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Civet Cat Feb 10, 2009 2:29 PM GMT
Hey guys: I saw this thread on Adam's site: "Please stop the emphasis on customising harps" and I am copying the question along with my responce becuase i think it is a good subject and many of you may be having the same questions...you can view the entire thread and it's many responces and opinions at : http://www.modernbluesharmonica.com/board/board_topic/5560960/405627.htm?page=1
ORIGINAL THREAD STARTER:
Harmonicanick writes: "There is so much talk and money changing hands about this subject....why???
I have been playing for many years...golden melodies actually..and apart from the basic Adam type stuff there is no need for any other expensive modification.
Believe me beginners and intermediates don't spend the extra money just play as it should be played not too hard and relax and enjoy....:-)"
Last Edited on 9-Feb-2009 2:57 PM
My Responce after many others was :
Hey I agree a lot with both sides on this argument. I think it's important for a player to get off the ground and learn the rudiments of the instrument first before really worrying about the harmonica itself. If you cant bend on a stock special 20 or marine band your probably not gonna get it on a custom right away.
At the same time I see what Chris (Buddha) is saying here as well about developing bad habits I didn't learn on a custom (not even over blows) and in in some ways I'm glad I didn't, I really hohned the technique well that way but the thing with overblows is it's kind like riding a two wheeler, once you can do it on ANY harp custom or otherwise you can do it and a better harp will help you do it faster just like chris said, However i'm not sure a beginner player should even be messing with over blows theres so much stuff to learn with the notes that are there with bending and otherwise.
The real reason i'm writing though is there are a few things I think no one has mentioned yet/forgot/might not know: The harps of yesteryear (Little,Big Walter etc...) Were FAR better than todays merchandise! If you don't believe me buy a Pre War marine band off ebay chances are the 70 year old instrument will play louder, better, and still be more in-tune than what came of the shelf yesterday. Also those old guys DID mess with their harmonicas! There is a lot of proof of this if you talk to some of the few living old guys. Embossing is NOT a new or modern trick it's at least a hundred years old...It was originally called "The Magic Penny" and accordian guys started it, they would and do run a penny across the reed slot not knowing why/or knowing why to achieve the louder more responcive reed, harmonica players did too and factory workers at Hohner have used this trick for special harmonicas and pro players for ages. Also Jerry Murad, Charlie McCoy, all the Bora Minnivitch/harmonicats guys were way into this stuff setting action embossing sealing etc...it's old hat to this instrument not a new fad, the invention of the internet and ressurgance of the instruments popularity is what makes this appear to be a "New Fad". We know for a fact the a lot of the old blues guys (even the big ones) didn't have much money and I would bet all my custom harmonicas that at some point if not all the time they were messing with them a bit, to keep 'em going longer and playing better evn though those harps were even better than todays. As far as todays greats go, Dennis Gruenling may not be on Adam's Top Ten but he's on mine and he damn near started on Custom Filisko harps.
Like Preston I also am in Awe that this thread was started here and am in agreement with his comparissons of a custom M.B. to a regular to a 5.00 dollar blues band. But the main thing that bothers me is when people feel that knowledge in some way will hurt them or distract them from their playing. Knowing a lot about your instrument only helps you play better, learning to work on your instrument gives you the knowledge of HOW it works and why and lends itself to your positive development. If you only "Messing" with the harmonica than fine DON'T buy or learn how to customize you harps but if your serious about playing as good as you can devoting some of your practice time to learning to fix/tune/improve a harmonica is really important and very cost effective.
People think customs cost so so much money and they do, but I replace or tune reeds when they go bad, I have harps that are 6 years old and I play 300 gigs a year on them, I have saved thousands of dollars, learned a lot, had more fun and take pride in my instrument like a guitarist/sax/ violinist what have you. I use to throw them away, or give them to kids, or pt them in a box, when i learned to tune almost over night I had 50 "new" harmonicas ressurected from a shoe box!
So in conclusion Don't worry about getting one of these high dollar harps right away, learn to play and bend on an average middle of the road M.B./suzuki/seydel, Get your fundementles down and when you know that you love harmonica and you will always be playing (health Provided) than start thinking about collecting one at a time or more some better harps, and learn yourself what you can do to them to it will only give you a better appreciation for the expert customizers and the instrument itself. Knowledge will not hurt you ever, and there is nothing wrong with MOST 30.00 dollar Marine bands for a beginning player.
