Harmonica Playability for Best Sound and Enjoyment

Previously I have written about custom harmonicas, custom combs and techniques such as reed slot sizing. It can seem like quite a lot to consider and for the average player it probably is. In this article I want to highlight the two things that most increase harmonica playability. I have focused on ease of playing and sound.

Two areas, different effects

Let me first say that if you buy custom harmonicas, the modicfications I mentioned here will definately already be implemented. This is for the player who is mostly satisfied with out-of-the-box harmonicas. You can see them as the first steps towards more advanced high-end instruments.

The thing that I have noticed that increase the harmonica playability most for me is the reed gap setup. Whenever I have a problem with unresponsive reeds I can most often fix it by tweeking the reed gap. Getting this right i dependent on your playing style.

The second thing I recommend is to get the harmonica properly in tune. Which tuning scheme you should choose depends on what type of music you play. For blues players I recommend compromised just intonation. If you only play second position and solo you can also consider pure just intonation.

Joe Filisko made an interesting comment at HMW 2018 when asked about custom harmonicas. He said something like “my personal harmonicas are quite rough but I am fanatical about tuning”.

Summary

If you choose to buy a custom harmonica then harmonica playability will not likely be a problem. I have harmonicas from J.A. Harmonicas and they are beautifully set up to work with my playing style and tuned just the way I like. If you want to stick with out-of-the-box harmonicas then reed gapping and tuning is what I recommend you do to get the most out of your instruments. Reed gapping for how the instrument plays and tuning for how it sounds.

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Custom Harmonica, Do You Need One?

A lot of harmonica players are gear heads, me included. Among the things you can spend money on is buying a custom harmonica. I really like custom harmonicas but before you get one I think you need to consider a few things. In this article I will give you my honest opinion on who really needs a custom harmonica.

Pros and cons of a custom harmonica

First let’s define different levels of customization. What I mean by custom harmonica is sometimes called full customization. The harmonica is basically rebuilt with a new or upgraded comb, the reeds curvature is optimised, the reed slots are compressed etc. If the customization is limited to upgraded cover plates for example and the reeds are untouched I would call it semi customization. The harmonica may still perform better than before but a lot of improvements are left out.

Custom harmonica by J.A. Harmonicas.

Custom harmonica by J.A. Harmonicas.

Now on to the pros and what you can expect.

  • Better fit between all part means no air is lost when playing.
  • Can be played louder due to the overall optimization.
  • Increased responsiveness allows for possibility to play really quietly.
  • Increased reed responsivness allow you to bend with increased precision.
  • Overblows become possible.

And the cons.

  • Cost, the more customization you want the more you will have to pay.
  • Less challenging when starting to learn bends. Although this may seem like something you want it can actually hinder your progress. When starting to learn to bend it is good if you are challenged by your harmonica. It will teach you to adapt to the conditions.

So let’s look at different categories of players.

Total beginners

If you are a total beginner chances are that you will not be able to get the full benefit out of a custom harmonica. As I pointed out in the cons it may actually finder you. Out of the box harmonicas today are very good and should be everything you need.

Intermediate players

This category includes a lot of players. Most people in this category can find everything they need from out of the box harmonicas. if you want to try out a custom harmonica it may be a good idea to first buy one of the less advanced models or upgrade with a custom comb. These players definately benefit from a more air tight harmonica but will most likely not take full advantage of the setup.

Advanced players

If you are an advanced player it really comes down to the music you play. Most advanced players can definately benefit from a custom harmonica but tuning may be the thing that is the most important for example. First figure out what you are looking for and then act accordingly. Custom harmonicas just may be the luxury item that elevates your enjoyment. If so, go ahead and buy as many as you need.

Advanced players with specific needs

This category includes overblow players and players with very specific playing styles. If out of the box harmonicas does not produce the level of performance you need then a custom harmonica is probably just what you need. You may need different setups depending on what song you are playing. Your needs and your wallet will set your boundaries here.

Summary

As you can see increased playing proficency and increased specific needs are what drives the need for the indivivual player regarding a custom harmonica. However, I must confess that it is a luxury I like to indulge myself in. It is up to each and everyone to decide. Just make an informed decision.

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