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Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > In tune or out of tune?
In tune or out of tune?
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159 posts
Feb 12, 2024
6:55 AM
Have you ever experienced this - I notice that a reed is out of tune while playing octaves. So I make a note to retune it. Later, when I have the time and place to retune it, it isn't out of tune.

I suspect that the reed seemed to be out of tune while playing because water has collected on the reed from my breathing. This weighs down the reed and it sounds at a lower pitch. It dries up eventually and the reed goes back to its original pitch.

Does that make sense? Any other possibilities?
3706 posts
Feb 12, 2024
8:14 AM
It's something that frequently happens if you're playing too hard because to go along with the excessive breath force involved, you're also building up a huge amount of excessive saliva and dead skin. When this buildup happens, if you don't clean it out on occasion, it will alter the pitch once it dries and if it dries on the free end of the reed, the reed will go flat, but if it's on the riveted end of the reed, it will go sharp.

Much of the time, retuning often isn't necessary and cleaning it up makes more sense but if you start to train yourself to use a helluva less breath force when you're playing and avoid getting into macho stupidity at a jam session, and trying to play harder to hear yourself over a loud band (which is dumb because you have ZERO chance of overcoming that at all), this really shouldn't be happening.

Another thing to remember is while you're playing, when you're playing with your embouchure, that alone, if you're not careful, can alter the pitch but on the other hand, having your embouchure very rigidly in place is one of the all time dumbest things to do.

Basically, it's another case where slobbering all over your harps because of playing too hard makes you your own worst enemy.
Barbeque Bob Maglinte
Boston, MA
CD available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbmaglinte
3147 posts
Feb 12, 2024
9:19 PM
I tune a lot of harmonicas, and find that condensation can affect pitch.
So that might be it.
Or what Bob said.
3 posts
Feb 13, 2024
7:45 AM
Interesting. I've really been noticing tuning this time around (I had to stop playing harp for several years, during which time my ear greatly improved via the playing of other instruments.)

Now I'm noticing how many players are out of tune, and how totally inconsistent the tuning is on harps in general. My younger, less developed ear didn't pick up on this stuff back in the day.

Also, in terms of volume, I've noticed actually that many harps seem set up to play HARD - that playing forcefully tends to sound more in tune. However, I'm making a concerted effort to be more relaxed while playing and generally play with less effort and less volume, which interestingly, seems to result in more flatness on the draw notes, particularly 4 draw.

One thing that's awesome is that all the harps I've tried lately PLAY amazing (been kinda running through all these new brands that have popped up). So far tried a Bushman, an East Top and a Manji and while the tuning is all over the place, the quality in terms of playability is SO vastly superior from when I started as a kid in the late 80s, it's almost like they're completely different instruments.

10434 posts
Feb 13, 2024
11:23 AM
Bandini, most harmonicas should be pretty in tune... but quite frequently, they aren't in Equal Temperament, so individual notes will seem out of tune, but that's to get the chords to sound smooth.

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First Post- May 8, 2009
7099 posts
Feb 13, 2024
12:37 PM
Condensation is a big deal when tuning harps, as is breath force. In my experience, breath force seems to affect the longer reeds more and condensation has a more pronounced effect on the shorter reeds, but both things affect all reeds to some extent.
I keep a hair dryer to hand when tuning reeds on the comb, especially in the cooler months.

I agree with what Bob said too. I’ve had harps on the bench which appeared badly out of tune but were much closer to in tune after cleaning.
3707 posts
Feb 14, 2024
8:05 AM
@bandini -- As what nacoran posted, many harps are purposely NOT tuned to equal temperament so that chords can sound smoother and play more percussively than with equal temperament, and the temperaments from harp maker to harp maker vary, with some purposely closer to some version of just intonation and some closer to equal temperament.

