Harps old and new

Harmonicas are getting crazy-expensive. The typical ones used by musicians like me now run about $35 a pop, or $420 for a whole set of keys, which is a lot for instruments that break and go out of tune all of the time. That’s more than double the price I was paying just a couple of years ago, and every time I put a Hohner Special 20 in my hand — my preferred harmonica for the last 20 years — I’m wondering what it is that makes this thing so expensive.

So recently, I’ve tried a model from Seydel. With stainless steel reeds, it is supposed to last much longer than other harps and hopefully will save me money in the long term. In addition, because my local outlet was out of a Special 20 in the key I wanted, I recently tried a Hohner Marine Band for the first time in many many years.

For the uninitiated, a Marine Band is basically the classic 10-hole harmonica, used by pretty much all of the old greats. I rejected it long ago because they were harder to play than the Special 20 — with their cheap pear wood combs and nail construction (instead of screws), the Marine Bands have a tendency to leak air. And when the combs get a little wet, they swell outside of the harmonica and do an excellent job of chewing up your lips and ripping out mustache hairs.

The leakiness issue was a big problem for me, back when I blew on my harmonicas as hard as I could. I dropped that method a long time ago, as I learned to control my embrouchure — but not before I switched to the Special 20s. So, trying the Marine Band again, with my better breath control, was almost like trying it for the first time.

The Marine Band I bought was in Bb and has a beautiful, thick tone. The open-sided covers really do seem to make a difference on this front — something I noticed when using some no-longer-available Hering harmonicas a few years ago. I immediately loved it. The Bb harp will get less use than some keys, so hopefully I’ll get some good use out of this before the combs swell up and I experience the usual Marine Band problems.

The Seydel was extremely well-built, with a sealed maple comb, and I am very happy with the tone. It’s not quite as thick as the Marine Band’s tone but it’s certainly on a par, at least, with the Special 20. The reeds do seem a little stiff, and the holes are farther apart from each other than in Special 20s, meaning I have to adjust my playing a little bit. Only time will tell if its durability claims are true.

Previously: The emergence | Hokum home

Randy

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