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Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Adjusting & Servicing your harps
Adjusting & Servicing your harps
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2227 posts
Jan 27, 2021
3:03 PM
I recollect that I posted about this topic quite a while back, and recent threads have prompted me to post this again.

I am not a harp tech or harp customizer, and have never set a goal to become one. I lack the patience (and dexterity) to build those skills to the necessary level of expertise to master harp surgery.

However, I believe that learning basic adjustments to make a harp work better is an important skill for a serious player to develop.

As a beginner decades ago I learned that not all harps play well OOTB. I learned to make adjustments to improve them, at first using a bent paper clip to adjust gaps.

Back then I abused harps with too much breath force and sometimes made reeds go flat. Rather than trash a harp and buy a new one because of one reed I learned to make my harps last longer by re-tuning flat reeds. Eventually I bought tools and learned to replace a reed with reeds borrowed from other defunct harps. I have not done this often, but have a few good harps saved this way, one being a Hering chromatic.

Learning to disassemble and clean it if needed, to gap, to clear an obstruction, to align a reed that has shifted, and eventually to learn to adjust tuning on individual out-of-tune reeds are all useful skills.

Re-tuning an entire harp as techs do is a bit more challenging than referring to a harp specific tuning chart and correcting one or two reeds that are out of tune. Getting octaves back to in-tune is an important skill.

I own some custom harps I really like. I don't improve my OOTB harps to that level, but I can significantly improve my harps by adjustments to reeds to fit my playing. I try to set up the 6, 5, and 4 overblows, though 6 is the one I most use. I adjust gaps to get reeds to sound more easily but not choke with my attack. Learning these skills takes time and repeated practice, but you can learn to fix much of what is not right with your harp. It is not rocket science.

There is a lot of talk of playing OOTB harps. Unless I take a new harp out of the box and all the reeds play like butter (which can happen on rare occasions) I expect to disassemble any new harp, reset the reed plates on the comb, and adjust reed gapping for better response to my playing style.

I think it is important for a serious player to learn basic maintenance and repair. If you have money to burn or can play at a level that earns you lots of gig money, then you can have a tech do everything for you. Otherwise, some DIY is prudent.

In more recent years I found it useful to buy a couple well adjusted custom harps from a tech so I could compare them to my harps as I continued to learn to adjust them. I don't emboss or do extreme reed work, I just go for the very significant improvements you can achieve through simple adjustments.

If you are a serious overbend player intent on playing chromatically in all keys, you will need a really well adjusted customized harp set up for OB. Most players will be satisfied with a lesser level of customization.

Having at least one professionally customized harp while building your playing and tech skills is important as it sets a bar for what is possible.

Anyway, those are my opinions.

Doug S.
67 posts
Jan 27, 2021
3:29 PM
Hey Dougharps, thanks for the very excellent info. I think Adam Gussow has a video out showing exactly what you are talking about. I usually play the new harp a bit first to see if I got lucky but I think opening up the harp upon arrival to check gaps and such is time well spent. Also having a harmonica that works properly helps you learn songs & riffs much faster.
6886 posts
Jan 27, 2021
7:39 PM
That video of AG's, if it's the one I'm thinking of, is a funny old thing. Gussow 0.16 I think it is. It's good in that he shows a fearless willingness to open up the harp and sort it out.
Closing the draw side gaps using a toothpick is OK, but opening them with a paper sling, while it works, it really gives me anxiety. Use a tool that gives you some feedback.

I can't be too critical, because it did encourage me to open up my harps and start learning to adjust them. As such I think it really changed my path. But, had it not been that video it was bound to be another. The Andrew Zajac videos are decent and many are free. The Richard Sleigh videos are not free but they are good.
If you're on bluesharmonica dot con, there are some useful harp repair and maintenance videos there too
10338 posts
Jan 27, 2021
8:19 PM
I use that paper sling method all the time, both for opening gaps and for fixing alignment, but I just work on my own harps.

