Harmonicas: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
To say that I have a love-hate relationship with my harmonicas would be a bit of an overstatement. I’ve been playing the 10-hole diatonic harps for a long time; they mostly do what I need them to do, and most of the time, do it very well. “Mostly” and “most of the time” are the operative terms here. However, there are issues that occasionally arise from that can be annoying.
The first, and most obvious, illustrated in the picture shown here, is that I’m a bearded man, and both harmonicas and harmonica holders have a nasty knack of catching whiskers and extracting them sharply, usually with painful results. My wife Kim tells me that there is an easy solution, that being trimming my beard much more closely. She’d like it if I had that “most interesting man in the world” look, but I’m having none of it. The more the beard, the better I say, and I’ve developed an appropriate pain threshold to this occupational hazard, so I can live with it.
There are, however, more complex and interrelated matters that involve cost, quality and maintenance that I’ve had to learn to deal with over the years, and I’m still figuring it all out. Let’s start from the very beginning.
I bought my first Hohner Marine Band Harmonica back in about 1967. It cost me $2.50. These days, my main choice in harps is the Hohner Special 20, which over the years has risen to the price of
$41.99 $43.99, if I choose to buy locally, rather than get them for less from on-line, out-of-state suppliers. The Special 20 costs about four bucks more than the Marine Band, but it’s worth it to me, as the Special 20 performs better and lasts longer. The plastic body is also superior to the wooden body of the Marine Band, which can sometimes swell from excessive moisture and rip up the tongue and lips.
I’ve tried other harps, the two most notable of which are Lee Oskar Major Diatonic and Seydel Blues Session Steel. I’ve bought several Lee Oskars over four decades; like the Special 20, they feature a plastic body and brass reeds, and they weigh in at roughly the same price as a Marine Band. However, in my experience, the Lee Oskars are consistently less durable and lack the solid tone and firm “grip,” for lack of a better term, that makes Special 20s my go-to choice. I bought a couple of Oskars just a few months ago, because I was pissed at yet another Hohner price increase, and again, I was disappointed. Like the Marine Band, I would only buy another Lee Oskar Major Diatonic harmonica in an extreme emergency.
I first heard about the Seydels about a year and a half ago; they are more expensive than Special 20s, and while the Blues Session Steel that I eventually tried a few months ago also features the plastic body, the reeds are made of steel, and are supposed to last 5 times longer. Pfft! This one has even less grip and a weaker tone than the Lee Oskar, so, at $59.99, I won’t be buying any more of these!
(On a side note, I would also advise against buying Hohner’s Blues Harp. They cost roughly the same as the Marine Band and Lee Oskar, but don’t come close to comparing with regard to durability, tone or grip. For the novice who is just learning how to play, this may be a good one to start with, because of its forgiving, easy-to-bend reeds, but otherwise, there is no good reason for any even somewhat accomplished harp blower to waste their money on this overpriced wimpette.)
My point here is that the harmonicas I choose to play have risen in price by a factor of more than 16 over five decades, and I use six different keys regularly, with another three on standby, for the odd occasion that I might need to play in other keys than I normally favor (say, when I’m sitting in with other performers). So, if you figure just the six keys that I regularly use, multiplied by
$41.99 $43.99 (not including Michigan sales tax), that comes out to $263.94 for these not-too-big, but for me, very important, instruments. That makes durability a very important consideration, and I need to get all that I can out of them, so, while Special 20s are the best that I’ve found, if I play the same instrument two or three times in a relatively short period of time, say fifteen-to-twenty minutes, the reeds start to gum up, from saliva and the varying amounts of phlegm that it carries. I know, it sounds gross, and it is!
To counteract this, I actually use and rotate multiples of five of the six keys that I regularly play, B-flat, C, D, F and G. I keep four each of B-Flat and C, because I play and sing most often in F, B-flat, G and C, and I’ve found that I need that many to keep the reeds fairly dry and open, and, yet, I still have problems from time to time. (Very quick explanation: I play songs in F, G and B-flat on a B-flat harp; likewise, G and C on a C harp. The reasons why and how are subject for another blog entry, which I may or may not ever get around to writing, but the truth is out there. Google it, if you need to know right now. Start with “cross harp” or “straight harp.”)
One positive thing about all of this is that I have been able to keep every one of the Special 20s I buy in good condition for gigging for well over a year (several at 18-24 months), but they need attention. Occasionally, I’ll catch a piece of crud from a harp in the mouth or throat, which in the latter circumstance, can mess with singing and blowing. I’m sure that this relates to the saliva/phlegm buildup that I referenced above, which I’m pretty sure is exacerbated by wine or ale being sipped upon while practicing or performing. Sooner or later, a harp will just get so bad, that it needs attention. One trick I learned way back in the late ‘60s was to dunk the instrument in a glass of water, which would loosen up the reeds in the short term, and give you a hard honking sound that’s great for a song or two when playing Chicago-style blues. That doesn’t seem to work so well with the instruments that are being manufactured these days, but in the last several months, I’ve resorted to dropping a harp with seriously balky reeds in a glass of hot water for about five minutes, with good success. About a week ago, when I pointed out some of the crud oozing out of the top of one of the harps to Kim, she suggested using the water pick that I employ as an alternative to dental floss. I figured, what the hell, so after first dropping a harp that was giving me trouble in the glass of hot water, I then shot more hot water from the pick directly through the ten holes, and was quite surprised at how much crud came out! I then repeated the process over the next several days of rehearsing as need be, and got mostly the same results; only the newest harps didn’t spew much detritus, because they haven’t yet had the chance to collect it yet.
The most amazing instance was with one of my D harps, which spewed gobs of yucky crap; I wish we had made a video or at least taken pictures. There were multiple flecks three and four times the size of anything I’d exorcised from any of the others. I have no idea why this one was so much worse than the others, but it was.
It would be great if this method would have solved the problem of harp reeds gumming up, but, alas, such is not entirely the case. It seems to lessen the amount of nasty crud that I catch in the back of the throat, but those harps are still freezing up on me with extended playing.
There is a much better method for dealing with such harmonica issues, called “gapping” the reeds. The procedure involves taking the side covers off of the harmonicas (a bit of a pain, as the screws holding them on are rather tiny, and a real bitch to get them back on), and then tweaking the reeds with a small instrument, such as a razor blade, to open the gap and allow a freer flow of air, with less congestion. I tried this five or six times, about a year and a half ago, with only modest success. I’d love to find a workshop somewhere, sometime, with a master demonstrating exactly how the procedure is performed and accomplished. For me, it would be the single best skill I need to improve my harp playing, in that those harmonicas would be tweaked to do what they’re supposed to do on a much more consistent basis.
If you hear of any such workshops, let me know.