Today was momentous in the harp sphere of my world for a couple reasons:
I finished a repair/tuning job which has been hanging in for too long. I have some difficulty with workspace from a couple of circumstances, and now that I’ve had to bring my day job home, things have been very cluttered, with scarce “quiet time” opportunities to do tuning. It was a pretty big job and steel reeds so I was finding it started to become an oppressive situation, so I had to prioritize and was such a relief to finish today. That’s it for me and repairs to diatonic harps for a while. I don’t have space and I need to spend time on other things (which will also involve using the small space I have available).
So at lunchtime I was feeling quite happy about that, and then mid-afternoon I received a parcel which Tom ‘Blue Moon Harmonicas’ Halchak had posted 83 days ago.
I’ve had some ups and downs about this, thinking it was lost and trying to track it etc, and back about a month ago it suddenly appeared on a scan after being off the radar for about 7 weeks. I’d almost been ready to give up on it and Tom was getting prepared to send another, when it reappeared. The bad news was that when it showed up it was still in Miami, so right at the start of the journey and as it turns out, it was another 3 weeks before there was any change in status, when it was pinged in Sydney (90 minutes flight from my town). So another week and here it is! I’ve had plenty of time to anticipate.
The box contains 3 prewar Marine Bands which Tom has restored and slightly modified. They have original, restored, combs and covers. Some of the covers may have been replated. The tips of the tines have been lacquered. I think it’s cool that a fellow who runs what is basically a custom comb business is also supplying me these prewar harps with restored original wooden combs.
Tom has drilled the combs and reed plates to go together with bolts. He’s used some nice looking knurled hex-head bolts for the covers.
The harps still look quite original but they’ve been mildly pimped I guess. Still some patina, but they feel good to play, you can feel like playing them is not gonna be a drag.
And they are good to play.
There are 3; C G and F I particularly wanted a C and an F. C is quite common and G is apparently the next most common. Other keys are harder to find but I decided an F would be cool. I have a bit of a thing for F harps which may partly be the challenge and partly the possibility.
Anyway, great! One of the reasons I was keen to get some prewar harps was to check out ‘what’s the deal with prewars’.
There aren’t that many in Australia it seems. Prior to WW2, the Marine Band was all about the USA. As was Hohner. Tom told me that 95% of Hohner production was headed to USA. In Australia I see some old tremolos and chromatic harps from Hohner but 10 hole diatonics are rare. Sometimes I see old Seydel stuff which was marketed here under a couple of different names but the thing about Marine Band is that it’s a known quantity and repairable with new parts, for over 100 years. Of course there’s mystique and the legend of harps from the good old days and how much better they were and how poorly the new ones compare.
Apparently it’s the brass.
I’ll admit, I was a bit sceptical. I’ve seen comments from some very knowledgeable people who have worked with many prewar harps as well as modern produce, to the effect that the modern products are the best they have ever been, at least as good as prewar and probably better. Some of them even said the brass didn’t really make a difference. Then every so often one of the respected experts will say something which challenges that by extolling the virtues of the wonderful harps of prewar Germany.
I requested that Tom not interfere too much with these because I really wanted a sense of how the harp would have performed in the day.
So what I have are fairly comparable to the harps I usually play. They’ve been treated for comfort and maintenance issues, obvious flaws have been addressed, they’ve been tuned, but they haven’t been materially altered by embossing or changing comb material or adjusting for easy overblows. The tuning is period-correct.
After playing them each, I decided to spend some time with the G harp.
After a while playing 1st position blues I decided to find how it stacked up against my other G harps. I had the sense that it was quite good but I wanted to get a clear idea.
I gathered a bunch of G harps: 1.) A Spiers stage 2, corian comb, thunderbird covers 2.) A stock crossover which I probably did some basic gap adjustment to, maybe 6 years ago 3.) Marine Band 1896 which had the swollen original comb replaced with Corian, and then tuned, work done by Mark Prados. 4.) Hicksville-era Marine Band 1896, stock but mildly restored and adjusted by me 5.) Prewar MB1896, restored by Tom Halchak.
The Spiers harp is a lovely thing, very slick to play, very responsive, great dynamic range, great control possibilities. In terms of playability it’s definitely got an edge on this group. The Crossover though. Considering the difference in price it’s a remarkably good harp. I think Spiers is one of the great builders and for me to even consider a basically stock Crossover to be close possibly just shows I don’t play well enough to appreciate the difference. I am sure that’s a factor, but the Crossover is getting a lot of the basics right at least.
The Prados Marine Band was probably 3rd on the list. I’ve always loved the sound of this harp and I think it’s just that it’s the mellow marine band tuning and not embossed. The harp isn’t all that old, 2008 manufacture I think, so post the big refit that was marked by release of the marine band 2005 aka the Deluxe, and a huge lift in standard of MB product at Hohner.