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First Post- May 8, 2009
6887 posts
Jan 28, 2021
12:24 AM
Nate, i used it too, back in the day, and if you are in a tight spot it will do the job no question. But i can't go back. it kinda does an ok job of supporting the reed but if you need to apply any counterpressure to improve the shape its not happening.
802 posts
Jan 28, 2021
7:29 AM
+1 for Andrew Zajac's blog and videos.

Andrew's blog has A LOT of information if you are willing to go through it. It has some of the best visual aids I've come across to illustrate things like reed shaping. Also great tidbits such as if a reed passes through the slot free-end first it's not going to play well.

Harmonica optimization is a rabbit hole. It's certainly satisfying when you can significantly improve the response of a reed pair, but the more you know, the more you realize is/could be wrong and it can become an obsession.

Personally, if I can hit,sustain, and bend overblows on 4/5/6, plus have really strong 2 and 3 draw/bends I'm happy. Most of the time I get too lazy to deal with the upper end, but it's nice to get both bends on hole 10.
Ridge's YouTube
88 posts
Jan 28, 2021
8:31 AM
My dad is a retired dentist and when we were going through his dental tools I took a few and realized they are perfect harmonica tools. Strong, sharp, and meant for tiny spaces. It's worth asking your dentist if there are any old tools around that you can snag.

Some of the scrapers and files make life easy.
656 posts
Jan 28, 2021
10:25 AM
Any and all posts about "maintenance" are very helpful.

When I first started buying harps they were about $10 -$20 As best I can recall?? Im old forgive me.

Now if u want all 12 keys etc its an investment$$$$

They are too expensive not to know a little maintenance. U can be a complete beginner player and it will still help.

Minimum that I feel everyone should learn
1] how to take apart in an area, u don't loose parts
2] Cleaning
3] Tuning
4] gapping
Minimal tools required at this point

Iv'e had people give me harps that simply had hair from mustache stuck in reed- yes I sterilized

When u buy a car its good idea to know how to do ;oil change,plugs, maybe shocks, fuses, ETC--

Main pt ; harps are too expensive to replace simply because 1 reed is flat or stuck

Ps Im jonesin to play out again-My soul is rotting

Last Edited by snowman on Jan 28, 2021 10:29 AM
657 posts
Jan 28, 2021
10:33 AM
Many people disagree but I think its a good idea to buy a few super cheap harps to practice on---that way if if bend a reed FROM RUSHING----DON'T RUSH---its no big deal---helps to get a feel for it

Dont expect these cheapos to play that great---STRICTLY FOR PRACTICE

U CAN GET AN ENTIRE SET FOR $30 OR SO ---again strictly for practice

Last Edited by snowman on Jan 28, 2021 10:34 AM
2955 posts
Jan 28, 2021
3:30 PM
I actually bought a set of MBs (in that blue zipper case) for $100 to practice on.
Then I gave them (as a birthday present) to the wife of a picking buddy, and she loved 'em!
6889 posts
Jan 28, 2021
11:57 PM
After I replaced my first reed I was fairly keen to practice the skills. At first I was stoked that id made the harp work again, but after a little while I realised that reed was not quite the same as the others, so I looked into why that was and how to fix it.
I put it a call for broken harps. I was sure there must be thousands nearby. People were always complaining about breaking their harps.
I offered to pay for them.
I didn't get many takers, but I got some and that was enough. A dozen special20s, As, Ds, and Cs. I had a good time mending those and still play some of them. I sent three good ones back to the donor.

It was very liberating and helped me become a better player too.
1528 posts
Jan 29, 2021
6:45 AM
I agree with everything dougharps and SuperBee have said. It used to be that information about how to fix or maintain your harps was not readily available. But now with YouTube and FaceBook and a bunch of other websites, there is just no reason not to know how to do some basic stuff to your harps to make them play better.