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Most colleges and universities that offer music as a major have elements of repair and maintenance in their degree programs. I know reed players are taught to shave, clip, and build reeds. Why shouldn't harmonica players learn to customize their instruments to match their skills?
I'm convinced that even raw beginners should be encouraged to take the first steps towards learning to tweek their own harps by at the minimum just take it apart, hold the reed plates in your hand, give them a good looking over and re-assemble it. I'll swear that just doing that will make the harp play better for you. There is sooo much mental stuff going on with harp playing if you've visualized and internalized what your sticking in your mouth you are bound to improve by sheer willpower alone.
(Great history pointers JR.)
And you'll start to have an appreciation of exactly why custom harps cost what they do. And you'll realize what a deal they really are.
I am just starting to tweak harps and they do often play better and and sound better its a skill also the correct tools can help In time just as my harp playing has improved so will my tweaking skills.... also examining some of the high end priced harps gives the player some idea of what to work toward :)
There's still a very pervasive mindset with most people and that a harmonica is still more toy than a real instrument and that if you"blow it out, you throw it out," and with an instrument like a guitar, it's a lifetime investment and you just change the strings. With a real top of the line instrument the average player divaes and moans about being so expensive, or a custom, this way of thinking is ENTIRELY WRONG, because high end instruments is never that way at all, but it may very well take at least 2-3 more decades before the message actually begins to sink in.
I think that every somewhat serious harp player owes it to him/herself to buy one "custom" harp in their lifetime. It is, frankly, a night and day difference from MOST out of the box instruments. I have spent some time tweaking (well for the most part destroying) my own harps and really appreciate the skill/patients that are demonstrated by Spiers, Filisko, and the maker of my sole custom, Brad Harrison.
Brad you ROCK!
Knowledge, for a harmonica player, be it working on their instruments, music theory, whatever, if anything, it improves what you do, and from the music theory end, you avoid the constant "deer in the headlights" look you get out of most harp players if they're not playing 1-4-5 changes, or oif they have to understand groove, time, etc., and for EVERY harp player, regardless of their skill level, iot's in theior best interest.
Yes, true Jason. And very true about people working on harps in the old days, I was just talking to Danny G a couple of days ago about Leo Friedman's work. Back in the day when he was with the Minevitch Rascals, whenever one of their harps would START to drop in tune, he would solder the entire reed, reshape the profile and retune, that got them through until a replacement reed could be found.
The deal is, beginners are VERY hard on harmonicas. They never think they are, but even if they aren't blowing hard, they have this trouble with resonance and that's hard on reeds. They need that extra space on the stock reedslot to reduce some of that stress on the reeds.
But, by the time they have even heard of a custom, they aren't raw beginners anymore, after a couple of months (practicing months!) they work out a lot of those resonance issues and that stress thing isn't quite the issue it was as long as they don't blow hard.
So, at that point, I think it's OK...
Now, one thing that comes to my mind is this: in some ways, the harmonica itself will change the player you become and I don't mean better harp = better player, what I mean is the harmonica will steer your playing into different examples. For instance, Jason, you were a different player with EQ Golden Melodies, back in the day. Part of that is work and a progression of your talent. But another factor has been the Marine Band itself, you've been playing, I think, more chords, etc. Why? Because they sound good. On the GM, they didn't sound so good, so you instead played the type of things that sounded good on a Golden Melody.
I am a heavy chord player and I've always been that way. I grew up on Marine Bands, old handmade blues harps, Old handmade Old Standbys, all three of which were Marine Bands with three different covers. Why did I play handmade blues harps and other Marine Band clones?
Because that's what my dad played. It was fleeting as that. Dad had one, so I went that direction myself.
Lets say dad had a Golden Melody... what would I have become? I certainly wouldn't be this wood-o-phile... nor would I be a chord player. I would have become a totally different player, evolving my playing style to the attributes of my instrument. I can remember early on, hitting what I would learn to be overblows later. I never got to that point, playing around I would back off when the reed started to choke. Had I something that wasn't so damn leaky, I might have figured it out.