Realistically, the Harp from Tom is in that same category. I think the Prados MB might feel a tiny bit nicer to play but there’s really nothing in it. To my ears they both sound nicer, smoother, mellower than the 2 better-playing harps.
The difference in playability isn’t something which would be holding back a player like me, unless you consider that playing the Spiers harp allowed me to develop my low end 1st position play and now I can use that skill set on some other slightly less cooperative harps.
Did I think the prewar was noticeably different, smoother bending, anything? No, I really didn’t. It was good though Oh, I forgot the Hicksville era MB This is from sometime between 1960 and 1982. Probably closer to 82 than 60. They are generally considered worthy of restoration. Some are very good harps, but by the later 70s things were getting sloppy. The plant had been churning out marine bands for a long time by 1980 and it was wearing out.
This harp of mine was not great by any stretch. I pulled it apart, set gaps, adjusted reeds, sanded the comb, and tuned it but it needs a lot more attention and I really just wanted it to stand in as a proxy for the first harp I ever had.
Anyway, it’s playable but not in the same league as the other 4
So, I think the prewar harp definitely shows up as a much better harp than the 70s product and so by extension it was clearly a vastly better product than the 80s and 90s harps. I’ve had late 90s/early 2000s harps which were much better than that 70s/80s/early 90s stuff, but the post 2005 stuff is a major improvement and based on this single example I’d say the prewar harp is in the league of post 2005 product.
And the Crossover is post 2009 in fact it’s model number is 2009, and mine at least, a virtually stock product, yes I’d say superior in playability to the prewar. Of course, that prewar is pushing 90 years old so it may have been punchier when new.
That is something else people have observed about the prewar harps; that they are a bit quieter than current product. I believe I noticed that in all 3.
Anyway, there it is. I have some old harps, I like them and I feel I understand a bit more about the history of Marine Band harps and what they may have really been like, in the day.
Last Edited by SuperBee on Jun 16, 2020 6:59 AM
Nice write up. Wow I have never heard of an 83 day delivery! Congrats on the karma that was no doubt a result of completing the repair work. I know Tom's stuff is worth waiting for but dang.
At some point I heard about Richard's Marine Band Field Spotters Guide. I promptly found it and printed a copy to carry around the antique shops. Fortunately there are a lot of these shops in our area and old harmonicas are fairly common. I still keep my eyes peeled for MB's in decent condition with the star or in a Hicksville box. I also buy mouse ears in pretty much any condition. Most of what I get are well worth restoring but occasionally I end up with a parts donor.
I cant add much to the assessment of play quality. I honestly don't play the mouse ears much. I agree that some of the oldies don't produce volume. The brass plates are clearly softer. I learned that the hard way when trying to pry them from the comb. I've since learned to pull the nails. It seems the reeds from these softer reed plates also file/scratch easier than newer reeds. That's my impression anyway. I like playing the mellow sounding oldies in the slow blues style. They seem to bend well but then I always try to play them with some extra control and respect.
I guess the softer brass may be less of a factor than the narrow openings of some old covers. But_ I have a set of chopped 1-7 Marine Bands using original wood combs and Big Six covers. This set is made up of a variety of vintage MB's that were not good candidates for restoration. These all have pear wood combs and the same Seydel covers. They've also had the same level of internal work. But they do not play or sound the same. At lease not to me, the player. The differences a subtle. I don't know if I could hear it as a listener. But I'm totally convinced that Marine Bands from different eras do play and sound differently and it's not all due to changes in cover designs. I don't think the difference is due to wear because I shy away from evidence of high mileage. I find a lot of old harmonicas that look like they were rarely played (if ever).
I've never purposely bought a 70's MB but I have seen reeds that were aligned short and off center... so I may have bought a 70's MB in a Hicksville box...
New and old MB's may sound slightly different but IMO they play equally well if you do some work on them. Some of my favorite harmonicas started out as lemons new OTB. On the other hand I have found old harmonicas that played really nice with practically no adjustments.
It's curious to me how different harmonicas sound when I am the player but I cant imagine identifying a harmonica as merely a listener. Anyway, I like old Marine Band harmonicas. I like how they play and sound. I'm sure its largely psychological but that's important too.
Superbee congrats on your classic harp collection. I know that there are a ton of old harmonicas in the world but I like knowing we have some of them and that they are being used and well cared for.
Now that I’ve finished up that big diatonic job, I just have a 270 Deluxe restoration to complete for a local player, and then I can turn to a couple of jobs for myself. “Couple” is a euphemism. I have 6 chromatic harps to work on. Each one will be an adventure. I’ve been doing a few jobs on 270s and retaining the nailed construction. I think I won’t do that on my personal builds.
