As you know I've been using a Hohner Special 20 for about a year now (since I started learning to play the harmonica at age 52).
At times I've struggled with my progress, much of which has come from my impatience (and frustration) learning to play single notes. I've watched dozens of videos (dozens of times each) and read in books over and over and over trying to find a consistency to my single note playing. At times I'll think I've finally got it nailed down and then it seems to go as fast as it arrived!
This is not a skill I've spent a couple days on and then given up...it's been an ongoing process over the last year!
Recently I purchased an $11 Fender Blues Deluxe C harp just to leave in my car so I'd have a harp handy at all times. I really never intended to play it much - just a harp to have in my car if the urge to play hit me and I didn't have my Special 20 around.
This morning I picked it up just to see how well it played and found that I was able to find single notes with it MUCH easier than with my Special 20! I mean it was like I had all of a sudden found the secret to playing single notes. You can't imagine my excitement!
I thought I'd found the magic formula to playing single notes so I picked up my Special 20 and found I still have the same difficulties I had before. Picked the Fender back up and there were the single notes again.
So I decided to compare the two side by side to see what differences there may be between the two physically - because at first glance they look pretty darn close to being twins.
In looking at the two: the Fender is a little taller overall, the Fender is a bit longer, the holes are slightly shorter on the Fender, the holes on the Fender look more square (since they seem to be about the same width as the ones on the S20, just shorter), the tines seem to be identical in width, the ten holes (together) take up what looks to be 1/16 of an inch more width on the Fender than the ten holes on the S20 (so basically no difference there).
As far as playing, the Special 20 definitely has a sweeter sound, is a higher quality harp, has less air leakage (especially at the upper end), and also takes less effort/air to play.
But I can't get over the fact that I've struggled with single notes for so long and they seem to come easily (comparatively speaking of course) with this $11 Fender harp.
Since getting the single notes on the Fender is relatively easy, it makes me want to reach for it instead of the Special 20 when I'm going to be playing single note melodies. Which bothers me because the sound isn't near as sweet, the quality isn't there, and it isn't as easy to play (other than finding the single notes).
If I could pinpoint why it's so much easier to find single notes on the Fender, then I'd search for higher quality harps that offer the same characteristics so I could have a great sounding harp that's easier to play single notes on.
Any idea why single notes would be so much easier with the Fender compared to the S20? Does the slightly taller profile and square (ever so slightly wider) holes make a difference?
Are there certain characteristics or physical attributes of a harmonica that make playing singles notes easier on it?
Thank you very much for your input!
Last Edited by BCubed on Jun 18, 2020 1:30 PM
I can’t think of any reason that would be the case. Even when switching between harps that are obviously different sizes it’s usually only a matter of a few minutes to recalibrate. If your jumping over holes maybe it can mess you up for a little while longer but it’s something you get used to.
So I cannot explain or even really understand what might be going on there but it’s your experience so you get to work with what you’ve got happening
I wonder what you’re doing to practice playing single notes. Any specific exercises or more just trying to play tunes?
Most of the time that I'm still struggling to get a clear single note sound, it's because some air is escaping into a neighboring hole leaving a less than desirable sound coming from the harp.
I've tried pursing - some have shown practically whistling into the harp but I don't want to bring my lips that far off the harp.
I've even dabbled at tongue blocking but that's an "advanced" method so I went back to the pursing.
My best success has come from "lip block/semi pucker" way...in which you basically keep the top lip the same and pucker the bottom lip with the harp angled down a bit.
To practice, other than watching videos to see how it's done: I try to play single notes a lot, I work on scales, I work on simple songs.
Gerry...that could possibly be it - maybe it draws my mouth open more therefore there is a more narrow shape (of my mouth) over the holes?
Air is definitely escaping into the adjacent hole on the Special 20.
As I mentioned above I have the most success with the semi-pucker which tends to leave a good amount of harp in the mouth, but you could be correct...comparing the two it does seem like I feel the need to bring the Special 20 out more than I do with the Fender.
I was thinking maybe the hole shape/spacing could be the reason the Fender is easier to single out notes, but you could be on to something with the height of the harp!
