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Revised
23 September
2000

Troubador Tech

Harmonicas: Choosing, tuning, playing

This page offers a brief survey of the instruments available, recounts my experiences with tuning harmonicas, offers a few thoughts on playing harmonicas, and provides a few-- but, if you're serious about harmonica, important-- other harmonica links.


Instruments

Hear me play
Besides the brief song excerpts on the Sounds page, you can hear my harmonica playing on complete songs at my Sensory Syrynx page.
Of the wide variety of harmonicas available, those most suitable for hands-free use in a neck rack are ten-hole, single-reed diatonic instruments, so those are the instruments discussed here. Double-reed instruments, with the reed pairs tuned in octaves or in near-unison (for a chorus effect), can also be used.

Fourteen-hole diatonic harmonicas require a wide neck rack, and the highest and lowest notes may be difficult to reach in a hurry. Bass and chord harmonicas are so long that use in a neck rack is impractical. Chromatic harmonicas require at least one hand to operate the slide-- but who am I to tell you that you can't rig a cable to work the slide with a foot or other appendage?

There are five major harmonica brands currently available in the United States, each offering several models suitable for neck rack playing. Hohner USA, Huang, and Lee Oskar have very informative Web sites. Suzuki and Hering have not yet published English language Web sites.

Detailed information about all brands, including prices, is available from several retailers, including:

Custom harmonicas, both "built from scratch" and reworked production models, are also available from several sources, including:

(I have no connection with any of these dealers or individuals, nor have I purchased from any of them.)


Tuning Harmonicas

"Tune a harp? I had no idea you could do that! I just throw mine away when they go out of tune." Quite a few serious harmonica players have told me that, after I mentioned tuning my harps. The fact of the matter is that I don't like the way most brand-new harmonicas are tuned.


After wrecking only two or three harmonicas, I further learned to file or gouge the face of the reed, not any edge, and to file or gouge the face of the reed opposite the face that bears against the reedplate.

This is not so much a lack of quality control as of taste. I play exclusively single notes, which sound better to my ear with the harp tuned close to an equal-tempered scale-- especially since I play with equal-tempered synthesizers and (at least nominally) equal-tempered guitars. As is well explained in the Harp-L FAQ, the factories adjust the harps to sound good when chords are played on them, by themselves. This may suit you, or it may not. For me, the harmonica became a viable second instrument only after I had learned how to tune it to my own satisfaction.

Tuning Technique: I learned: To raise the pitch of a reed, file the free end. To lower the pitch: Gouge the anchored end. After wrecking only two or three harmonicas, I further learned to file or gouge the face of the reed, not any edge, and to file or gouge the face of the reed opposite the face that bears against the reedplate. (If you try tuning your own harps, you'll see marks from the factory tuning on several if not all of the reeds; those are the kind of marks you need to make, and the correct side of the reed upon which to make them.) Mostly, I learned: take it slowly!

Curiously, my ancient Korg WT-12 chromatic electronic tuner, which must be switched manually to each pitch, is more accurate for tuning harps than my (slightly) more modern, automatic Boss TU-12H tuner. (Oh, no-- I can see it coming: A market for vintage electronic tuners...) My other tools of choice are a Revlon nail file (model number unknown), which has a "shaping" side and a "finishing" side (I use the latter), and, as a gouge, a jeweler's screwdriver (I use the corner of the tip).


With the guitar tuned to a pitch standard of A=440, harps sound best to my ear when tuned to about A=442, or somewhere in the neighborhood of five to seven cents sharp.

What Pitch? After several months' experience in tuning harmonicas and playing them extensively, I concluded that they sounded best when tuned slightly sharp in comparison with the guitar and, later, the synthesizers. With the guitar tuned to a pitch standard of A=440, harps sound best to my ear when tuned to about A=442, or somewhere in the neighborhood of five to seven cents sharp as indicated by the electronic tuning meter. Players more expert and dedicated to the harmonica than I may differ with this conclusion, and your own opinion may vary.

Tuning harmonicas is time-consuming, but I found it need not be onerous. After I had been using them on stage for a year or so, I was carrying harps in seven keys, with a backup for each key. Every two or three months, I'd have a harp-tuning session, preparing new ones and touching up old ones that had a bit of life left in them. (See my comments about Playing Harmonicas regarding life expectancy.) In a few instances, I was able to salvage one playable harp from two, by putting a good top reed plate and a good bottom in the same case. I even transplanted individual reeds successfully a few times. With experience, a typical tuning session was two hours or less.