Tom Halchak
Blue Moon Harmonicas
Blue Moon Harmonicas
John M G
415 posts
Jan 29, 2021
5:59 PM
I agree 100% with Dougharps advice, but I was way too many years finding out what and how to do things to my harps.
I've have some of Richard Sleigh's tools bought from RockinRon's plus a variety of other tools I've bought or others I've made.
The advice to buy a custom harmonica is going to save you a LOT of time, once you have got some basic playing skill sets going.
It took me a number of years until I bought my first custom harp and then realize the differences.
I couldn't do without my customized Blue Moon harps these days! But I've shamelessly started copying what I see, hope you don't mind Tom!?
2959 posts
Jan 29, 2021
7:36 PM
I bought a Stage I Spiers harp and tried to reverse engineer it--nice try, Gnarly guy.
Every good player needs to do stuff, but some people are really good at customizing, and they deserve your support.
2231 posts
Jan 30, 2021
7:53 AM
Learning overblows in 2008 I found that overbending required less breath force and that my harps were all set up wrong with wide gaps. Until then for three decades I had used far too much breath force when playing, wearing out harps too quickly despite the wide gaps.

Around that time Deak Harp lived near me in Central Illinois and was in the early stages of his customizing business. When he offered me a sale price on a couple of his harps I bought a couple with gig money, even though it was beyond what my music business could afford or I really needed. I felt it was a good investment for my playing and I enjoyed supporting his business.

The Deak harps were not set up for OB, but they still worked better for OB than any of my other harps. They required far less air to respond during regular playing. With use I learned to want more efficient harps, but I could not afford all custom harps. Learning to OB changed my entire playing approach even though I seldom find a need to OB in the music I play. It changed how I set up all my harps.

Years later, buying a Spiers Stage 2+ key of C MBD at SPAH put the icing on the cake so far as ease of play on a harp. I messed around with the 7 overdraw (the +), but didn't pursue mastering it.

Playing the Spiers 2+ at a gig after playing my self-adjusted harps is like using a race car for neighborhood grocery shopping. I have occasionally picked it up after playing one of my own adjusted harps and I find I need to dial back my breath force even more than usual when playing it.

If a full set of custom harps from Joe Spiers were consistent with my music budget, that would be fantastic! I would love to have a full set of Spiers Stage 2 harps. However, my playing style does not require much overbending other than the occasional 6 OB, and my self-adjusted harps do the job for me in my style at far lower cost, even though they are still less efficient than the Spiers or the Deak Harp customs.

Learning to OB a little and then buying the Deak harps and then later the Spiers 2+ harp brought about major changes in my attack and breath force while playing as well as changing my set up of my other harmonicas. I may only play one or two 6OBs in a 3 hour gig, but my lower gapped set up on harps makes for improved response and enables me to play better than ever before.

I used to just fix things when I found a problem. Now I adjust gaps and set them up to have harps better respond to my playing. Learning basic adjustments can improve your harps and your playing even if they are not really "custom harps".

Doug S.

Last Edited by dougharps on Jan 30, 2021 7:59 AM
1529 posts
Jan 31, 2021
10:58 AM
John M G - I don't mind at all. I guess I should be flattered. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I will tell you that a lot of the stuff that we customizers do is pretty basic and most people can learn to do it themselves. Perhaps the distinction between a "pro" and an "enthusisast" is numbers. We have worked on thousands of reed plates so we are less likely to make a mistake and we have figured out how to be efficient. One thing that I do not like to do is to have to do a job twice or three times, so you figure out how to do it right the first time and move on. If you are working on your own harps, you can take as long as you want but if you are in the business, time is money, so efficiency is a big key. And with regard to troubleshooting, it is likely that we have dealt with problems far more times than the average guy who might be mystified and is trying to figure it out for the first time.
Tom Halchak
Blue Moon Harmonicas
Blue Moon Harmonicas

Last Edited by florida-trader on Jan 31, 2021 11:15 AM

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