Andrew's blog

Note layout charts

Here are two charts with the layout of regular, bent and overbent notes:

Key of C:

Key of A:

Click the images to download. (Right click to save).

You are free to use them under the CC BY-SA 4.0 terms.

What this aluminium comb does to the Framework

Reedwork is the work we do to make the shape of the reed such that it passes through the slot in the best possible way. The reed is curved at rest and will straighten out at the exact moment is travels through the slot.

Reedword is very precise work. It takes time.

All the time and effort to do reed work is wasted if the slots are not straight or level.

This is a reed at rest:

This is the reed the moment it travels through the slot. It's well set up and the most of the reed passes through the slot at the exact same time:

Framework is the work we do to make the slot perfectly straight and level. The slot is simply the rectangular hole in the reed plate.

If the reed plate or comb is curved front-to-back, that will mean that the slots will be curved too. The reed doesn't stand a chance of passing through perfectly under these conditions:

Not to mention this can also cause an air leak which will make the harp feel stiff.

Likewise, if the reed plate or comb is warped or bumpy left-to-right, one side of the slot will be higher than the other - again the reed will never pass through the slot optimally.

When I upgrade a harmonica's comb, the goal is to provide a foundation for the framework. If the comb is defective, you will never get the harp to provide a wide dynamic range or deliver its maximum tone.

This is an example of a comb that is bright and shiny on the surface but it lacks the fundamental qualities we really need. It's made of aluminium. I have never found an aluminium comb that meets my standards.

Its tines are very thin and don't provide a lot of surface contact.

But most importantly, it's bowed front-to-back. I measured flatness. This thing leaks air and has rotten tone. The tone is bright but thin.

I'm using my flatness tool™ as a reference. The light you see between the tool and the comb is where it's bowed.

Using the French Tuner™

Why should you use the French Tuner™?

Why should you use the French Tuner™?

It can be a challenge to hold the blow plate and draw plate together onto the comb and play a single note (or an interval) without affecting the pitch with your embouchure. The draw plate is easy because the reeds are on the outside of the plate. You can screw the parts together and work away!

The blow plate has the reeds on the inside so you will continuously need to take the blow plate off to make changes, then reassemble the instrument and test again.

The French Tuner™ helps you do that. Use it to play octaves. The Extended French Tuner™ allows you to tune octaves, thirds and fifths. Use it to tune the major chords. It's easiest to focus on the major chords on the lower end of the harmonica and only focus on octaves for the rest of the plate.

Get a French Tuner.

Using solder to lower the pitch of a reed

For general instructions on tuning your harmonica, start here: http://harp.andrewzajac.ca/tune

This video only covers one technique - adding solder to the tip of a reed. As a rule, you can lower the pitch of a reed by five semitones and you can raise it by two. You can go much further but you will run into problems with response and technique if you do.

Take material off the tip to raise the the pitch of a note. Take material off the base or add material to the tip to lower the pitch.

If lowering more than a semitone, maybe it's best to add weight for most of the drop in pitch? Here I drop the pitch one full tone. In the process, I drop the pitch much further down and then tune it back up. I end the video having overshot the mark and the pitch is a few cents too high. The correction is to file a little but at the base to fine-tune the pitch.

The Gapping Paradox

The gapping paradox is a reed that doesn't respond unless it is very tightly gapped or a reed that locks up unless the gap is opened too much. It's either all or nothing. In both cases, the instrument is no fun to play no matter how you set the gaps. The Gapping Paradox is also the expectation that the only setup a harmonica needs is gapping.

Sometimes gapping doesn't work.

Gapping is adjusting the height of the tip of the reed at rest.

The height from the reed plate determines how much breath it will take to get the reed to play.

Best practice is to adjust the gaps so that the reeds all respond to the same breath. If the instrument offers you enough range, you can fine-tune the reeds to best suit your breath force habits too. Some players prefer harps to respond best to hard breath and some prefer harps that play with less air.

There is an expectation among harmonica players that the only setup skill you need to learn is to gap a harp "to your preference".

We all know this is false. There are times when you can't get the reeds to respond unless the gaps are way too tight - so tight they are not playable. And if you open up the gap even a little bit, the note becomes sluggish or plays with too little power and bad tone.

Likewise, we see reeds that lock up unless the gaps are opened up far too wide which makes both the blow and draw notes too airy and very weak.

This is the gapping paradox: It's either all or nothing.

When faced with this paradox, most harmonica players come to one of two conclusions:

1 - "It's my fault, I'm terrible at gapping. There is some secret extra skill to gapping that I just can't tap into."

2 - "This harmonica is a dud. There is nothing anyone can do about it."