But, then again, there was no Internet when I was a kid. There were no other players to learn from. It was just me. So to what extent does everything I said above apply today? Certainly less than it did when I was learning.
There is this conception that people have to buy custom harps. That is wrong, very wrong. You don't have to do anything. Although, at the other extreme, I do see how those harps early on will shape the player one becomes.
I don't have the answers. Just more questions.
What I see as a greater problem than whether somebody should buy a custom or not, and this is more of an issue today than when I was a kid, is the haters. There is this concept that everybody has to play at a certain level, they have to overblow, they have to do this, they have to do that and in the process we lose a lot of the richness this instrument has to offer.
It's something Jason understands, I know. When he came up to judge the Elk River contest last Sept. he wasn't looking at who did X, Y or Z, but evaluated what the player was trying to do and how well he did that. That was a very refreshing approach.
This instrument of ours has so much to offer various genres, styles even different instruments. So, have to buy a custom? No... you don't even have to buy a diatonic. You can play chromatic... you can play chord... you can play bass... you can play tremolo... You don't have to play blues on a diatonic. You don't have to play jazz on a chromatic, you don't have to play your chord in a harp trio, etc.
What I would like to see personally, isn't people thinking about customs, but thinking about the wide spectrum of harmonicas available and how they can apply those to what they want to do. I would like to see us regain some of that richness we used to have as a community.
Screw it--I went ahead and ordered a custom harp from Buddha this morning--I just have to know some answers about this thread for myself! Besides, buying new harps is fun!
I personally like to play several differnt types of harps. I think part of it is the tuning and part of it percieved levels of response. Some of my harps are extremely air tight and smooth and I have some that play . . . rougher. I find that my playing is very much informed by the harp I am playing. There are qualities in my playing that are brought ought by having to fight with the harp a little more. Sometimes i feel like some of my better harps play play to well. I do not own any customs but I am imagine that this may happen as well, possibly to even a hight degree. Maybe I am talking out of my butt. What do you all think.
There are some interesting spelling errors in my last post. You think a teacher would know better.
I'm with Elk River - the world of harp playing has gotten very narrow. Everybody's got to have that over-amped, over-driven Chicago sound or they can't go out in public. Right now I'm listening to Sonny Boy Williamson II playing "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" - acoustic guitar, acoustic harp - we hold him up as one of the greats, but if he was around today could he make a living? I doubt it.
I think that one of the problems is that too many players once they get the customising bug spend too much time tinkering with their harps rather than playing them. I have spent hours finding the right seal for combs, gapping, tuning, embossing etc. When we should all be practicing sometimes our desire for a turbo charged harp takes over. I am in no way taking any credit away from all the expert customisers, I have vastly improved the response and set up of my harps in the year that I have been messing with them. When I imagine how a Sleigh or Spiers must feel and sound it only inspires me to learn more and save up for one of there baby's.
I definately agree that once you learn the basic of modification you suddenly find that you buy less harps and are able to salvage old ones that are in shoe boxes and under your bed. I have also thrown tons of harps away over the years and if I new then what I know now I would have a sizeable collection of harps that played better. The trick is not to dedicate all your time to customising and share it between playing them.
The internet as Jason says has increased our understanding of the instrument on a massive scale, but as he says also the harmonica and how it works has been studied alot longer. It is well worth getting to know your harps and learning gapping, tuning etc. I wouldn't bog yourself down with trying to find the ultimate comb, (although seems to be an obsession of mine). The fundamentals are well worth learning and they do make a big difference. It is however important to play more than we tinker or we could have a world of expert customisers and mediocre players. Imagine that?
Also we must be careful whenever we use new technologies like the the internet as they can be a massive distraction away from a host of really important things. Harmonica playing and the harp community is obviously huge and it's fantastic to be able to be involved in such a discussion on such a great site. I guess alot of it is to do with prioritizing and time management, making sure you play far more than anything else, anything else is a bonus.
Did I ever mention the time my grandpa re-invented cross harp in the early 1950s? He carried a D harp around in his guitar case to tune his guitar (one draw for the E string), mandolin, fiddle, whatever he was playing. He told me that he drew on a chord instead once and heard the chord and knew it was an A.
