Harmonica Creativity through Limitations

The harmonica in itself is an instruments with built in limitations. This is part of the power of it as well. If you play first position melodies or second position blues you are for the most part on safe ground. What I propose in this article is that you impose more limitations to set your harmonica creativity free.

The problem with artistic freedom

Being completely free when playing a solo for example can actually be a problem for a beginner. When we have too much to choose from we sometimes freeze. The reason for this is that our minds need boundaries to be truly creative. It is the act of working around the limitations that set your harmonica creativity free.

With experience and sufficient knowledge of structure we can handle more and more freedom. After learning how to use repetition a musician is better equipped to take advantage of playing “without rules”.

Self-imposed limitations

harmonica creativity

Self-imposed limitations can help you.

By using self-imposed limitations you challenge yourself into finding new patterns or rhythms while playing. A great way of doing this is to limit which holes you allow yourself to play. Try this as an exercise:

  1. For the first chorus of a backing track play a solo using just hole 1. This will force you to think about your phrasing and rhythmic approach.
  2. For the second chorus play a solo using holes 1 and 2.
  3. For the third chorus play a solo using holes 1-3.
  4. Continue with this patterna for as many choruses you like.

Don’t forget to record what you come up with! When you listen back to what you have played you will notice that playing just hole 1 does not sound as boring as you would think. During the exercise you will also notice how much you appreciate getting another hole to play. All in all this will make you think about the building blocks of your music in a new way.

Go do it!

Now it is time for you to try this exercise. I would also encourge you to think about other limitations to use. Maybe just play eigth notes, then only quarter notes, then only half notes and in the end everything together. With each exercise you will increase your harmonica creativity a little bit and in the end it all adds up to something great.

Let me know how it works out for you and which limitations you set. Don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and exclusive articles!

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Reed Gapping Overview

When a diatonic harmonica leaves the factory it has a form of generic setup. This generic setup is meant to work for most people. This also means that it will probably not be optimal for you. Depending on your playing style you may need to do reed gapping to get a perfect harmonica for your style. In this article I give an overview of setting the reed gap and the effects it will have.

What is reed gapping?

The reed gap is the distance between the tip of the reed and the reed plate when the reed is at rest. This distance will decide how the reed respond to different air pressures when you start playing a note. If the reed gap is set very low, the reed must be started with very low air pressure. After the vibrations starts the volume can increase. The reed will not even vibrate if the air pressure is to high. If the reed gap is set very high, the reed will need high air pressure and lots of air to start vibrating. If there is too little air or too low air pressure the air will just move past the reed and no sound is made.

correct reed gapping

Not too high and not too low.

The reed gap also determines how the harmonica responds to bends, overblows and overdraws. For draw bends the corresponding blow reed need to be set sufficiently low for it to be engaged when the draw happens. The same thing is true for the corresponding draw reed and overblows.

Getting the right balance

Getting the right reed gap is dependent on your playing style. If you play very softly you need the gap to be low. High gap is needed if you normally play forecfully. The right balance for you is when you can play both softly and forcefully on the same harmonica.

If you have sprecific needs you may need different sets of harmonicas for different styles. I remember going to a worskhop a few years ago with Marc Breitfelder who said he has three different sets of harmonicas. A “normal” set, a set for extreme overbends and a set for country harmonica vamping style.

Tools

You don’t need any complicated tools to do reed gapping. You can use a reed lifter tool, your nails or paper clip to gently push the reed upwards or downwards. Very little force is need so be very careful. You are aiming dor very small adjustements so don’t go too much by your eyes. If the action feels right when you play, it is right.

reed gapping tools

Possible tools to use for reed gapping.

Summary

Reed gapping is the modification I think is almost mandatory for all harmonica players. It is not a very complicated modification but you do have to be careful not to bend any reeds. Do it first on old harmonicas until you feel comfortable with it. I think adjusting the reed gap is something that you should consider doing before getting a custom comb even. With the right reed gap you will get a much more playable harmonica suited to your style.

