Why A Harmonica Player Needs To Maintain His Harmonica And Be Able To Tune It And Carry Out Minor & Major Repairs:

An article by Shri Rajeev Ranjan Baisantry

Harmonica is not an inexpensive musical instrument, Good ones cost a lot. There is no point in producing bad music out it after spending good amount of money to own one simply because it is not properly tuned or has become out of tune with use. We do not buy harmonica every day, and certainly not in dozens. A harmonica technician will charge a good amount for his services and there are not many in our country or rather any that I know of who carry out reliable service. Sending the harmonica back to the manufacturer or any of the harmonica technicians abroad is a very expensive proposition. The to and fro postage itself will turn out to be more than the service charges. An out of the box perfectly tuned harmonica is at the best a dream. That is why fine tuning of harmonica has become a cottage Industry of a sort .Not in our country though: but in Europe, the USA and some other countries certainly.

Well, there is more than one good reason for acquiring necessary knowledge and craftsmanship to maintain and tune harmonica. Harmonica is a free reed, fixed pitch musical instrument. Though harmonica manufacturing over the years has been upgraded by highly sophisticated manufacturing methods, the crucial operation of fixing reeds on to the reed plates and tuning them is still done manually by highly skilled craftsmen. Especially those who tune the reeds are considered to be performing the most crucial activity.

They are considered to be endowed by the Almighty with the merciful gift of very musical pair of ears. This divine gift enables them to bring the pitch of the reed up or down to the accurate pitch. All 64, 48, 20, 144 reeds, as may be the case depending on the model of the harmonica, are tuned individually. How it is tuned will follow subsequently is this write up. Reeds sound when air is passed over them whether in blow mode or draw mode (We all know that). But the harmonica technician at the factory does not play the harmonica while tuning it. The air is passed at a certain pressure in the reed chambers of the comb by bellows like contraption which may not be the same air pressure every harmonica player under the sky applies to play his harmonica. Most of the harmonica players bend notes intently and involuntarily without knowing they have done it. Bending a note is a play of manipulating the air pressure that is passed in the reed chamber or sucked out from it. Off course the embouchure, cupping of hands, angle of harmonica relative to the mouth cavity etc do also contribute

significantly to the end effect of a bent note. It is not that the craftsmen who are exceptionally skilled have done an imperfect job. The point I am trying to make is that the master craftsman who has tuned the reeds has done so under controlled conditions which may be different in the real world. Every harmonica player has a personalized style of playing. The style amongst other things includes the pressure of air blown in the reed chambers or drawn out of them. This air pressure can at the best be classified as low, medium or high. But what is low, what is medium and what is high is not quantifiable. At the best or at its worst, it is a subjective classification. What is low for someone could be medium for some body else and what is medium for somebody could be high for some one else. And, some ones medium could be low for every body else and so on so forth.

So an out of the box harmonica may not sound perfectly in tune to every body. If it is a coincidence that the air pressure you make use of to play the harmonica is the same air pressure at which its reeds were tuned, just thank the Almighty for being kind to you. Otherwise curse the harmonica manufacturer or blame your ill luck depending on which option you like more. However, quite often, even otherwise there are tuning flaws in an ‘Out of the Box Harmonica’. You either live with the imperfections or learn to live without them. The second option will require knowledge and skill to tune the harmonica. These are acquired with the aid of knowledge of the dynamics of reeds i.e. how the reeds behave and what affects their behavior. Not every thing about reed dynamics is required to be known to be able to tune them. Some of it will do.

Reed vibrates while producing sound. It produces a fixed or predetermined pitch. At least, it is intended to produce a fixed pitch. Bending off course alters the pitch. But this is due to variety of factors, the important one being the contribution of the other reed in the same reed chamber of an unvalued harmonica.

Vibration over a period of time causes metal fatigue and results in microscopic cracks in the reeds which go on increasing and multiplying with the use of harmonica. Ultimately the reed completely breaks down or goes flat. At his stage of its life cycle, the reed is as good as dead. It is beyond repair and has to be replaced. But in between the “Janm & Ram Nam Satya Hai” the metal fatigue which has caused microscopic cracks also results in alternation of tuning in varying extent. More than often, the pitch will go flat or come down rather than becoming sharp or going up. The other factor which has effect on vibration of reeds is the reed gap, i.e. the gap between the free end of the reed and the reed plate. Too much or too less a gap will affect the flow of air passing through the reed slot and hence the degree of vibration. More importantly it will retard the response time of the reed. The reed should respond instantaneously and true to its intended pitch. Ideally, the gap between the reed and the reed plate should be approximately equal to the thickness of the free end of the reed. In case of a four octave chromatic harmonica gap could be same for the reeds of octave 2 to 04 and for the octave 1, it could be slightly more. Much depends on your playing style i.e. whether you use low pressure, medium pressure or high pressure or ‘Tornado Pressure’. You have to try and find out how much gap suits your playing style.

