There are a few different ways to tune a harmonica, and no matter how we do it it’s a compromise. There’s no one temperament that’s perfect for all the different ways to play music. It can be confusing the first time you hear or read about it. Sometimes that’s when you order a harp, and if you didn’t provide enough info about your playing style I might ask you how you’d like it tuned. Often your answer is “help me out man, I don’t know!”
So here’s a crash course on what I’m talking about. I’m not getting into the science and don’t have enough time to discuss it with you in-depth. If you have a keen interest in the subject, you probably already know what you want. If you don’t, and/or my crash course isn’t enough info, please visit www.patmissin.com and do your research. He explains things very thoroughly.
Marine Bands and Special 20’s out of the box are tuned with smooth chords in mind. If you value the traditional sound you’re used to with these harps, I recommend staying with that. The 5/9 draw isn’t tuned as flat as they were on the MB’s of the 1950’s, but the rest of it is the same. Basically 5/9 draw are tuned halfway between 7-limit and 19-limit just.
“7-limit just intonation” is what was used on most of the Little Walter era recordings, I believe it was used on all MB’s up until the very early 1980’s. Chords were pure and just, like a barbershop quartet, including the 5/9 draw. But, that smooth chord requires tuning the 5/9 draw very flat. If you aren’t used to it, it sounds different. If you want to sound like the old recordings, then you might want to try it.
“19-limit just intonation” is exactly the same as 7-limit just (as well as regular MB tuning), on all reeds except the 5/9 draw. With 19-limit, the 5/9 draw are tuned about the same as ET, which is sharper than they are on a stock MB. This will usually sound better for 3rd position playing because that note will sound in tune when played on it’s own, while keeping the 1-4 draw chord buttery smooth and traditional.
The Crossover or compromised just tuning sometimes works better for players who play in more of a single-note style, or positions beyond 1-2-3, but still like to use chords sometimes. They aren’t as smooth as just intonation, but they’re not as rough sounding as ET. Stock harps tuned like this include the Crossover, and Suzuki Manji (generally, not exactly, close enough for what we’re talking about).
ET or Equal Temperament is normally preferred by guys who play in positions beyond 1-2-3, do a lot of unison lines with other instruments, and don’t use chords much. This is how the Golden Melody is tuned from the factory, as well as most other Suzuki’s.
Yes, if you get a good one, but they aren’t all created equal!
Every player who’s paid his dues knows that stock harmonicas can be really great, really bad, but usually fall somewhere in the middle. When you get a great one, oh man…it’s like winning the lottery!
There are foundational reasons for this, born in the compromises that are the nature of mass production. They lie deeper than the more obvious things that you read about, like combs, curves and embossing.
The truth is, the one-in-fifty “lottery-prize” plain old Marine Band sometimes seem better than a lot of custom harps, once you get past the loudness and pay attention to how they feel. Why is that???
Well, because. The outcome of a build is determined by whatever is holding it back, not the list of tricks a customizer says he’s done! When a harp has deeper issues, modifying it from there produces mediocre results, if you’re lucky.
Fixing the underlying problems first is what makes my instruments reliable and consistent. The foundation of each harp I build is “blueprinted” before moving on to the fun stuff, and it’s a big part of why they’re worth the wait.
Having said that, every builder has his own opinions, and they may not agree with mine. Caveat emptor!
Working as a full time harp tech has been great, and I don’t regret it. But sometimes things don’t always go like predicted, and managing time is a challenge. Nothing flaky going on here, and I’m not taking vacations with your deposit money. I have a lot of work stacked up, and I can only take it one reed at a time!
On the day I replied to your initial email with a target date, I may have gotten 10 inquiries. I can’t build 10 harps a day, even in a perfect world. But everyone gets the same estimate, it’s the best I can do. Many won’t follow through. Or, perhaps before you pulled the trigger, someone else sent a deposit for a few or even a complete set.
I’m not whining! But here’s the rest of my excuse list:
1) Building harps is not an A-B-C and “it’s done” type of thing, when done at a professional level. It needs to play and sound how I want it, and I’ll work on it until it does…period. If a harp is cooperative, it might take a couple hours to do the initial build (to be fine tuned later). If every reed is off center, not riveted flat to the plate, and the reed plates are wavy, it adds considerable time to the build before I even get started on the fun stuff!
2) Tuning. I originally scheduled to build x amount of harps a day, and one tuning day a week to tune/assemble/ship. This just isn’t enough time, as it turns out. I don’t rush tuning, it’s too important!
3) Tuning (again). When reeds are adjusted and moved around, the pitches immediately go flat. Over an unpredictable amount of time, they drift back sharp. We have to wait on them to do their thing.
4) Tuning (yet again). Sometimes the blow reeds in the upper register will blow sharp when played with harder pressure. You can’t properly tune octaves when this happens, and I don’t let the problem slide. I have solutions, but it’s one more thing that makes them take longer.
5) Repair work (on my existing customs) compresses my time to a great degree. After ten years of building harps, there are a lot of them out there. These often come in bunches. Literally someone sending a whole set, or everyone decides at the same time to send me one harp…that they broke the 4 draw on months ago, but need it for a gig this weekend. So it can really mess up a schedule!
6) Emails must be carefully read, and individual needs/questions answered. This can really suck a lot of time out of my schedule.
7) R&D. I’m still developing ways to extract a little bit more performance. The time invested in doing that can sidetrack me occasionally, but it’s how I evolve and provide a better-than-average instrument. Everyone benefits.
8.) Sometimes personal life requires attention. Wife, kids, fix the car, funerals, birthdays, the list goes on. Stuff that we all need to stop and take care of!
I was going to come up with a top 10 list, but really need to get back to work. All I can promise you is that I’m working hard and you will get great harps when it’s your turn. I’m not going anywhere! It’s all good!
Maysville, MO 64469