It is a fact that custom harmonicas – harps that have been built or heavily modified by skilled customizers – do indeed play better than any off-the shelf harp. They play beautifully, with a balance of action in all holes and great sensitivity. That also cost a LOT more than standard harps: $200 for a full custom vs. about $30 for a standard. Is the extra money warranted?
Customizers do various things to a harp: Embossing the reed slots and upgrading the comb makes the harp much more airtight and responsive. Gapping the reeds allows for better action and easier overblows. Opening the back makes the harp louder, and smoothing the corners of the harp make it more comfortable to play. They also tune the reeds to perfect pitch. What results is a fine instrument that is clearly superior to an out-of-the-box harmonica.
But, the question remains: It is worth the money? A good analogy, I think, would be a $200,000 Ferrari vs a car that costs $30,000.
Do custom harps make you a better player? No. No matter what gear you use (be it harp, mic, pedals, amp, etc) you are going to sound like you. People who are familiar with your playing will still recognize it no matter how much you spend on gear. I think the custom harp will be fun for you to play (they certainly are for me) but they don’t really change how you play.
Do custom harps last longer? Only if the player babies them. If you normally blow out a harp in 4 months, you will blow out your expensive customs at the same rate. If a harp normally lasts you for years, so will the custom harp. There is nothing about the customizing process that I’m aware of that makes the reed more durable. Some players – me included – tend to not reach for the custom harp because of the expensive risk. Under those conditions, customs last a LONG time!
In fact, custom harps may be less durable in the hands of a typical player. Tuning the reed weakens it. Tighter tolerances allow for easier bends, but also make it easier to bend too far, damaging the reeds. After blowing a reed in your expensive custom harp you feel compelled to send it back to the customizer for repair, adding even more to the cost of your harp.
So, is all this worth the money? Think of the analogy… Is a Ferrari that costs $200K worth the money? It may be, to those who buy them. A Ferrari is a wonderful performance automobile whose limits and capabilities are far beyond most of the people who own them. But having that potential is satisfying to the owner. I think the same is true for many buyers of custom harps.
For working pro harp guys, custom harps can make sense. For the rest of us, I’m not so sure. There are several good choices in premium harps that cost a little more than the standard $30 models, such as the Hohner MB Deluxe and Crossover. The customizers will insist these premium harps are not as refined as their products, and they are right. But it is inarguable that premium harps are MUCH better than standard harps, and may well provide all the advantages needed by – and which can be exploited by – the typical harp player.
Expensive high performance custom harmonicas are similar to a Ferrari. I suspect many Ferrari buyers are interested mainly in impressing themselves and others, not in improving their driving. Custom harps seem to have taken on that same panache. But, it’s still you behind the wheel.