Usually, both conclusions are false.

When you run into the Gapping Paradox, understand that to fix the problem you need to go beyond gapping.

It's the harp's fault. It is a victim of mass-production syndrome. It's not possible for a factory to churn out perfectly-adjusted defect-free instruments unless hours of work are spent on each one. But it doesn't mean the harp is a dud, either.

In most cases, the defect(s) can be corrected in a matter of minutes.

Foundational problems include warped or bowed reed plates and combs. Another foundational problem is a reed that's off-center at the base.

Bowed reed plates are particularly sneaky! In addition to making the harp leaky, you can be fooled by gaps that seem to change all by themselves.

You can adjust the gaps to your liking with the covers off only to find that the harp is completely reconfigured every time you put on the covers. This is because the covers are changing the shape of the slots as the screws are tightened. You are putting tension on the bow.

A bowed reed plate can also make you think there is a problem with the reeds' shape. (See below.) But the problem is that the slot is not a straight reference (it's bowed!) Always address foundational problems before you consider reed work or you will be working against yourself.

Gaskets can help relieve air leaks but they don't make the slots straight. The best solution is to straighten all components.

With a little practice, you can correct the flatness of most combs and both reed plates in a matter of minutes. I offer tools to help with this which allow you to see the curvature and fix it.

Off-center reeds can be aligned at the base. See here.

Reed shape problems are another common cause of the Gapping Paradox.

Gapping focuses on the very tip of the reed. "The gap" is the height of the tip of the reed by definition. Think of reed work as gapping the whole length of the reed. We are adjusting the height of every part of the reed from base to tip.

For example, if the middle of the reed enters the slot before the rest of the reed, there is no amount of gapping that can make that reed perform well. This reed will always disappoint you until you fix its shape.

You can find more details about reed work in the second half of The Grip video and on my USB videos

Again, with a little practice you will be able to fix obvious problems with reed shape in a matter or minutes. This will turn that dud harmonica into a fully-functional part of your collection.

You can do it! A little bit of knowledge and an afternoon of practice can make all your harps play better, save you money (don't throw away a dud) and give you more confidence.

Extra key label stickers

Soon! Extra key labels for Low keys, Altered tunings and Temperaments.

These are great labels for your extended collection of harps.

Bulk purchase is perfect for harmonica service providers who customise, repair or re-tune harmonicas to non-standard tunings or temperaments.

Sold as a single sheet or broken up, it's your choice!



I feel it's appropriate to include "Valved" into the altered tunings because half-valving changes the note layout for the available bends.

New option: Red and Blue labels

Use these simple key labels to differentiate different sets of harmonicas within your collection.

Hand-Finishing

I finish my combs by hand. Here I am making the tips of the tines extremely comfortable before I put on six coats of varnish. The last step is final flattening.

Dark Combs™

Here is what the final product looks like:

Are you a customizer or harmonica service provider?

I provide combs to several customizers and harp techs worldwide. I offer customizer pricing on my combs. These are for use in your finished product and not for individual sale.

Contact me if you would like to work together.

http://harp.andrewzajac.ca/Contact

Reed support tool prototype

I am prototyping a new support tool.

It's made of sturdy carbon steel that is very thin and very springy. The big change is the blow reed support tail. I recommend filing side-to-side rather than front-to-back. I am finding this is the very best way to tune a blow reed on the comb without altering its shape.

Everything affects tuning (even tuning!) so it needs to be the final job. Tuning cannot undo previous work because that would create an endless loop. So if tuning technique messes up the reed shape, we're going backwards.

What about a rotary tool?

There are many ways to feed a cat so everyone can have their own realities when it comes to getting these tasks done but I have found using a good file is the most consistent and least invasive way to tackle tuning.

Nine times out of ten, if you put a good quality file in someone's hand and offer them rudimentary advice on how to use it and avoid causing damage, they find success.

Side-to-side tuning is nuts!!! Do I need a "sharp" edge on the tip of the reed?

There is no evidence that a 90 degree angle is necessary for the tip of the reed to be efficient. In fact, a chamfer will reduce drag. The short segment of the tip of the reed is rather insignificant, though. So if you prefer to avoid the brightness that comes from aggressive chamfering, don't worry about that wee little bit - you won't be able to tell the difference. Just don't shorten the reed!

"Should I direct material removal towards the midline and away from the edge of the reed?"

Removing material from the midline of the reed is probably suboptimal. A sleek reed tip will conserve more energy than a convex soup spoon shape. We don't want to move air, we want to move reed (through air.)

What happened to breath control in the 1960s?