The majority of players have a tendency to play their instruments far too hard and the so called "out of tune" feeling because of that gets heavily exacerbated 100 times over and that's also a reason why no harmonica is EVER tuned to true A440 because, in actual real playing breath, any harp tuned to true A440, it would often wind a helluva flatter in pitch, often times when played ridiculously hard, the playing pitch is A437 or flatter than that in extreme cases.

Equal temperament ina diatonic harp, when you play chords and play them hard, the beating/wavering of the chord sounds incredibly harsh and dissident, but the players who use harps tuned that way who don't sound very harsh (tho nowhere near as smooth as a chord tuned to just intonation or a compromise tuning tuned close to it), they all have one thing in common, and that they all play VERY SOFTLY in terms of breath force. In fact, regardless of the temperament of the harmonicas being played, the overwhelming majority of the best players, regardless of genre, play very softly, and you'll notice that they also have far fewer feedback problems when they're playing amplified as well.

I know for a fact that Hohner gaps their harps higher because they know for a PROVEN FACT that the majority of people who play them always play too hard and by gapping them that way, it prevents them from getting badly blown out super quick.

Tuning is all over the place is too much of blanket statement because it's pretty obvious that you're completely unaware of the various tuning and temperament schemes that are being employed.
Barbeque Bob Maglinte
Boston, MA
CD available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbmaglinte
4 posts
Feb 14, 2024
8:45 AM
"Tuning is all over the place is too much of blanket statement because it's pretty obvious that you're completely unaware of the various tuning and temperament schemes that are being employed."

Thanks y'all! I appreciate the attempt - however cluttered with assumptions - to educate me.:) However, I am indeed aware of the different tuning schemes that are employed.

It seems to my ear that even among harps that are considered "ET" or "JT" there is considerable variation. I particularly notice this with regard to octaves. I have one current harp by one of the smaller manufacturers that plays absolutely wonderfully but has such a glaringly out of tune 1/4 blow octave that it's almost unusable.

Another harp with the same tuning scheme has a great-sounding 1-4 octave but some other minor tuning issues in other areas.

Of course my experience with harps has always been that like with any instrument, eventually you learn to compensate for the idiosyncrasies of each harp. When I was playing regularly I could pick up almost any harp and make it sound good, and most pros seem to be able to do the same.

Anyway, I'm reading this thread with interest and appreciate the various input. Thanks y'all!
429 posts
Feb 15, 2024
8:39 AM
"Tuning is all over the place is too much of blanket statement because it's pretty obvious that you're completely unaware of the various tuning and temperament schemes that are being employed."

yeah that was pretty condescending towards you.
Fortunately not every one is like that.

Good luck with all.
212 posts
Feb 16, 2024
9:52 AM
When I note some reeds starting to go flat, I get out my mini power screwdriver and my ultrasonic cleaner, tear 'em down and do a thorough cleaning. I have a tendency to build up mouth scum quite readily which is apparent in the comb holes and the lips of the cover plates. So far, that has been the greatest help, especially when it causes a reed to stick in the slot and completely choke the note. It's been a long time since I've had to replace any reed plates simply by regular cleaning and, of course, not playing to hard.
2108 posts
Feb 22, 2024
5:32 PM
Most of the time when I have a reed go out of tune, it will fail shortly, whether I tune it or not. That is because the reed is going out of tune due to fatigue. A few years back I posted some micrographs of failed reeds along with an analysis of fatigue failure vs breath force. Form both the analysis and direct experience I found one can take a reed to the point of fatigue failure in just a few hours playing if one blows too hard.

Since I have learned to play with much less breath force, I just don't have harps go out of tune.

I took some lessons on trumpet last year and I learned that the low breath force works there as well. When you don't blow (or suck) hard, you learn to use resonance to get volume. As a result you have better tone and your harps last longer. You can also hold a note for much longer when you need to. I was surprised to see that this principle works for lip reed as well as metal reed instruments.

Last Edited by STME58 on Feb 22, 2024 5:33 PM

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