Reed Slot Sizing Overview

In previous articles I have touched upon different subject around optimizing harmonicas that I think are useful to know about. These topics areĀ tuning, changing comb and reed gapping. This week we look at reed slot sizing and the benfits of it.

Reed slot sizing explained

As the harmonica is a free reed instrument it is quite easy to understand that the reeds of the instrument need to be able to vibrate freely to generate sound. The holes punched in the reed plate in which the reed vibrates is the reed slot. If it is too tight, the reed will get stuck. If it is too wide a lot of air is wasted and more effort is needed to play.

reed slot sizing example

A reed plate placed on a light table will tell you how much space the reed has to move.

When a harmonica is brand new the reed slot is often a bit to wide. To make it narrower customisers do reed slot sizing, sometimes referred to as embossing. The basic idea is to push material from the side of the reed slot down inte the reed slot. This will make the fit tighter.

Tools

When I first came in contact with reed slot sizing, or embossing, the tool of choice was the back end of a pitch fork. By repeatedly pressing the little sphere over the reed slot repeatedly material is pushed into the slot. Since then I have seen a number of different tools been developed that offer more precision but also require more skill. Reed slot sizing does take a bit of practice so if you want to try it then don’t try on your favorite harp first.

reed slot sizing tools

Two possible tools for reed slot sizing.

Summary

If you feel your harmonicas are leaky it may very well be that they need a bit of reed slot sizing. If you are unsure of how to do it then get the help of a good harmonica service technician.

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Third Position Scales

When learning to play in a new position it is a good idea to get to know where to the most important notes are. If you know where the chord tones of the I, IV and V chord as well as a few scales you are in good shape. Third position is a popular especially for minor blues so knowing some third position scales is a good idea.

Third position

Most of the time we reference a C harmonica when talking about specifics. Playing a C harmonica in third position will put you in the key of D. This means that the root note of any scale will be on 1, 4 and 8 draw. One way of looking at it is that third position is second position two holes up. For reference, take a look at the circle of fifths and try to make out for yourself why third position on a C harmonica is the key of D.

The blues scale

A you may already know the blues scale in scale degrees is:

Root b3 4 b5 5 b7 root (one octave up)

In D this transles to:

D F G Ab A C D

In tab for the middle octave this becomes:

4 5 6+ 6′ 6 7+ 8

third position scales - blues scale

The blues scale in D.

Quite an easy scale actually, only one bend and it is hole 6 which is not too difficult unless you use a high pitced harmonica. Also you don’t have to bend for the b3, it is there for free which is a big reason third position is very suitable for minor blues.

The lower octave require quite a bit more bending skills:

1 2” 2/3+ 3”’ 3” 4+ 4

The minor pentatonic scale

The minor pentatonic scale is almost the same as the blues scale but the lowered fifth is not part of it. The tab then becomes:

4 5 6+ 6 7+ 8

Very simple.

The major pentatonic scale

The major pentatonic scale will be imcomplete in the middle octave as it contains the third instead of the minor third. In scale degrees it is:

Root 2 3 5 6 root (one octave above)

In D this is:

D E F# A B D

The F# is not available in the middle octave (unless you do overblows) and becomes this in tab:

4 5+ (missing) 6 7 8

It can be played completely in the lower octave but it require more bending skills.

1 2+ 2′ 3” 3 4

Applying third psoition scales

Playing in a new position require quite a lot of practice but if you translate some of the riffs you already know to the third position scales you will have a good start.

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Harmonica Tuning Variants

When playing blues harmonica tone and sound are very important ingredients for the overall experience. Creating good tone require quite a bit of exercise but how the harmonica is tuned also play an important role. Most people beginners don’t even realize that there are different harmonica tuning variants. In this article I will explain the major groups of tuning temperaments you will run into. Depending on your playing style or what positions you prefer this may impact your choice of harmonica.

Tuning

First off I am not talking about tuning the harmonica to different scales such as a country tunes harmonica. The tuning referred to here is the relationship between notes within a scale. The reason this is done is to make chords and intervals as pleasing as possible. This is very important if you play a lot of chords, which I think you should.

If you don’t know how tuning is done I will just give a short explanation. Should the pitch of a reed be too low you can scrape off material from near the tip to make it vibrate faster. If the pitch of the rred is to high you can scrape of material closer to the base to make the tip realitvely heavier so that the reed vibrates slower. Tuning requires a steady hand and well trained ears. It is both an art and a science. Some choose to tune on the comb while some use tuning tables such as the Sjoeberg harp tuner table.

harmonica tuning equipment

Sjoeberg tuning table and Peterson strobe tuner.

