) can do to make a harp get a higher score will mean that another person will tend to score the harp higher too. Players like a harp that responds well and sounds good.

The job of a harmonica reed is to turn breath into sound. Everyone likes a good return on the investment. We don't want to waste our breath and work too hard to achieve volume. For example, a reed with more mass or a thicker reed plate will create more volume but it also may require more work to play. It may play loud, but it may not be as responsive as another reed. It's more desirable for a reed to respond with ease and still produce lots of volume.

Also, a harp that is out-of-tune will always sounds bad, no matter now loud it can play.

Hohner reed plate serial numbers

Hohner is back to adding identifiers to their reed plates:

"We laser batch numbers on our reed plates, the number has no significant meaning."

i.A. Ciro Lenti
- Service Manager -
Hohner, Trossingen, Germany

In the past few years they had stopped using any identifier. Prior to that (Around 1998-2014) they stamped the date onto the plates like this:

I hope this clears things up!

Short Slot Golden Melody combs

Are you having trouble hitting the 10-hole half-step blow bend on high-key harps (like Eb or F)? It takes practice but it also helps to have a harp that's set up in your favor.

The forces of nature (i.e. resonance) can act against you if the chamber size has its own resonant frequency that is not compatible with the note you want to play.

I make combs with chambers that are adjusted for the top reeds of Hohner harps in the keys of Dd and up.

Stock Golden Melody combs only come in long-slot dimensions although the reed plates come in two sizes just like Marine Band harmonicas. Expect a big improvement over the stock comb with these custom combs.

I recommend standard thickness for my short-slot combs.

Order here:

Golden Melody combs

Custom comb for Steve Baker Special

The Marine Band 365 is a 14 hole mammoth harmonica.

The Steve Baker Special is a harp with an altered-tuning based on the 365 design. It has a bass octave on the bottom followed by Standard-Richter tuning from holes 4-13 and an extra hole which further extends the tuning.

To allow the extended range of this instrument, the reed lengths on the top end are quite short.

Using a standard comb, the forces of nature (i.e. resonance) may work against you when you play those high notes. Fortunately, I have a solution.

I have made a custom comb to allow you to overcome those resonant frequencies and allow your vocal tract to best connect with the reeds.

The channels are tapered to provide your mouth with the feel you expect while creating the right size space for optimal resonance for the whole range of reed lengths of this harp.

These combs are available. I only provide them in standard thickness (5.8mm) for best tone and response.

There's nothing like a well-playing harp!

To Tap or to Self-Tap?

Self-tapping screws are sometimes quite difficult to put into fresh reed plates. Here is a way to make the process a little easier using an M1.6 tap.

Video: Answer to the most common customizing question

"What do I REALLY need to do to get a diatonic harmonica to play well?"

I offer a lot of information on my website and USB videos.
Everybody is looking for the quickest way to get the best results and this is the most common question I get. I also cover a great way to practice these skills.

How many cents are in a Hz?

"How many cents are there in a Hz?"

That's a great question.

Some folks say about four. They are correct. They are giving you the information that you need to know about tuning a harp.

Every Hz you increase the reference pitch on your tuner (A=440 Hz) means you are raising each and every note it reads by about four cents.

(You can stop reading now unless you are feeling cheeky in a scientific way.)

But some folks will tell you that the frequency (in Hz) of notes changes on a logarithmic scale - the frequency doubles for every octave we go up.

Here is the formula for frequency of a note based on it's placement on the piano keyboard. A4 (or "A above Middle-C") is the 49th note. We use it as a reference.

These folks tell you that one octave below middle C (C3), one cent equals 0.075 Hz and one octave above middle C (C5), one cent = 0.302 Hz. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME!

Sure, they are correct, but this is NOT useful information you need to know to tune a harp.

WHY?

Because we are not asking how many Hz there are in a cent. We are asking how many cents there are in a Hz.

Not just any Hz. We are asking by how many cents are we offsetting the note when we change our reference from A=440 Hz to A=441 Hz.

"Tune to 443" means tune your instrument using 443 Hz as the pitch for A above Middle C.

It does NOT mean tune every note up by three Hz. Why?

- We tune using cents, not Hz
- One cent is different in every octave
- Our tuner does the conversion for us

THE BOTTOM LINE: When you adjust the base frequency (440 Hz) on a chromatic tuner by one Hz, you are adjusting all the other notes of the scale by the same relative value. That happens to be four cents, no matter how many Hz there are in any of the notes' cents.

How many Hz in a cent doesn't really matter - we are only talking about making a change in the reference. Your tuner does the heavy lifting and instantly identifies the note (along with the offset in cents) of the frequency it is hearing.

Hohner Vest Pocket Harp

The Hohner Vest Pocket harp is pretty nifty indeed. It's surprisingly easy to play. This vintage harp had a broken tine so I made a brand new comb for it!

The top comb is a regular-size Marine Band comb. The smaller one is the Vest Pocket Harp.

https://harp.andrewzajac.ca/comb/CustomComb

The Flatness Tool™ and Reed Plate Claws™ Q&A

2018-01-22


What are these tools?
These tools are used to make harmonica combs and reed plates fit together perfectly. Air leaks and empty spaces between the plates and comb cause power and volume loss, slugish response and bad tone. The instrument performs best when all the parts “become one” and vibrate at the same frequency.