"So," he said, "I started playing it in A."
Grandpa had basically heard/seen only one harmonica player, really, DeFord Bailey, and he noticed when he played it in A, he could do that DeFord-type cross harp stuff. Freight Train Boogie wasone thathe played.
To give you an idea of the isolation, grandpa told me "That harp (he called it a harp) was a Hohner Marine Band. You know, they still make those."
The availability of information today is good, people are learning a lot of stuff they couldn't before, but there is a flip side, where we lose something of our cultural identity, especially a regional musical identity, when music influence and technique comes from auniversal and not the ground up. We lose that dynamic of self-discovery and thus, lose some of the inventiveness that comes from that. Gwen Foster is one that comes to mind from that mold, of somebody from the day when simply learning to play meant creating your own style. Gwen created something so unique and unfortunately, largely forgotten.
I said all that to say this: as we learn from others, we need to be our own individual player. Learning technique is good, but in the end, the only person who should sound like Jason Ricci is Jason Ricci, and Little Walter, LIttle Walter. What Little Walter did was revolutionary in his time and when everybody tries to sound like Walter, it can water down the experience of listening to what he did. So, we have to be our own players and have to think more about "what happens if I..."
This is one of the most revolutionary periods in harmonica playing history, a very exciting time to be playing... and music is never as simple as people want it to be.
Take two harmonicas. People ask me all the time to compare two different harmonicas. It's very hard to do because the harmonica is only one part of the instrument.. if we compared to guitar, the harmonica would be the neck, bridgeand strings and the rest of the instrument is you. That's why it is so hard to compare, so hard to make recommendations. Anytime you do so, there is a significant factor missing. Thus, anytime somebody tells you "have" to have something, consider that they too, are making a recommendation with about 30 percent of the data missing.
Tom C, the ultimate comb is the flattest comb.
I talked to Sandy Weltman last summer and he said something that I thought very profound. He said "Once you learn you can overblow anything."
I have had the same Sax for 23 yrs. It is just a $600 student model Yamaha but made in the 70's when they made good Saxes. For many years I moanedabout my tone and technique, convinced that it was the sub quality instrument (this was often reinforced by people with expensive Selmers and the like).
Slowly as I overcame technique challanges this changed to where people would envy my tone (sometimes). Nowwhen I try outeven very expensive Saxes I am often dissapointed and would not sell mine for the world.
Along the way I have repaired, rebuilt (after British Airways destroyed it), modified, tried many different reeds etc. There is definately something to be said about familiarlariy with an Instrument.
I said all that just to make a point. Quality andTechnique are different sides to the same coin.As Mr Elk said so well "and the rest of the instrument is you".
Now it's very rare that someone can use the same Harp for 23 yrs. But they can get the same quality type, setup the way they want it. Tweeking and Blowing gives you that familiarlarity. You are not just blowing into a black box that is foreign each new harp.
Having said all that Damn I've destoyed alot of harps by tweeking.
Well, you've jsut gave creedance to my arguement that 98% of the time, the average player almost automatically is gonna blame the instrument for their troubles, or the defects, real or percieved, and by that very same number, they will never consider their playing technique as a being a possible culprit, and the vast majority of the time, that's where the real problem lies. Trust me, if you say this on Harp-L, you'd get a ration of crap ofpossibly being a hater for pointing this out, but it's the cold, hard, brutal truth, and for some players, it's almost like you're insulting their manhood or something. Looking into their playing technique for many players is usally the last thing they'll ever do.
Cold hardbrutaltruth: Complaints about harps having a bad 3 hole draw or a player being unable to find a harmonica in the key of A that's not defective are usually reliable indications that theplayerdoes not know proper breath technique for playing a harmonica.
Other obvious signs of using too much breath force are:
Reeds getting clogged may also be caused by playing after you eat. Some players are naturally wetter than others even if appropriate breath control is employed, and this may also clog reeds. Long lines played at fast tempo when one is a overweight and/or not in particularly good shape due to physical inactivity can also result in shortness of breath even when using good technique and even if an appropriate level of breath force is employed.
