Building Your Harmonica Kit

When you start playing harmonica you can get by with one harmonica for quite some time. However when you want to play with other people you need to be ready to play in various keys. Most players expand ther harmonica kit over time until it is more or less complete (whatever that means). In this article I will guide you through which keys to buy to give you lots of options.

Where to start?

When I have written about buying harmonicas before I ususally recommend people to get a diatonic harmonica in the key of C. The reason for this is that C is a mid range tuned harmonica so it does not have some of the challenges of lower and higher tuned harmonicas. A C harmonica played in second position plays in the key of G which is a key many guitar players are fairly comfortable with. If your play in third position you will end up in D (or Dm).

First addition to your harmonica kit

When adding you second harmonica I would recommend you to get one in the key of A. It is tuned lower than the C but not extremely low so the transition is not to bad. Also in second position you will play in E which is a very common key to play in. In third position you will be playing in B (or Bm).

Adding more harmonicas

For further expansion I would suggest first adding a D harmonica so that you have one harmonica that is tuned slightly higher. This also adds A as your second position key.

After this I would suggest buying a G harmonica, a Bb harmonica and a low F harmonica in that order. They will add D (already covered by C harp 3rd position), F and C for second position playing. F is not a very popular key with many guitarists but I like it a lot personally. C is not a super common position but the low F can also be used to play in G (and Gm) in third position with a different sound compared to your C harmonica.

Summary

All in all when you have expanded your harmonica kit to 5 or 6 harmonicas you will have a kit that is workable for most situations.

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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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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.

Soundbrenner Pulse Review

A few weeks ago I bought a wearable metronome and now it is time for a short Soundbrenner Pulse review. The reason I decided to get this device is that even though I consider the metronome an essential piece of gear listening to the click can be distracting. A silent device seemed like a good idea to me. In this review I give my thoughts on what this device offers to harmonica players.

Box content

First off let’s take a look at what you get. In the box the device comes in, which is quite nice in itslef, you get five items. You get the actual Soundbrenner Pulse device, a charging station, a USB chord for the charging station and two straps of different sizes. You also get some quick start papers but I am not really counting them. The packaging and items themselves feel like good quality gave me a nice impression right away.

Soundbrenner Pulse review box content

Box, charging station with USB-chord, Soundbrenner Pulse device and straps.

Wearing the device

Before you can start using the device you have to charge it which is quick and mount it in one of the straps. Since the straps seem quite durable getting the device in place on the strap took a bit of force but nothing major. The two straps give you a lot of options on how to wear the Soundbrenner Pulse. For most people the two straps will allow you to choose wrist, lower arm, upper arm, ankle or calf depending on what you prefer. You need to experiment with the optimal placement for you. If you like to wear it around your chest you need to buy a bigger strap which Soundbrenner of course offer.

Basic operation

The device is operated by two fingers that are placed on the top surface of the Soundbrenner Pulse and by turning the dial of the device. This allows for simple turning on/off, starting and stopping the beat and defining the beat. Initially I had some problem where I defined a very fast beat when I in fact just wanted to start the metronome at the already defined tempo. After using it a couple of times this problem went away so it seems to be a minor issue.

To take full advantage of the device the Soundbrenner Metronome App should be downloaded. After connecting your device to your mobile device you get a lot of options on how to customize the strength of vibrations, time signature, beat sub divison and accents. There is also an option to sync up to five Soundbrenner Pulses which is very useful if the whole or part of the band are all wearing a device. There is also a library where you can store complete songs if it calls you changes in the beat throughout.

Soundbrenner Pulse review mtronome app

Sounebrenner Pulse Metronome App.

The device in use

The device require some getting use to and Soundbrenner is very clear about this. Feeling the beat is very different from hearing it. In the beginning you need to focus on feeling the vibrations and maybe customizing them in the app before it works well for you. However when you do get use to it, which doesn’t take all that long, your ears will be liberated. When you don’t have to listen for a beep or a click you can focus on litening to the music instead and this is where I feel the big advantage is for harmonica players.

When I was compiling this Soundbrenner Pulse review I was thinking a lot about the sound level of the device. Initially I was expecting it to be almost completely silent but truth be told it does make a sound. This mean that I cannot wear it on my wrist as it puts it too close to my ears. What I have done is wear it on my ankle and also turn down the power of the vibrations. I am probably more picky than most about this. When I aked support about this I got a quick and professional answer.

When you get use to feeling the beat the vibrations almost disapear when you play in time. For me this is great. It means that I only get a correction when I drift out of time. I think this is what you need more than anything.

Soundbrenner Pulse review summary

All in all I would like to summarize this review like this:

  • High quality device
  • Easy operation
  • Highly customizable
  • Makes practice more efficient
  • Takes a little getting used to
  • Wearing it on the wrist not the best option for harmonica players

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Harmonica Gear or More Practice?