Regards sounds of various harps;
A while since I’ve read it and I should have reviewed before posting but I remember it as containing a hypothesis I hadn’t encountered before.
I hope that 270 is in decent shape. I have worked on just enough chromatics to appreciate the complexity. One day I lucked into a pre war Super Chromonica that was essentially like new. The inner wax paper was not even wrinkled. It must have been stored well because the valves even work. I've kept that one original. To me it sounds the same as my modern 270. Unfortunately I cant play either one at a decent level.
I have a couple of vintage Koch harmonicas that are slide diatonic types. I've swapped some reeds and set one up with an alternate tuning that I've used for a few years. They sound fine but I just don't enjoy playing them enough.
Thanks for posting Andrew's link. I haven't seen that before. It seems obvious to me that workers would naturally tend to over shoot the gaps. Why take the risk of a reed that chokes verses one that just requires more breath? At least the breathy reed is playable. A lot of folks put up with breathy reeds but would certainly return a harp that chokes. I'm sure the workers are capable of setting up really nice reeds but not at the speed that I've seen. 100 years ago there was also a different work ethic.
Good luck with your work. Sorry to hear about the loss of shop space. I don't know if it would help but I sometimes use a folding lap tray, the type for having lunch in the easy-chair. It has a small lip to keep parts and tools from rolling off. The lap height works well with my magnifiers. The tray folds flat and can slide under a couch while taking a break. The tray is compact enough for storing in a very small suitcase along with a Dremel type drill press, sandpaper, and a small clamp-on vise... Clear plastic fishing lure boxes work well for harmonicas, parts and small tools like: Drill bits, taps, screwdrivers, files, wood sealant and my Harp Planes.
Sorry, fitting a shop into a small suitcase is going off topic.
Hey David - that was quite a good write up. Being a cyclist yourself, you’ll appreciate when I say that IMO prewar harps are a lot like vintage Colnago bicycles. You really appreciate the craftsmanship and heritage, and enjoy riding it on a lazy Sunday, but you sure wouldn’t ride it regularly or race it. The modern ones may not look as great, but they are superior in almost every way. I still miss my early 2000s Colnago CT1 - titanium frame and Colnago record. I rode that damned thing all over Southeast England. Old school. But not nearly as light & fast as a new one.
I’m sure glad you’ve added those prewar to your kit bag though! Adios.
Last Edited by Sundancer on Jun 20, 2020 11:55 AM
Sweet bike! I like the analogy, especially the bit about heritage and riding on a lazy Sunday. You hit the nail on the head there.
I'd also compare the oldies to a split bamboo fly rod. Even though bamboo requires more care and coaxing there is something special about using a 100 year old rod. It's inspiring to use the same tool as Zane Grey, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway (or the same harmonica as the blues pioneers). Old harmonicas and vintage bamboo rods make sweet music in my mind. Because of that I could argue that they are actually superior to the modern counterparts. I honestly don't feel that way at all. I just consider them an important part of my collection. I do rate my pre war Marine Bands above the modern out of the box MBs that I've purchased. I'm talking about pre wars that I have flat sanded, sealed and converted to screws...
I really like the bike analogy because now I'm jonesing for a ride. My first bike was a Stingray but I don't have a nostalgic desire to hop on one of those. I'd like to have that CT1 though. I'd ride it for sure, especially if I had a chance to tour England with it!
Italian and other European frames are nice no question, but the last frame I had was the first one on which I felt I’d found my grail. I actually remember the moment when it occurred to me this is really as good as it can get for me.
I’m sure if I was a cyclist of greater ability there would be a weapon better suited but for me this seemed truly ideal.
A fairly modest unit: Giant TCR Advanced from 2009 issue I think. Rabobank team livery which that year was all white. Full carbon fibre. I can’t remember all the specs but I know it had those big head bearings and a massive section down tube. The thing was so stable descending and the comfort level was managed without detracting from responsiveness. I had 10 speed (ie 20 speed) ultegra/dura-Ace (mixed) group and several custom wheelsets I used with it. I sold it to my nephew when I realized my racing days were over. I really didn’t want to let it go but the rate these things depreciate it needed to go while still worth something. It surprised me to find how good a mass produced modern frame can be. I avoided giant products for a long time for no good reason, just because I was snobby, but this one really woke me up to myself.
ha ha and oh dear. i just discovered my F is actually an E. on the one hand i suppose it doesn't really matter, but on the other hand its the F i was most excited about. I'll sort it out but still a bit shaky from the epic delivery time. I understand that was exceptionally slow but it felt like a return to the days of sail. Never mind. its a nice E