When I was doing a quick look last night I found the Seydel Session Steel interesting because many people said the holes on it are larger and further apart. Maybe I should have been paying attention to the tallness of the harps as well! (but I don't think most websites give that info)
Also in reference to the Seydel, in my other thread I know you mentioned that, "Seydel coverplates are completely sealed, just like the SP20. However they are slightly taller at the mouthpiece. This has the effect of feeling "fatter" in the mouth." So maybe a Seydel Blues Session Steel could be a harp that gives the ease of playing single notes. Of course I'm sure there are other "taller" harps too.
Some info from Hohner said: "The Rocket is from the same series (Progressive) as the Special 20, but these are designed for an easier blowing, bigger holes, and more space on top of the cover plates, to allow the sound to be more projected."
Again, thank you both for your input and your honesty!!! Both are greatly appreciated!
Last Edited by BCubed on Jun 19, 2020 11:55 AM
Yes, makes sense it points to an embouchure issue. Good news is that it’s obviously very close. I’d take the view long term it’s better to develop the embouchure to be adaptable to variations in harp models rather than seek out harps which somehow fit a default embouchure.
But mainly if you found something that works, that’s great. It’ll help to keep the thing in your mouth, which is the most important factor in learning to play. Down the track you might find the type of harp doesn’t make such a difference to you.
That said, I definitely found the Session and the Suzuki Promaster more suited to that very tilted, bottom lip approach. Perhaps what I really mean about that is that those particular harps (no doubt there are others; for instance I think the kongsheng bluebird might be similar to promaster) are quite square/up & down/bluff on the mouthpiece which makes them a bit of a mouthful played square-on. I play with my tongue on the comb a lot and not much tilt. For me, those types are not very comfortable but I can play them. If you look at a Marine Band you’ll see it’s fairly rounded and you can tilt through maybe 75-90 degrees should you want and present basically the same shape to the lips. I have had this thought about the Sessions and Promasters before; that they seem almost designed to be played with that heavy tilt into the bottom lip. Makes sense as I believe that’s a popular approach.
Yes, I seem very close with the Special 20 but the Fender made everything I've been working on over the last year seem so easy! The Fender definitely isn't a harp I'll be using a ton, but at least it has shown me that getting a consistent clean single notes isn't as impossible as I've been believing it was...and also give me the motivation to work even harder on my harp skills!
Thanks for that input on the Session and the Promaster. I see that the Session Steel costs around $55 so it isn't as bad as I thought. After reading the Hohner info about the Rocket that makes me interested in it as well. Since most of what I've been working with has been given for use with a C harp, I may end up getting another C, especially if it's easier to play single notes compared to the Special 20.
I hope having the harp angled down is just a temporary thing. My plan is to gradually pull the harp down, more into the standard position so there isn't so much movement going from chords to single notes.
Great explanation of what makes a harp suitable for being played in that position...makes a lot of sense!
I believe you are correct...hopefully down the road the harp shape won't make such a difference to me. Right now it's all about getting the belief (and confidence) that I can play single notes consistently.
Can't wait to get my Marine Band (today or tomorrow) and see how it compares both the Special 20 and the Fender.
Again, truly appreciate your advice, help, input, and patience!
Well, for some reason my Marine Band has been delayed...was supposed to get it on the 20th, now it looks like it will be the 27th or later, who knows!
It has given me some extra time to read up on "making singles notes easier to play for a newbie." From what I've read, it has to do with the height of the harp, but it also has to do with hole spacing (not the size of the holes like I first thought).
From what I can find, larger holes really don't make playing single notes easier if the holes are close together (thin tines). With wider spacing between the holes (thick tines), the single notes are easier to find because you don't have to be quite as exact with your mouth placement or how narrow the opening of your mouth is.
It seems like the Seydel Session Steel harps have the widest spacing of the holes...not sure if the other Seydel models have the same spacing or not.
I know you (SuperBee) said the ProMaster from Suzuki may have that same wide holes configuration.
The Hohner Rocket has larger holes than my Special 20 but I'm not sure they are spaced any further apart.
As always, thanks for your patience and your incredibly helpful advice!
Last Edited by BCubed on Jun 23, 2020 11:12 AM
The Rocket holes probably actually feel like they’re closer together because the openings are chamfered. I measured all these with a calliper once, but I don’t remember all the details. I will have a look later; I have examples of all those you’ve mentioned But what I know is that the Rocket/Sp20 reeds are spaced 7.5 mm apart, centre to centre. Seydel 1847/Session reeds are 8mm c-c. So it’s a 0.5mm difference.