If you are anything like me I guess you are a harmonica gear head, most harmonica players are. Part of the fun of any hobby is to have a reason to buy new gear. No harm in that at all. There is however harm when buying harmonica gear becomes the main reason for the hobby. It is also a problem when we start blaming our faults as harmonica players on our gear. In this article I give my thoughts on what is essential gear and what improvements come best from practice (with or without harmonica). Not all our shortcommings can be fixed with gear, very few actually I would say. I will not mention custom and semi-custom harmonicas here, they deserve their own discussion.

Essential harmonica gear

First, a look at what I consider essential harmonica gear. These are things that help you become a better harmonica player and help you practice. Maybe some people will see this list as very boring and maybe it is. However essentials are rarely very exciting.

Metronome

The metronome is what keeps us honest when we practice, it is very hard to ignore being off the beat when the metronome is running. It is also a very good tool for practicing in the extremes, either really slowly or faster than we normally can handle. You can either use a stand alone device or a smart phone app.

Portable recording device

Critical listening while we play is extremely hard. Chances are that you are not hearing your mistakes, unless they are big, while you play. The ability to record and review afterwards is essential to pinpointing what you need to work on. I have been using Zoom Q3, which also records video, since a couple of years ago. I don’t think it is available anymore but I have heard god things about the Tascam DR-40 and Zoom H1 looks like a good option. If you have a smart phone it can likely work just as well.

Harmonica gear zoom Q3

My Zoom Q3

Jam tracks

Maybe not so much gear but jam tracks in different grooves, tempos, intstrumentations, etc is a great way to prepare for playing with other musicians. There are actually two ways to go about getting jam tracks. You can either buy individual or collections of jam tracks or you can invest in a computer program like “Band in a box” that can generate whatever kind of music you need. It can even create solos in the styles of famous artists. Quite an interesting tool, also useful for songwriters and home studio geeks.

Tounge block trainer

Learning the tounge block embouchure can be quite challenging due to the fact that we cannot see what goes on inside our mouths. The tounge block trainer created by Joe Filisko allows us to see what we are doing with our tounge and that really makes things a lot easier. You find the TBT here, where there also are instructions for how you make one yourself.

Service tools

A small set of tools with screwdrivers and tools for simple harmonica maintenance is quite handy. It is a good thing to know how to maintain your harmonicas yourself. Hohner has a nice set of tools with maybe more tools than you need at first. I have written about harmonica maintenance for cleaning in an earlier post.

Harmonica gear that can wait

Unfortunately this is probably the category most people are most interest in. A lot of the gear I got first definately comes from this category so, do what I say not what I do.

Amplifier

Unless you play regularly on stage you probable don’t need an amplifier. However if you do you a small 5W tube amplifier is probably what you need. It will be loud enough for rehersals and it can be amplified through the PA for larger venues. The amp will both be a way of being heard and a way of shaping your amplified sound. Before buying one you need to figure out what you need and what kind of sound you want. There is a big market for vintage amplifiers on eBay which can cost quite a lot. There are also a bunch of modern brands that specialise in harmonica amplifiers. Sonny Jr and Lone Wolf are two well known companies. I have a Gibson Kalamazoo Amp from the 60’s which I am very happy with but it did need some attention before being playable.

One thing that you should consider before spending a lot of money on an amp is that it will make everything you play louder. If what you put into the amp sounds band, what comes out will also sound bad, only louder.

Harmonica Gear - Kalamazoo Amp

My Kalamazoo.

Bullet microphone

If you buy an amp you will also need a microphone and the bullet style is the prefered style for many players. The same goes for mics as for amps, either you buy a vintage mic or a modern version from somebody who builds new mics often from vintage parts. BlowsMeAway Productions has both modern versions and custom wooden mics with vintage cartridges. I have the Bulletinin which I am very happy with.

Effect pedals

Effect pedals is a category I am not very interested in myslef actually. I have never come to grips with them. I would suggest that you hold off buying pedals until you know what you want from them. They can be great additions if you are looking for a specific sound that you are unable to create otherwise. I would also consider pedals icing on the cake and not something that will help your overall playing, if you don’t sound good acoustically pedals are not likely going to help you. Lone Wolf has a bunch of different pedals you can check out. To me delay and reverb pedals seem like a good place to start looking if you are experimenting with your sound.

The benefits of practice over harmonica gear

If you look back at the gear I list as essential you may notice that with the exception of the tool kit everything are practicing tools. The reason I think that practice is so much more valuable is that you will always take it with you. Sometimes you will not have access to your gear and sometimes you may want to play 100% acoustically. Even at those times when you have access to all your harmonica gear and all the best equipment in the world, what you have practiced will still shine through. There is no tool in a live situation that will fix bad timing or bad tone. They are such corner stones in every great players arsenal that they deserve to be put first at al times.

If you ever have to choose between new gear and more practice, I urge you to go for more practice. Hold off with the harmonica gear until you really need it. You will be glad you did. I am curious to hear any thoughts on this.