The other factors listed by Bob are not as suseptible to alternative explantions and are therefore more consistently reliable indicators of poor breath technique, which, btw, is not limited to just using too much force. There's more to it than that, but that's a good place to start.
Btw. i know a guy who sometimes buys as many as 3 A harps a month, complaining that it's just about impossible to find a harp in the key of A that's not defective. Of couse, if you try to make any suggestions, he will inform you in no uncertain terms that he knows how to play harmonica and that he plays just fine. Maybe he should form a band and call it Self Delusion.
We can easily see why custom harps cost a lot of money, after all it's a very labour-intensive and time consuming exercise to customise a harp fully. Having said this, I can't justify the cost personally, though I won't begrudge those who have the cash to throw at these obviously superior instruments.
My gripe is that we are paying too much for off the shelf gear. The quality and workmanship does not match the price, especially when quality of setup (tuning and gapping etc) is so inconsistent.
Some of the basic mods that are performed by customisers, in my opinion, should be a part of the default off the shelf setup. Things like accurate tuning and gapping, extra screws, embossing (or alternatively - reeds/plates manufactured to more exact specs), fully sealed combs, rounded corners and smooth reed plate edges etc, are not beyond the capabilities of the harmonica production line. Of course some of these things would always have room for improvement in the same way that a good car can be finely tuned and upgraded, I can accept that reality.
I won't hold my breath waiting for harmonica manufacturers to produce more comfortable, air-efficient, non-leaky, in-tune instruments, but I won't ever be happy with buying a brand new harp and having to dismantle it for tuning right away because two or more reeds are way out of tune, or having to rape an old harp for screws, and improve the comb just because the brand spanking new one leaks like a proverbial sieve.
Rather than cry in my beer over the high (and for me unaffordable) price of most custom harps, I got involved with tuning, tweaking, and modding my own harps early on in my harping 'career'. It's often fiddly, time-consuming work, but it's also necessary if you are even half serious about playing harmonica. I find myself from time to time enjoying the engineering side of being a harmonica nut, even though I don't always have enough time to do quite the job I would like on each instrument.
* I think it is important to educate new players that tweaking and setting up your harps is a necessary evil, and not to be afraid to delve into it from the beginning, or some time soon after you learn your basic playing skills. It will save you money ultimately, though you may damage a few harps from time to time until you become more practiced at tweaking and modding. At least you'll be playing an instrument that you actually understand.
* I would like to see manufacturers taking some of the pain out of the process by being more consistent with quality at the production phase, and perhaps adressing some of the basic issues that many instruments have by default. Once a few minor design changes are implemented I doubt there would be much extra cost, if any at all, involved compared to the current cost of manufacture.
* The open sharing of information that is occurring now is a good thing and needs to continue. Modding and tweaking used to have a reputation of being a bit of a black art, but now thanks to generosity and open communication harmonica enthusiasts of every level can dive in and test the waters for themselves. If you can't afford a bag of custom harps or you just like to tinker with stuff, you can still have better instuments that play more efficiently, louder, and are more comfortable to use.
Thanks to the modding pioneers and all who have followed their path, and thanks to the kind folks who unsefishly share their knowledge and experience so that we all may learn how to get the most out of these little tin treasures.
John, the last paragraph in your response is too often very typical of a lot players and even outside of playing harmonica, everybody knows at least three people exactly like that when it comes to taking criticism of any kind, as it's often too much of a blow to their ego or manhood for them to take, and it too often reminds me of the heavily addicted drug addict, alcoholic, or nicotine addict who can't admit anything to anyone, especially themselves.
Harp Dog, as much as I agree on a lot of things you're pointing out, you need to look at the other side of things, which is gonna be a tough reality check. First of all, if they did the kinds of things customizers do, their delivery rate of product would be slowed down by some 90% because of all of the necessary hand labor involved, meaning more people are gonna be taken off the production line, which adds tremendously to the cost of the product, and no one in their right mind is gonna do any of this work for next to nothing and in many factories, they don't get paid byan hourly wage, but often by piece work AKA sweatshop wages and if you're being paid that way, that means the more and faster the product gets pushed out, the more money you make, and often times care and quality is gonna take a hit, like it or not. If they did all the kinds of things you and many players pine about, you'd be paying five times as much for that very same stock harmonica than you do presently.