Are these tools the same as the F Tool™ and the Comb Tool™?
Mostly, yes. The biggest change is the Reed Plate Claws. I innovate and find new and better ways to get the job done all the time.
The Flatness Tool™ and Reed Plate Claws™ replace the F Tool and Comb Tools; I am no longer offering them.

Will you ever stop innovating and improving your products?
Before I die? No. After I am dead, probably.


What’s the difference between the F Tool and the Reed Plate Claws?
The reed plate claws are used as a pair whereas the F-tool is used alone with a pair of pliers. The Claws offer you a little more control and a little more sensory feedback as you re-shape the reed plate because you use your two hands to act together instead of squeezing pliers.


What’s the difference between the Comb Tool and the Flatness Tool? (They look the same!)
The Flatness Tool has the same precision as the Comb Tool. The difference is the Reed Groove which allows the tool to fit between the reeds on a reed plate. With it, you can use the same tool to measure the flatness of the comb as well as the reed plates. The Comb tool doesn’t have this groove and can only be used with combs.
The F-Tool uses a separate reference bar to measure between the reeds. The reference bars are very small and easy to lose!

Do you sell the tools separately or as a set?
I offer these tools as a set so that you can make every component fit together perfectly.

I already have the F-tool and the Comb tool, should I upgrade?
It’s up to you. I got excellent results using the Comb tool and F tool for years. They are still excellent tools that get the job done very well. You should decide for yourself if the new improvements are something you can’t live without.

How do I use these tools?
Instructions are provided and I am working on an up-to-date video. As with all my tools, you get email support, too. Ask me anything.

Tuning offsets

It's a bad idea to tune a harp using only numbers. The exact pitch of a single note played on a diatonic harmonica will vary by a few cents depending on a few things including your breath force, your embouchure and your attitude. So relying on numbers alone is very inaccurate.

That being said, when you are tuning chords to sound in harmony, you need to know where approximately the pitch needs to be so that you can tune each reed to pair up with other reeds using your ears.

Some intervals are more important than others. When dealing with Standard Richter or altered tunings, here is a list of some of the intervals you will have to tune.

Sometime you will want to sacrifice harmony so that the single notes are in tune - this is a compromise as in "compromise tuning".

I can think of three things than help me decide whether to compromise or not:
1- How far away from ET you need to raise or lower the pitch.
2- How close to ET you or the person for whom you are tuning the harp would want each note to be.
3- How much the Just interval in question contributes to harmony (how good the interval sounds).

I have listed how important the harmony is for certain intervals so that it can help you decide which way to go on a case-by-case basis.

If the interval is not listed, don't worry about it and tune it close to ET. Its "Just" tuning doesn't provide any contribution to harmony to be of concern because these intervals will always sound dissonant.

Here is the Interval, the Ratio of the pitch of the tonic to the pitch of the interval, and the Offset which is plus or minus some cents from tuning it to zero on your tuner.

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Major second(*) - ratio 9:8. Its offset is about +4 cents.

This interval doesn't add very much to the harmony of the chord so don't worry too much about it. Six draw in Standard Richter is this interval. It's not too important relative to the tonic of the 1-2-3-4-5-6 draw chord (two draw) but it is relevant to the 4-5-6 chord which is a minor third. In that case, the 6 draw is a fifth of the tonic (four draw). Fifths on the other hand, are very important.

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Minor third - ratio 6:5. Its offset is about +16 cents.

A minor triad will still sound pretty strong even if the third is tuned to ET so this is not very important. It's a good place to compromise.

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Major third - ratio 5:4. Its offset is about -13 cents.

This interval is very important to a major triad. Try not to compromise with this interval.

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Fourth(*) - ratio 4:3. Its offset is about -2 cents.

A fourth is the same interval as a fifth but in the opposite direction. So try to not compromise here.

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Fifth(*) - ratio 3:2. Its offset is about +2 cents.
The Fifth implies the tonic. It is a very strong harmony when it is in tune. Try to not compromise here.

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Minor sixth - ratio 8/5. Its offset is about +13 cents.
This interval sounds good when in harmony. But I don't have a lot of experience with altered tunings using this interval.

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Major sixth - ratio 5:3. Its offset is about -16 cents.
This is used in Powerbender tuning on both the blow and draw plates and provides a very nice sounding interval. But -16 cents can sound pretty flat. Again, you choose as to whether you will use the interval or chord more than you want to keep the melody note in tune.

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Minor seventh - ratio 7:4. Its offset is about -30 cents.
This is the traditional sound of 7-Limit-Just Intonation tuning where in Standard Richter the 5 and 9 draw are tuned very flat. When in tune, playing any combination of draw holes together will imply the tonic note.

But -30 cents is too flat for melody notes to sound in tune. The usual compromise is to tune the 5 and 9 draw sharper and only play the 1-2-3-4 draw major chord excluding the 5.

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(*) A final note about Fifths, Fourths and Major Seconds (in standard Richter): Since these offsets are very close to ET - only within a few cents - you will not really have to compromise. But I suggest you focus on getting them accurately tuned; close isn't good enough! When these intervals are in harmony with the tonic, they will make that interval sound very very strong. But it has to be "bang-on" because the window of opportunity is small.

Even if you are only a fraction of a cent off, it's a missed opportunity to my ears...

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Are you new to tuning a diatonic harmonica? Here's a great place to start:

https://harp.andrewzajac.ca/Tune

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