You could use this by having a larger chamber or a wider tine separating the chambers. I don’t know which way Seydel have gone. Later.
I don’t believe I’ve ever measured a Promaster. I don’t recall mentioning they had wider placed holes. I think I said they have a square profile which makes them more comfortable if you tilt. Or less comfortable if you don’t tilt is how I think about it, since that is my experience.
I suspect the holes/chambers of a Rocket are same size as a Sp20 but they have tapered the entrance to each chamber so they might feel closer together. Andrew Zajac showed me a hybrid custom he built of a Rocket with Sp20 comb. I was confused by that but he told me that ‘people’ disliked the Rocket comb, and I believe that was about this issue of the tines. I’ve never felt that way about the Rocket comb. It is different than a Sp20 for sure but I wouldn’t even think of discarding the comb to replace with a Sp20 comb. Btw that prototype AZ handed me to try was up there with the best I’ve ever played.
Have you tried playing octave jumps along the harp? Exercises like that can really help I think, but it might take a while. Try doing something like that every day. Doesn’t have to be a big deal. Might seem like it doesn’t have much to do with playing but it’s all about familiarity. Just grab the harp and play 1 blow then 4 blow then 7 blow then 10 blow then come back down the same way. Try jumping from 1 to 7, 4 to 10.
You could use any notes but with the octaves it’s pretty easy to hear when you get it wrong/right. You could us any octaves though. 2 5 8, 3 6 9. Or draw 1 4 8, 3 7, 5 9, 6 10.
Things like that are good. Simple exercises which actually build skills so you can learn but it’s not an intellectual exercise.
Sorry SuperBee...you are correct - you were referring to the ease of playing with a tilted harp. My apologies!
Thanks for the measurement comparison between the Special 20 and the Rocket...knowing that they are the same center to center lets me know the Rocket probably wouldn't be any easier for me to play single notes on.
Great to know about the Session Steel - I may have to try one of those to see if it makes a difference or if it's all in my head (or it might be both).
Thanks for the octave jump exercises...and the explanation of what you meant by each...your explanation was definitely needed!! I'll definitely be trying that tomorrow during my practice time!
I think it's a matter of me finding a harp that gives me the confidence starting out with it to play single notes and then sticking with it.
You don't happen to know the distance (center to center) of a Lee Oskar do you?
Only asking because it, the Rocket, the Session Steel, and possibly a Suzuki are the ones I'm considering.
btw: do any Hohners have wide spacing between the holes or are all Hohners pretty much the same in that regard?
LO are the same as Sp20. I have a tuning table I sometimes use to tune blow side reedplates and I use the same slot template for LO as Sp20. Marine Bands are the same in that regard. I think all the Hohners are very similar in that way. The Seydel is the odd one out. I don’t know about the Asian harps though.
My session has holes which are 0.165” wide The separation between chambers is 0.150”
The tunes are slightly narrower than that at the opening as they are tapered
The Rocket holes are around 0.173” wide The separation is 0.122”
So that’s a difference of 0.028” (28 thousandths of an inch)
Promaster Chamber dimensions and separation is basically same as Rocket. Up to 4 thou less separation. Mine are very old and I can’t swear that Suzuki haven’t changed anything since. I think they have copped some criticism about these combs in the past and may have done work to improve thm but I doubt they would change dimensions
4 thou is quite a small slice and I really doubt you’d notice. All these measurements are so small I doubt there’s any reason you can’t calibrate your embouchure to accomodate. It’s just a matter of time and consistent regular frequent practice. If you can do it with one type it’s really inevitable you’ll get there with the others. I’ve been working on this about 25 years now, but I haven’t always been diligent or focused or consistent.
Thank you so much for the information... especially the measurements!!!
Still going to be at least another 5 days before I get to try the Marine Band...made it to my town and then got rerouted to a town 5 hours away...I think it's a cursed harmonica. LOL
A buddy of mine let me try his Lee Oskar. After some sanitation of it, I tried it. It seemed easier to get single notes than with the Special 20, but there is a massive leak on the five and six holes (which is really weird), especially if I try to tilt the harp at all. Maybe he damaged it some way but it looks brand new...but so much leaking of air.