The other thing to remember is that if they did all the stuff that customizers do, beginners and intermediate players are often very brutally hard on harps, and they'd blow them out 100 times faster than they do already, and where the manufacturersnow just either adjust or replace while under warranty, they'd be lucky to have any product on the shelf, and that means that they'd be finding it absolutely necessary to enforce the warranty caveats to the letter and the single biggest problem with beginners and many intermediate players is using way too much breath force all the time, and when they put the harp reeds under a microscope and see each and every stress fracture that has been caused by this horrible playing technique, these players would void the warranty and if you think players complain like crazy now, it would be even worse and when they try to take it to court to get satisfaction, the companies don't need their own techs to show it, just get any reputable customizer who will tell the brutal truth about the playing technique being used and playing too hard constitutes playing in an abusive manner, and the player would clearly lose this case in court because by playing that way, they totally voided their warranty and that's the stark reality that most players will never want to face up to.
No Bob, you missed my meaning. Many basic changes could be made in the design process with no extra labour required, except for perhaps tuning, which is often poorly done anyway. There's plenty of profit margin in musical instruments, we all know it. It's about time we got better value for our money.
I also didn't say that they should or could "do all the stuff that customisers do", I said "some of the basic mods" so your paragraph there is also irrelevant to my post. I can't disagree with most of the things you've said in that paragraph, but you didn't need to say them in response to my post, even if some people will no doubt find some pearls of wisdom there. Additionally, writing several key phrases in bold type comes across as patronising at best, and condescending at worst, adding unecessary drama to a conversation which was going along fine without such as it was.
I'm happy with the opinions I posted, and I'm tired of being ripped off by manufacturers out for the big money grab. Harmonica manufacturers need to lift their game, they could do much better if they wanted to. That's how I feel about it, and every time I pay good money for a crap harp I'll feel justified in feeling that way. Until things improve, if they even do, I'll continue repairing brand new harps that weren't fit to play right out of the box. There's no other choice really.
Harp dog, I think I got your point. Ok, so you're paying too much... got it. yes, it's too much. BUT, You are paying too much in UNITED STATES DOLLARS... which equates to a not so much in Euros. We've based our concepts of fair price from times when the dollar was strong and the German Mark was weak. On the flip side, compare the cost we pay in dollars with the cost Europeans pay in Euros... it might not be the same with every product, but as a rule, those folks pay more than we do and they typically don't have as much spare change.
Let's take a Seydel, for instance. Solist Pro, $39.95. Does Seydel get $39.95? not unless you order it direct from the company. I, or whoever else is selling it, gets a cut.Unlike Seydel, Hohner doesn't do its own distribution. Thus, Hohner doesn't get the $36 or whatever it is now for a Marine Band, they get the $36, minus the store's share of the profit, minus the distributors share of the profit... then they have to change that from dollars to Euros...
On your other point, if you ever get a look at an 1847, and I'm not saying it's a custom harp, all I am saying is this... see ifyou don't see a gentle arc in those reeds.
Dave, the point you make about how the value of the US Dollar against the Euro is so very true and too many people are too blind to see this fact because as long as the dollar keeps devaluating, the more expensive harmonicas are going to be in the US whether we like it or not.
A weak dollar is, technically, good for the economy by making our products cheaper for other countries and making their imports more expensive for us...
Wm. Kratt Co. of Union, New Jersey, you listenin'?
The last time I had a Kratt harmonica was 1974!! I think it was a model called The Warbler.
I've got a Warbler C, I got from Tom Stryker, used to be one of Ray Tankersley's, whom I respect very much. It is from the 1940s, I think, beautiful, rich, powerful, even before I changed out the leather windsavers and put some new ones in. Every Kratt I've ever seen has had at least one design feature that I love, such as recessed rivets so the windsavers lay perfectly flat, etc. You know, if you are a machinist personally trained by Thomas Edison (as William Kratt was) and rise to becomeEdison's head machinist, you probably know how to design stuff.
Was your Warbler one of the later ones or what? I'd like to hear about it.
Whole lotta Kratt love here.
I think it was a later one.