How to Fix a Harmonica
Just about everyone that I've talked to really enjoyed Ken Hall's article on "Hard-Core Harmonica.” However, once you take Ken's advice and really start to wail, sooner or later you'll "blow out" your first harp, one hole won't work anymore on either blow or draw, or a note will go flat. This, of course, is part of the dues you pay for soulful playing, but — when it happens — don't throw the broken harmonica away, recondition and recycle it instead!
Jim McLaughlin, a good friend of mine, recently showed me just how to fix a harmonic. It seems that Jim picked up his technique from Chamber Hwang (who happens to be head of research for the M. Hohner Company) and — as you'd expect — Hwang's harmonic repair methods really work.
McLaughlin claims that 9 times out of ten a "broken" reed is actually just full of grunge (it can happen no matter how careful you've been), or simply in need of being bent further out from the reed plate (if it's a blow note) or further in (in the case of a draw note). And, even if your harp has actually gone out of tune, you can fix it if your ear is good enough to tell you when it's right again.
Here are Jim's harmonica repair techniques:
- First, remove the appropriate cover plate (the top if you need to fix a blow note, or the bottom if a draw note is out of kilter) from your harmonic. Some harp covers are held in place with small screws. If this is the case with your instrument, just remove the fasteners and lift the plate free. Covers (like the Marine Band's) that are secured with nails can sometimes be pulled off by hand but will usually have to be pried free (don't bend the cover!) with a knife blade or small screwdriver.
- Once the "lid" is removed, check the "bad" reed for gunk or corrosion. You can clean these deposits from the inside of your harp with a toothpick or small screwdriver, but be careful not to scratch the reeds. While you're at it, you might notice — if you hold your instrument up to the light — small scratches on the reeds that look like they were put there on purpose. If so, don't worry about them, because the factory tunes notes that are sharp by making a light scratch across the reed (near the point where It is connected to the reed plate). This "modification" makes the thin metal vibrate more slowly. To raise a flat note, on the other hand, the Hohner folks file just a very little material off of the end of the reed.
If you try this trick, be sure to shove a piece of index card — or some other stiff paper — under the end of the reed to raise it up and to protect other parts that don't need filing (Jim suggests that you use a knife file for this delicate work)!
Sometimes a reed can be bent too close to the reed plate, and this can cause the note to hesitate or not come at all. To correct the problem, just bend the reed lightly away from the plate If it's a blow note, or a bit in if it's a draw note. The harp will still play with the cover off, so you can try it out if you're careful not to get your lips or mustache in the way of the reeds.
- To put the cover back on, just replace the nails or screws that you removed. Jim warns that the nails will sometimes become too loose to keep the piece in place. When this happens, he uses tape to hold his harp together (Other alternatives would be small screws, thumbtacks, rubber bands, or small metal stove bolts).
Of course, it's possible that a reed in your harmonica is actually broken. If so, hang on to the instrument anyway. The reed can be replaced, or you can save the good reeds to "fix" broken ones in another harp. The reeds can be easily pried from the rivet that holds them, and replacements are just slipped over the rivet and tapped gently in place with a hammer.
Right now (August, 1978), I'm getting together a list of upcoming national folk music and bluegrass festivals to run in the March/April issue. It promises to be a goodie, so stay tuned, folks.