Thanks for the honesty about being able to get single notes with any of them...it's just a matter of finding the right emboucher position. I emailed a place that sells all types of harps and they also said the Seydels are really the only company that is drastically different from the other companies as far as spacing of holes.
Again, greatly appreciate all your advice, patience, and honesty...such a tremendous help!!!
I feel a bit sad about the measurements. I’m using a dial calliper I inherited from my father. I really must get my own, with Metric calibration. I know the majority of members here are USA based, so I suppose fractions of an inch are ok, but I still feel apologetic about it.
BCubed, sorry to read about the slow package. I hope the Marine Band helps you develop your single note technique.
For now the slight differences in design can make a difference but it's a bit like learning to ride a bike. Once you have a single note embouchure wired you will wonder why it seemed so awkward. You will be able to jump from any make and model without a problem.
Honestly, after a year of working on single notes I don't blame you for switching harps. If you liked the Lee Osker (except for the wierd leak) get one. I've never found them to be defective.
The Session may also work better for you. They are noticeably bigger. The Session brass and Session steel are identical in size. You may want to try the less expensive brass version. They just don't hold up well to rough playing.
I'm not so sure about embracing the Fender. It may be working for you because a tiny amount of air accidently flowing into a neighboring hole may not be enough to activate the lower responsive reeds of a Fender like it would with the higher responsive reeds of your Special 20. Other high quality harmonica may cause you the same single note grief.
With that in mind you may want to abandon the pucker and switch to tongue blocking. You may find tongue blocking better suits your physiology. A lot of players never master the pucker.
Practice nothing but tongue blocking single notes for 30 minutes every day for 2 or 3 weeks. You may find more progress with tongue blocking than you are getting from the pucker.
Keep in mind that I don't know your current level of single note playing. Maybe you are being too hard on yourself. Even after a year don't expect every note to be perfectly clean. But if you can't get through a simple melody without bunch of double reeds going off I recommend switching to tongue blocking. Especially if you aspire to play blues harmonica, where some degree of tongue blocking skill is essential anyway.
I don't totally agree with tongue blocking being "advanced". TB may be harder to learn for some folks and more difficult for players to convert to after puckering for years. But, yes using the tongue block for slaps and splits... is more advanced than puckering single notes.
Another embouchure that works well for some folks is the U style tongue block. Not everyone can do it so it's not real popular. You have to be able to roll each side of your tongue upward. This forms a U or V which blocks the right and left holes while directing flow to the center hole. Some advanced techniques can only be executed using the U block. Try it for a few minutes but if your tongue doesn't work like that move on.
Finally received my Marine Band (A) today and absolutely love the sound of it...I'm not sure if it's the harp or the key but it definitely has a more "bluesy" sound to it than any other harp I've ever tried. It's almost as if it has a tiny growl coming out of it (especially on the low end) and it takes absolutely no air to make this thing sing!!! I will say the wooden comb may take some getting used to, but it isn't quite as rough on the mouth as I was expecting! I really hate that I'm sitting here typing this when I could me making beautiful music with it right now! :)
As far as single notes...it easier than the Special 20 - the holes are smaller but the tines are wider which makes finding a single note easier for me.
I got a Seydel Blues Session Steel (C) and it sounds fantastic as well...no growling, but a sweet sound just the same. The single notes are so easy on it compared to the Special 20...so I believe I'm going to be sticking with it as my C harp for a good while. I understand that it's an embouchure issue and I'd do well to work on that until I'm playing singles notes on all of the harps (regardless of hole/tine size), but I believe the Session Steel will at least get me through this stagnant feeling I've had with my practicing for a while!
I'll definitely look into the tongue blocking to see if my mind set would work better using it than the pucker (or semi-pucker) way.
Now that I'm able to get singles notes with the Session Steel, my Fender harp will be staying in the car in case I'm out and feel the need to get some playing in (but don't have my MB or SSS with me).
So, is that sweet bluesy sound from the Marine Band the harmonica, the key, the wooden comb, or what? LOL
I'm just amazed at how incredible it sounds as well as how little air it takes to get that sound out of it!!!
As always, thank you for all the help and advice!
Last Edited by BCubed on Jun 27, 2020 11:04 AM
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