One of my as-yet unfulfilled ambitions, now that I'm comfortable with the tuning process, is to acquire some double-reed harmonicas (Hohner's are called Echo Harps) and tune them to my own satisfaction. They're useless for bending notes, but the accordionlike chorusing generated by the slightly-detuned double reeds would be a pleasant addition to a few of my songs.


Playing Harmonicas

What I know about playing a harmonica can be summed up pretty well in two words. Word number one: Blow. Word number two: Suck.

This attempt at ingratiating self-deprecation is not true, of course, but it's close enough to the truth that I feel uncomfortable offering any instruction at all, in view of the enormous wealth of expertise available through the Harmonica Links here. However, there's one lesson that nobody ever taught me, which I had to learn through bitter and expensive experience; something I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my involvement with the instrument. It can be summed up perfectly in three words:

Don't play hard.


Put simply, if your mouth is doing the right thing, a quiet note will bend just as far as a loud one.

When I began my desperation-motivated effort to work the harmonica into my act, I was under the impression that a lot of air pressure was required in order to bend notes. Since the harps I had to work with at the time were old and dirty, this was even true in some instances; in fact, it was necessary to draw (that's the accepted term for sucking, in the harmonica world) and blow pretty forcefully to make some of the reeds speak at all. So I developed a style based on moving a lot of air. This hurt me, in two ways:

First, since I was using a single microphone for both vocals and harp, I got a lot of complaints about the harp being too loud. When I listened to recordings I made at gigs, those complaints were proven to be totally justified.

Second, I killed reeds much more quickly than I needed to, due to metal fatigue induced by playing so hard. It was not uncommon for an A or C harp to last only three or four gigs-- and that got expensive in a hurry.

It took me several years to realize that pitch bending has almost nothing to do with air pressure, given enough to make the reed speak in the first place. It has everything to do with the size and shape of the oral cavity, given a properly adjusted harmonica. Put simply, if your mouth is doing the right thing, a quiet note will bend just as far as a loud one.

By the time I learned this lesson, I had formed a habit that proved very difficult to change-- since I was playing two other instruments along with the harp, it was hard to concentrate on playing softly. I had irritated a lot of people... and I had spent several hundred dollars unnecessarily.

"But I need to play hard to overdrive my amplifier, to get my sound!" Nonsense. Exactly the same distortion characteristics can be achieved by turning the amp up. Microphone distortion is another matter-- but if it's that critical to you, money is probably not an object anyway.

Modes: Every diatonic harmonica is marked with the key of the major (Ionian mode) scale it naturally produces. But that's only a starting point.


In a capable mouth, the humble diatonic harmonica can produce the notes of a full chromatic scale, and just about any pitch in between the notes as well.

In addition to the standard blues cross-harp practice of playing in Mixolydian mode (an A harp for blues in E, etc.), I found that the Dorian mode (a D harp for E, etc.) is extremely useful for some of my original songs, with the added bonus of placing easily-bent notes on both the root and fifth of the scale. The harmonica work on both Jailbait and Testing to Destruction, both downloadable from the Sounds page, is in Dorian mode, generally referred to as "Third Position" by serious harmonica players.

A C harmonica produces an Aeolian (natural minor) scale with an A root, and the Lydian, Phrygian and Locrian modes are also available, though not as widely useful as the first four modes.

Advanced Playing: There are those, though, who laugh at these supposed limitations. They have discovered that, in a capable mouth, the humble diatonic harmonica can produce the notes of a full chromatic scale, and just about any pitch in between the notes as well. This can be accomplished in two ways: By overblowing, and by the use of valves inside the instrument.

I have pursued both of these techniques far enough to know that they work-- and that for me to be able to use them reliably would require far more work than I'm willing to invest. But either method could be extremely valuable to a hands-free harp player-- both by reducing the number of harmonicas needed, and by reducing or completely eliminating the need for swapping them out of and into the neck rack.

See the Other Harmonica Links for far more information than I can offer; in particular, see IronMan Mike Curtis's page on Valving a harmonica, and the technique necessary to use a valved harp to its potential.


Other Harmonica Links

There's a nearly unbelievable amount of information about the harmonica available on the Internet, much of it revolving around the Harp-L mailing list-- a very high volume list which is also available in digest form. The Harp-L FAQ is probably the best starting point. The voluminous, searchable Harp-L Archive is a treasure trove of information on choosing, playing, tuning, mic-ing, amplifying, casing/carrying, buying, modifying, repairing, and racking harmonicas.


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