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Custom Harmonica Comb Upgrade Preparations

Most harmonicas nowadays are pretty good out-of-the-box. At least if you choose to pay a little bit over the bare minimum. Still, as people get more and more sophisticated in their playing some choose to get a custom or semi-custom built harmonica. This is a harmonica modified or built by a skilled craftsman. I have harmonicas built by Günther Bayer (semi-custom), Dick Sjöberg (custom) and Joel Andersson (custom). I am very pleased with those harmonicas. In this article I will touch upon a modification you can do yourself with very little work. That is, changing to a custom harmonica comb.

I first came in contact with custom combs when when my first harmonica mentor Dick Sjöberg was developing the Sjoeberg Comb some years ago. It was part of my first custom harmonica that Dick built for me. Nowadays the Sjoeberg Combs are manufactured by Joel Andersson of J.A. Harmonicas. If you make a Google search you can find other suppliers of combs.

custom harmonica comb options

Sjoeberg Combs in different colors.

Simple optimization

Changing the comb on your harmonica to a custom harmonica comb is a good way of optimizing an existing harmonica and put it closer to the performance of a custom harmonica. What you will normally get is less leackage and more focused air stream towards the reeds. This will result in a harmonica that require less effort to play and bends will become easier.

The first thing you need to consider is if the custom harmonica comb will fit yout harmonica. Normally the manufaucturer will be very clear about this but it doesn’t hurt to be extra sure. I once got a comb I thought would fit a Marine Band deLux that was actually for a Marine Band Classic. Fortunately I could return it.

Properties of a custom harmonica comb

A custom harmonica comb is very often made out of hardwood and is fully sealed. This means that it will not absorb moisture and will keep its shape much longer. The surfaces that meets the reed plates are extremely flat to ensure a tight fit. The slots in the comb may also have a different design than you are used to. This is to control the air flow going to the reed. Some custom combs also include details like brass tube resonators to add to the overtone properties of the harmonica.

Preparing the harmonica

To benefit from the flat surface of the comb the surface of the reed plate needs to be as flat as possible. The reed plate for the blow notes has the reeds attached towrds the comb so unless you plan to remove all reeds first there is not much you can do about that plate.

What you should do is to make sure that the surface of the draw reed plate that faces the comb is as flat as possible. If you run your finger over an untreated reed plate you will feel that the pins that are used to attached the reeds stick out just a little bit. If they are left like that you will get some distance between the comb and the reed plate. This is especially true if the comb is made of hardwood. Tightening the screws will not help, the reed plate will most likely become a bit deformed.

Getting a good result

To make the reed plate as flat as possible you sand it starting with sand paper around 240 and then changing to finer and finer grade. For the final stages I use lapping paper which has extremely fine grains. This will create an almost mirror like surface. I hold the reed plate down using three fingers and move it in a figure eigth pattern to minimize the risk of an uneven surface. Also make sure that there are no unsanded spots left when you are done.

Glass plate to prepare for custom harmonica comb

Glass plate used as surface for sanding.

You need to make sure that the surface you lay the san paper and lapping paper on is as flat as possible. A table top may suffice, just realize that it is not 100% flat. I have gotten a piece of hardened glass that is pretty damn close to flat. The professionals use a lapping plate which is extremely flat to get the best result possible.

sanpaper for custom harmonica comb

Sand paper ranging from 240 to 400 and lapping paper.

Putting it all back together

Once you are happy with the surface of your reed plate you can install your new custom harmonica comb. Reassmble as you normally would but don’t tighten the screws too much, there is no need for this. If you tighten too much you run the risk of deforming the reed plates.

If you don’t have a custom comb you can actually get some of the benfits by flattening the standard wooden comb the same way as the draw reed plate and reassmbling with some non-toxic mineral oil between the reed plates and the wooden comb. This will give tighter seal and prevent the standard comb from absorbing moisture.