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Recommendations for Buying Harmonicas

Before you start playing it is pretty obvious that you need a harmonica. Typically what you need if you play blues is a diatonic harmonica. This is the 10-hole version that is quite common in blues, rock and among troubadoures. Some people think this instrument is a toy but nothing could be further from the truth. Diatonic harmonicas from serious brands are serious instruments but suprisingly cheap compared to other instruments. There are a few things you need to know before shopping around for your harp. This article aims to give you a good start.

First of some basic stuff, what you are looking for is a Richter tuned, major diatonic harmonica. Most often you can leave out the “Richter tuned” part when you search for a harp but you want to be sure it is a major diatonic. Most diatonics are major diatonic. Some brands offer other version such as melodic minor and harmonic minor variants. These are more suitable for playing folk music and melodies than blues.

Choosing the key

OK, so now you know the type of harmonica you need, another thing to decide is what key to choose. The key of the harmonica is which scale the harmonica is tuned to. A C-major diatonic harmonica is tuned to the C-major scale. It is basically a small piano with the black keys removed (and a few of the white keys as well). So what key to pick then? First off, it doesn’t matter what key you use when you play by yourself and learn to play. All keys work the same way. However if you play with other people you need to be in the right key.

Recommended key

If you choose a harmonica that is tuned to a very low key it can be more challenging to play at first. Very high pitched harmonicas can also be challenging to control. What you want in the beginning is key somewhere in the middle of the range. Traditionally G is the lowest key and F (or possibly F#) is the highest key. Nowadays many brands offer keys outside this range such as low F, or even down to low low F. I would recommend a C-major harmonica to start with. This puts you in the middle giving you a very workable harmonica without “extra” challenges. Also a C-major harmonica when played in 2nd position is in the key of G which works reasonably well for most guitar players. 2nd position is what you normally learn first.

Additional keys

If you choose to buy more than one harmonica I would recommend an A-major harmonica as well. This plays in the key of E in 2nd position and is also a nice key when you play by yourself. In fact if you get the following keys you are pretty much set for most situations: C, A, G, Bb, low F and D.

Choosing the brand

So, now you know what type of harmonica and the key to buy so now we have to choose a brand. There are a lot of brands out there and in the end it comes down to what you like and what suits your playing style. I make these recommendations based on my own preferences and what I use and have used. If you ask somebody else you may get other recommendations. One thing though, you basically get what you pay for. A cheaper harmonica tends to be less durable and in some cases not as well set up out of the box.

The list below is in order of preference from my point of view.

Hohner harmonicas

Generally speaking I recommend Hohner, their harmonicas have been the standard for many blues players for a long time. This is no accident, other brands may have gained ground at Hohner’s expence during the last few years but for me Hohner is still my choice.

Hohner Special 20

Hohner Special 20 is a plastic comb version of the popular Marine Band harmonica. It is a great beginner harp as it plays well out of the box and is very maintanable. The plastic comb makes it easy to clean and does not swell when getting wet. Many people who start playing these never change to more expensive models. If you are looking for an affordable, durable, maintanable, well setup harmonica with an OK tuning, this is the harmonica for you.

Hohner Marine Band Deluxe

The Marine Band Deluxe was the Hohner flag ship product for a number of years, it is an updated version of the classic Marine Band with a better sealed comb and reed plates that are screwed on rather than nailed. They play very well out of the box and also lend themselves well for repair work and custimization. The tuning of this harp works very well for blues and the chords are beautiful.

Hohner Marine Band Crossover

The Crossover is an updated version of the Marine Band Deluxe with even higher precision and bamboo composite comb that does stands up very well against moisture. As with the delux it is very maintainable and plays lamost perfectly out of the bos. The tuning is slightly different so the chords are not as smooth compared to the delux but it works over a wider range of keys and may therefore be a better choice if you not only play 2nd position blues but other styles and positions as well.

Hohner Marine Band Classic

Before Marine Band Deluxe and Crossover this was the go-to-harmonica for many blues players. An often copied harmonica and for good reason. It works very well out-of-the-box. It has a partially sealed pear wood comb. You may experience som swelling of the comb with this model which is a draw-back. It is not too bad though. The reed plates are nailed to the comb which makes maintenance of this model a bit more cumbersome.

Other harmonicas

The three harmonicas above are far from the only options but reallt what I prefer. Here are some other options to consider if you either don’t like these three, prefer platic combs or can’t get hold of them for some reason.

Hohner Golden Melody is a nice harmonica that is a bit thicker, it plays very well but is tuned to equal tuning which works better for melody playing so chord heavy music is not its strong point. Hohner Pro Harp is a plastic comb harmonica quite close to the Marine Band Classic but very maintainable as it is part of the Hohner MS system. Lee Oskar is a very custimizable and maintainable harmonica with lots of spare part options. They work better for melody heavy music due to their tuning. C.A Seydel & Söhne 1847 Classic is a really good harmonica that feels semi-custom to begin with. The only draw-back is that it is a bit pricey.

There are other brands out there and advanced players sometimes opt for custom harmonicas but that is a topic of its own.