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 traditional sounding smooth chords, I recommend staying with my default choice of 19-limit just intonation.
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 are not 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.
I can tune any of the models in any of the temperaments, no problem. This has been asked before, so it’s worth a mention. So if you like the shape of a GM but the smooth chords of a MB, no problem. Or vice-versa.
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!
As boys growing up in the ’70s, my brother and I loved to watch Evil Knievel on TV, then go outside and tear the heck out of our bikes! On my 10th birthday, my Dad gave me a new bicycle with this advice: “You’d better take care of this, it’s the last one you’re going to get….” As time went on, I watched him work on his motorcycle and he taught me how to maintain my bike. We’d take it apart and grease bearings, adjust brakes, keep the chain tension optimum, replace tires and tighten spokes. That bike served me well until I got a driver’s license.
In high school, we took some Air Force aptitude tests. I scored better than 99.9% of all other high school students in the USA taking that test, in the area of mechanical aptitude. I thought about accepting the Air Force’s generous offer to go to college on their dime….but I went to Vo-Tech instead, and became an auto mechanic. After a couple years in dealerships, I was hired by my current employer where I’ve been for over 25 years. I’m an ASE certified Master Technician in the medium/heavy truck field.
(Edit: I’ve since resigned from working for the man, and am working for myself!)
I’m somewhat of a workaholic, and for ten years owned a business restoring musclecars, custom painting Harleys, and routine collision repair. I haven’t painted a vehicle in over 5 years, but to this day someone will occasionally try to get me to do it for them. That eye for detail, knowing when a body line is straight, making sure everything looks just right when the customer picks it up, all transferred to my custom harmonicas.
A good technician understands many different systems and how they all work together. You learn how to closely observe everything when you take it apart, and make mental notes. You learn to apply what you see to a thought process of figuring things out, whether it’s why something failed…. or why something works really well. I’ve figured out much of what matters, and what doesn’t, when it comes to harmonicas. In the future, I plan to write some articles here to educate others about the stuff that matters. It’s easier said than done though, so please be patient as I figure out the best way to do it.
Maysville, MO 64469