Correcting the Pitch

It is very elementary. But doing it perfectly requires more than elementary effort and skill. The very elementary part is that if the pitch is high, you remove reed metal from the riveted end of the reed and if the pitch is low you remove it from the free end. The not so elementary part is how much metal should be removed and how. The more metal you remove, more will the pitch alter and vice-versa. More than often a minor scratch does the job. Too much may even change the basic character of the reed i.e. a C note may be come D or F or C#. Therefore, the scratch has to be a controlled one. And for this, you need gadgets and tools. It is advisable for a serious harmonica player to have a harmonica maintenance kit. There are plenty available in market made by Hohner, LeeOscar, Hering & Syedel. The Seydet tool set is far the most djjjjdjjdHohner, Hering & Seydel. The Seydel tool set is by far the most complete and best. It has every tool one needs, for not only tuning, but replacing reeds as well besides other tools; it has an electrically operated (9 volts) rotary grinder for removing metal off the reed. Although, I personally prefer the battery operated rotary grinder which I additionally have. This one sells under the brand name of Micro Mark - Item No. 84446 Rotary Engraver (Visit the site www.micromark.com). The tuner in the Seydel kit is not very efficient. In the alternative you can go for any of the models made by Korg, Seiko or Boss. Korg CA-30 is inexpensive and good. It should be available in most of the good music shops. The Seydel tool set can be bought excluding the rotary grinder and the tuner.

It is not that you essentially need to have a tool set for tuning the reeds. But, owning one really helps by making the job smooth and uncomplicated.

Some More Basics

1. If you are resident of climatically cold place, all ways warm up the harmonica before measuring the pitch on the tuner. Even when not using a tuner, warm up the harmonica. When you breathe in to a cold harmonica, your warm breath will cause condensation and moisture will deposit on the reeds. This will affect its vibration and pitch.

2. Always support the free end of the reed before removing metal from it. All tool kits have a special tool for this. But you can use a piece of paper preferably photocopy paper or any thing of plastic or metal of more or less same thickness.

3. Remove metal from the extreme ends of the reed by mild scratch using the edge of a shaving blade in the absence of a better alternative .Use only half of the blade; it is easier to handle . The scratch should be at an angle and not straight in the line of the reed .Then test the pitch. Some time, only thin scratch will do. If it does not, remove more metal by another scratch and test the pitch and so on so forth till the correct pitch is achieved. The final pitch should be tested with the harmonica covers in place, as the pitch tends to lower when the covers are placed on the comb.

4. Do not attempt to achieve the correct pitch in one stroke. It does not help. You may over do it and will have to reverse the effect by removing metal from the .All this will shorten the life of an already sick reed.

5. When tuning the harmonica, choose a quite place. External noise will not give correct reading on the Tuner. This does not imply your going to a recording studio. There should not be loud sound from another source such as music system, musical instrument etc.

6. Before attempting to tune a reed by removing metal from it, adjust the reed gap. Many a times the gap affects tuning. It is likely that proper gapping may solve the problem. In any case gapping should always be done before tuning the reeds.

7. When using a tuner, start by ascertaining the frequency at which the harmonica is tuned. Generally, the frequency of the key note is the frequency at which all the reeds are tuned or rather should be tuned by the manufacturer. Check the frequency of all key notes of all octaves. The frequency will be found to be in the range of 441 to 445 Hz. The erring reed will be found deviating from the frequency of the key note. Either it will be + or --.

End Note: Harmonica is a delicate instrument. It deserves delicate handling and care as any other delicate thing. There is nothing on earth like an indestructible reed. Reeds will become de tuned with use. There is nothing to be disheartened about it. Tune it back. Only a properly tuned harmonica will produce good sound and good music.

Acknowledgements: There is nothing in this write up which is original. Input has been drawn from material available on internet and my own experience of playing and tuning harmonica. There is an excellent article on the subject by Pat Missin on his site: patmissin.com.


Rajeev Ranjan Baisantry

DOB: 3rd July 1950

Education: B Com (Hons) & MSW from Delhi School of Social Work

University Of Delhi

Professional Background: H R M Professional. Served with Public Sector

Undertakings for 37 years. Superannuated as General Manager (H R M) of a Public

Sector Undertaking in construction contracting. Now an independent HRM & Industrial Relations Management Consultant.

Interests: Playing Harmonica (Undoubtedly), Listening Good Music,Reading, Traveling & Photography.

Marital Status: Married.

Family Composition: Three Daughter,& A Wife (Yes , She Has To Be There)

Residence: Resident of Delhi

Contacts; rajeev.baisantry@gmail.com

Phones: 7428433177 &01126169928.

Few harmonica renditions by me.

Jaane Chaman Shola Badan

Sham-e-Gham Ki Kasam

Dil Ko Lakh Sambhala Ji

Lehron Ki Tarah

Yeh Kahan Aa Gaye Hum

Harmonica Our Passion!


Abe Thomas said...

A very good and educational article by Rajeev Ranjan Baisantry ... Thank you... Abe@SuzukiMusicIndia.com

Rameshwaram said...

Very usefull and excellent information by an exponent harmonica player. Thanks :-)

kuldeepjain said...

what a wonderful writeup.. sir if you had been a doctor i am sure you could have written " step by step guide to heart transplant"

very good information on harmonica tuning indeed..

Anonymous said...

Excellent Article which explains Harmonica in simple terms