"... emphasising breath control as a basic, beginner-level concept makes a lot more sense than keeping breath control as an advanced topic for experienced players only."


Reeds set for best response
It's time we stop glorifying harmonicas based on how loud they play. Breath control and response to a wide dynamic range are far more important qualities to expect from a diatonic harmonica.

For over 100 years, makers of the diatonic harmonica focused on building an instrument that would play pleasant sounding chords as part of German Oompah/folk music.

Starting some time in the 1960s, the diatonic harmonica began to change. I believe that the focus shifted from building an instrument with a strong foundation in playing chords to building an instrument more focused on playing single notes.

I feel it has been a somewhat downhill journey from there. Modern diatonic harmonicas aren't optimally configured for either type of playing.

The basis for this opinion is drawn from historical accounts, my knowledge of the inner workings of the diatonic harmonica as a Hohner Affiliated Customizer and direct observation of vintage harmonicas.


DeFord Bailey
(Marilyn K. Morton - David C. Morton)
The early masters - DeFord Bailey, Little Walter, Big Walter, the Sonny Boy Williamsons to name a few - played Hohner Marine Band harmonicas which resembled today's custom harmonicas in some ways.

Those early harmonicas required much less breath to play and they responded to a wider range of dynamics compared to modern-day harps. A player could play notes with intensity while still being able to exercise a lot of control over how loud the notes sounded. The harmonica could be played quietly without the fear of an unresponsive instrument dropping notes.

The superior response to a wide dynamic range was a byproduct of manufacturing a chordal instrument.

Putting an importance on chords forces the factory to make sure some important details are just right. If strong-sounding chords are not considered important, the factory can let some details slide for the sake of saving time and money.

The process of tuning a harmonica at the Hohner factory was the final and most lengthy part of the manufacturing process and involved three separate steps. Mass-production will inject defects into a product but I think it's reasonable to assume the production team carefully avoided causing the defects that would make tuning more difficult to save time and effort in the long run.

From my examination of vintage Marine Bands, I believe the setup of the reeds was tailored to playing the notes on the low end together as a chord rather than playing the lower holes as single notes. All of the reeds needed to have a very consistent and similar response so that each note of the chord was exactly right.


Marine Band from 1940s
It's likely that these instruments were deliberately set to respond to a light attack because the pitch of a harmonica reed is not stable. It changes with the amount of breath force you play. Chords go out of tune when a harmonica is played with too much force.

I suggest that the setup of the instrument at the time happened to be ideal for second position bending notes on holes 1, 2 3 and 4 when played with a light touch. This was not intentional or even recognised by the Hohner company at the time.

Conversely, I believe it's harder for beginners to learn the blues harp using today's harmonicas because present-time off-the-shelf harmonicas are not set up the same as they were back then.

What happened?

Something slowly started to change in the 60s and the quality of the instrument started to decline. In the 80s and 90s a much sharper decline in the quality of Hohner harmonicas was seen. Marine Band harmonicas became leaky, harder to bend and as such required a lot more breath to play than they had in the past.

This decline in quality was due in part to the fact that Hohner was producing a wide range of other instruments that were more profitable to make than the harmonica. Producing harmonicas seemed like an afterthought.

Players of the time slowly adapted to the changes by simply playing with more breath. But as quality continued to fall and harps became even less playable, they started to complain. There are anecdotes that players like Paul Butterfield and Lee Oskar would buy eight or ten Marine Bands so that they could find one that played well. There are stories of players driving to remote music stores seeking out Marine Bands packaged in the white cardboard boxes - old stock compared to the new plastic cases.

That opened the door to Hohner's competition getting a bigger foothold on the diatonic harmonica market.


Lee Oskar/War 1976
Lee Oskar began making his own brand of harmonicas in 1983. Other companies benefited from players' frustration at Hohner too and began selling more harmonicas.

I believe that instead of aiming to create an instrument that played with a lot of responsiveness to a wide dynamic range as the Marine Band of the 1950s and earlier, the competition catered to the new generation of players who had gotten used to instruments which required a lot more breath to play.

The aim became to make instruments that could last longer when played with harder breath. They were tuned sharper to compensate for the flattening of the pitch that comes with playing harder. My feeling is that this event affected the market and profoundly changed a generation of players.

Is harder, louder and stronger better?

Better or not, this became the new standard. You can't blame the harmonica makers for catering to market demand. But adjusting a harp to respond to hard breath will make it less responsive and harder to bend.

And the trend continues. We are seeing new instruments with reeds that are made from more and more massive materials than brass. Also, new harps are designed with reed plates that are thicker than in the past. Adding mass to the reeds and making the reed plates thicker are two easy ways to design an instrument that plays louder.

