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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Maintenance for Clean Harmonicas

Maintenance may not be at the top of your mind as a harmonica player but it is something we all have to deal with. I bet that at least once you have experienced a stuck reed in one of your harp. Quite likely the reed was stuck either by a foreign object that came with your saliva. Sugar residue can also build up if your mouth is not clean when you play. In this article I will give you a few pointers on how to keep your harmonicas clean enough to avoid these mishaps.

Preventive maintenance

The first thing you should do is make sure that your mouth is as clean as possible before you start playing. What does not come into your harmonica will not have to be cleaned out. The best process is of course to always brush your teeth before playing. Although most people understand this, it is not always practical or feasible. Some people will flat out ignore this advice. I have to admit that I don’t always do this myself unfortunately. The second best thing you can do is to rinse your mouth with water before playing. I try to keep this as my minimum standard and it works quite well. Even if you don’t brush your teeth or rinse your mouth with water there are a few things you can keep in mind, especially during a jam session.

  • Don’t eat peanuts or chips/crips during a jam session, gig or practice session
  • Don’t drink sugary beverages
  • Drink water

When you have finished playing, don´t forget to tap the harmonica lightly to remove any moisture. To keep moisture build up to a minimum I have found that warming the harmonica in your hand before playing helps.

All of the above will help make sure that foreign objects don’t make it into your harps.

Simple cleaning

Even with the best preparations and intentions once in a while your will end up with a harmonica in need of some maintenance. The first thing you may notice is build-up of crud in the holes. See picture below.

Harmonica in need of maintenance.

The first sign you need to clean your harmonica.

To handle this I recommed tootpicks, gap toothbrush or a reed lifter tool. It is very easy to gently clean off the crud from the harmonica.

tools for simple maintenance

Reed lifter, tooth picks and gap toothbrush

Cleaning like this will keep your harmonica in good order for quite some time. If a reed seem to get stuck you can use a tooth pick or the reed lifter tool to gently put it in motion. If these actions don’t do the trick you may have to do some more cleaning.

Cleaning a disassembled harmonica

When you take a harmonica apart you get a whole lot more options for cleaning. Most likely you will find that both the reed plate and the comb are dirty.

Comb in need of maintenance

Dirty comb

reed plate in need of maintenance

Dirty reed plate

The first step to cleaning here is to use a soft toothbursh. Make sure you are not pressing too hard and brush in alignment with the reeds. You can also use water or some form of mild cleaning fluid on the reed plate. Make sure to wash it off before assemblying the harmonica. Do not use a lot of water on an unsealed wooden comb, the wood will absorb the water. If you are unlucky the wood will swell and warp. Id you have a plastic comb you can use a whole lot more water to clean it.

You might wonder why so much dirt make it in between the reed plate and the comb. It can di so because the reed plate and the comb are not 100% flat so there will be voids. If you buy a high end custom harmonica this will be less of a problem. These harmonicas have a tighter seal because of the flatness of the comb and reed plate. It will however not completely eliminate the problem.

Heavy duty cleaning

To get everything completely clean you need some more heavy duty equipment. I use a ultrasonic cleaner to clean reed plates, cover plates and screws. I do not recommend ultrasonic cleaning for wooden combs. The cleaner uses high frequency vibrations to basically shake the dirt off. It is very effective and can get everything more or less completely clean.

ultrasonic cleaner for maintenance

My ultrasonic cleaner

To make the cleaning even more effective I would recommend a cleaning liquid such as the EM-070 or similar which is normally used to clean dentures. Just make sure to clean it off with water after the ultrasonic cleaning.

Conclusion

As you can see there are many levels to maintenance and doesn’t have to be a bother. With a few tools you can come a long way. Let me know if you have any questions and don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter below.