Equal tuning

Equal tuning means that the octave is devided mathematically across the octave. This tuning is good for melody playing but not optimal for blues. The Hohner Golden Melody is tuned to equal tuning out of the box.

Pure just intonation

Pure just intonation means that the intervals in the scale are tuned realtive to each other to form a sound with out beats. This means that the notes of the scale are adjusted away from the equal tuning to reach this effect. What happens is that the chords and intervals will become very smooth and pleasing. Very good for blues. The drawback is that the tuning is done for one specific key, often the second position key. This means that the harmonica will be less usefule for melody playing and playing in other positions.

For example the 5 draw, which is the minor seventh of the root note, is tuned very low in pure just intonation to get a prefect relationship with the root note. If you would play in unsion with a piano on such a harmonica you will be quite a bit off compared to the note on the piano.

To get a pure just intonation harmonica you most likelt have to go to harmonica customiser or tune yourself.

Compromised (just) intonation

Compromised just intonation or simply compromised tuning is a way of getting the best of both worlds. The intervals are changed to get good sounding chords but not too much to make melodic playing or switching to different positions hard. There are many different compromised tunings. The Hohner Marine Band deLux uses a compromised that is closer to pure just intonation than the compromised tuning of the Hohner Crossover. This is because the intended customers are slightly different and have slightly different needs.

You may hear expressions such as 7 limit just intonation or 19 limit just intonation which are names that describe how close to pure just intonation they are. Many customisers have their own compromised tuning that thay have worked out depending on what they find most useable.

Recommendations

If you are looking to buy your first harmonica and blues is your goal I would recommend that you buy a harmonica with compromised tuning. As you get more advanced you will find which type of compromised tuning that suits your style the best.

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Left Handed Harmonica Player – Options for Holding

I am a left handed harmonica player and when I started playing there was nobody around to guide me. This meant that I had to figure out a lot of things myself. Unfortunately some of the decisions I made in the eighties later turned out to be less than optimal decisions. I have later changed the way I hold the harmonica and my embouchure for example. To help any left handed player out there (and right handed) this article covers the options you have when holding the harmonica.

Variables

To keep things short and sweet I focus on two things, the hand holding the harmonica and if hole 1 on your diatonic harmonica faces left or right. What felt most natural to me when I stared playin and what seems to be most natural if you are a left handed harmonica player is to hold the harmonica in your right hand with hole 1 to the left. Most right handed players opt for left hand and hole 1 to the left. There are of course two other combinations as well to look at.

Right hand, hole 1 left

Let’s start with the one that felt most natural to me. In this case the right hand holds the harp and your left hand is used for hand effects. It is certainly a playable position but there is one major drawback. Holes 1-3 which are the low pitched holes are the ones that get most effect from hand cupping effect and this way of holding basically removes this option. This is the reason I abanded this way oh holding. If you primarily play through a bullet mic and have a tight cup this may be less of an issue for you.

left handed harmonica player holding with right hand

This way seem to be what most left handed players choose by themsleves.

Right hand, hole 1 right

To remedy the drawback of the previous way you can simply turn the harmonica upside down. This way you can still hold with your right hand and have a cup over the lower pitch holes. This is the way Sonny Terry held the harmonica, definately an option if holding with your right hand is important to you. Just remeber that you have to flip all instructions you find online and your toung will be to the right most of the time while tounge blocking.

left handed harmonica player holding harp upside down with right hand

Holding the harmonica upside down but with the right hand allows for cupping around low pitched holes.

Left hand, hole 1 right

This is not a way I would recommend, using the left hand to hold but having the harmonica upseide down has the same problem as the first option I presented. There is really no need for this.

Left hand, hole 1 left

This is the way most right handed players naturally pick up the harmonica. The harmonica has the numbers facing up so you can read them easily and your hand cup naturally covers the low pitched holes. Even if you are a left handed harmonica player I would recommend you to switch to this way if you can. Most things regarding instructions and so on is simpler this way.

left handed harmonica player same style as right handed player

Suggested holding style, also note position of thumb and index finger. Allows for more natural position of the elbows.

But what if it’s impossible

Of course the recommendations above may be null and void for you if you have any physical challenges that prevents you from holding like this. In that case you should o what works best for you and find your own way.

If you do decide to change the way you hold the harmonica, let me know how it works out for you. I remember feeling a bit awkward for a few weeks before it became natural to me.