There is a trade-off. They play loud but these instruments offer much less dynamic range than ever before.

Search YouTube for reviews of these new wave made-in-china harmonicas and you will find that more often than not, the new harp is declared to be fantastic simply because it's louder than another brand.

But try to play these harps quietly and all you will get is air. This does not permit you to add a lot of dynamics to your playing.

There is a school of thought in the blues harp community that encourages "building chops" which implies working extra hard at articulating notes so as to develop muscle. It is implied that a beginner should stay away from a more responsive type of harmonica so as to foster muscle development.

"Play hard, but play with finesse" is contradictory and confusing to a beginning diatonic harmonica player yet it seems to be the dominant ideology.

It is claimed that building bending muscle this way will allow a beginner to progress faster. There is no evidence to support this theory.

Most evidence-based teaching methods advocate working at playing things slowly and with precision before building up speed and intensity. The anatomy of the vocal tract is such that less tension leads to better tone and better control. This is corroborated by any qualified singing instructor. Practising precision control of bends with a responsive harmonica builds chops quite effectively because you are working the correct muscle groups.

It makes sense to me that beginners and players of all levels would make progress faster using breath control but there is no evidence to support the claim either. There has never been a study done which compares the rate of progress using more responsive versus less responsive diatonic harmonicas.

There is the perception that a player who gets used to very responsive harps will never be able to play less responsive off-the-shelf harps. I believe the opposite is true. I have observed many players who play custom harps exclusively make low-quality harmonicas sound amazing. Low-quality instruments are a lot more work and aren't fun to play but these players are no worse off in any way for playing custom harmonicas. They have the chops.

Evidence shows that a better instrument will foster more enthusiasm, elicit fewer bad habits and evoke faster progress. Proper instruction (a good teacher) is also proven to speed up learning progress. This evidence is not specific to the harmonica and applies to learning any musical instrument.

Harmonica teachers agree that a relaxed embouchure is essential to good tone. This is true even of the harmonica teachers who paradoxically advocate for using less-responsive harps to build chops. Some of the worst "bad habits" that we pick up as beginners are related to using too much force. I'm sure 100 per cent of us tried to play our first bends by increasing breath force instead of controlling our embouchure. Most of the time we realise this is wrong and eliminate this bad habit quickly but sometimes it persists for years or never stops.

Some players almost never blow out reeds while others replace their harps (or learn to replace reeds themselves) nonstop. It's recognised that the difference between the two groups is breath control.

I don't want to tell anyone how they should play their instrument - that remains a personal choice. But I think emphasising breath control as a basic, beginner-level concept makes a lot more sense than keeping breath control as an advanced topic for experienced players only. We should teach beginners to avoid bad habits from day one.


Little Walter
Breath control is nothing new. We've read first-hand accounts of Big Walter achieving amazing tone playing with whisper-quiet breath. We also have evidence that top players from the 40s 50s and 60s preferred to play with light breath. Little Walter is quoted as saying his reason for playing amplified was "so I don't have to be blowin' so hard." Even James Cotton is reported to have achieved his powerful sound using a much lighter touch than one would expect.

Some of the best players of current times play with breath control: Rick Estrin, Dennis Gruenling, Howard Levy, Charlie McCoy, Curtis Salgado, Todd Parrott, Ronnie Shellist, Kim Wilson and many more...

These names conjure up thoughts of very powerful playing. But they all achieve that power using much less breath than you would expect.

Breath control does not mean low volume. It means playing the whole range from quiet to loud using a good harmonica and avoiding hard breath.

Less is more. It's time we put the emphasis on harmonicas that can handle a proper dynamic range and playing with breath control rather than focusing on making harps that can blast out sounds the loudest.

It's not necessary for every beginner to practice on a full custom harmonica but it's time we demanded harmonica manufacturers produce more responsive instruments.

Until they do, it's possible and straightforward to upgrade the responsiveness of stock harmonicas yourself or find a competent harmonica service-provider who can do it for you.

What about reed failure?

A more responsive harp doesn't have to mean you will wreck the instrument and blow out reeds. If you improve the control over your breath you will be solving the underlying cause of frequent reed blowouts. It's not the harp's fault, no matter what type of harmonica you play. With good breath control, players can play extremely responsive harmonicas and still only rarely suffer blown reeds.

What do you think the great blues harmonica players from the days before 1960 would think of present-day instruments? Who can say? I think they would be able to make some great music with them, but I reckon they would not find them as fun to play because - as they say - "they don't make them like they used to."

Thanks to Barbeque Bob Maglinte and many others for their historical recollections and perspectives.

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