Friday, March 5, 2010

Are Custom Harps Worth the Money?

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.


Paul "Kingley" Routledge said...

I agree with you Rick.

Here's the thing. Yes, custom harps are great, but as you rightly say they won't make you a better player despite some of the claims of certain customisers. They will also blow out in most cases sooner than off the shelf harps when played by the breath force used by the average player. Due to them being so touch sensitive.

Of course as you rightly state for a gigging pro like Jason Ricci, Kim Wilson, etc. Custom harps make a lot of sense.

The single best solution in my opinion is to learn to work on your own harps. This is not hard to do and will guarantee you a good harp that responds exactly how you want it to.

Even if you only learn how to gap your harps, then you'll be amazed at the difference it makes. Gapping correctly is the biggest single difference you can make to any harmonicas playability.

You can learn to emboss them (you don't need to remove the reedplates to do this).
Opening coverplates is easy to do as well.

If you play wooden combed harps you can either in the case of a Marine Band 1896 drill them out and use screws to reassemble them, or use harps like the Marine Band Deluxe/Crossover or Manji.

Sanding combs flat is also easy to do. Sealing the comb of the unsealed Marine Band 1896 is also easy to do.

All of these things can be easily learnt from YouTube videos, Richard Sleighs book or the videos of Rupert Oysler.

All it takes is a little time and some practice. Admittedly your harp wont play as well as some of the top customisers harps. It will however play better than any out of the box harp you will ever find. That's why I advocate learning how to work on your own harps.

Rick Davis said...

Good points, Paul.

I want to make perfectly clear that this article is NOT an attack on custom harp or on customizers. Custom harmonicas I own are Ferraris all the way; beautiful high-performance instruments that are a joy to play.

Ev630 said...

There should be a compromise available. A harp that doesn't have all the trimmings but is just a solidly built harp that has been gapped and tuned properly, at a lower price point than a custom and just a bit over a stock harp due to the extra effort.

Fortunately there is: the Marine Band Deluxe.

Peter said...

About 8 years ago, I bought a set of custom harps from R.Sleigh, A,C,D,Eb,G. The G and A are double plated. I think the 5 cost 350$. I almost wet my pants when I got them, And cried when I played them. They played nothing like my special 20 and I found that they were not good for me to play a gigs. Why? I was afraid I'd blow them out and ruin them. I like playing them acoustically, in the comfort of my home. I found building my own harps with MB reeds and a lavoie comb was a better alternative. But I have actually gravitated back to Special 20's. They work for me. To each their own.

scott said...

I'll take a different stand here. I don't buy custom harps but have in the past. I do play all Marine bands and re work them all when new. I round off and seal the combs, drill and tap the plates for screws, open the backs, tune and gap, replace reeds when needed, etc. They definitely play MUCH better than stock harps and have made me a much better player. They also last forever (basically).

I used to replace harps on a 2 to 3 month turn around. That's not true anymore. My take on this is that an airtight, responsive harp will make you play softer and allow you to be more precise. I rarely blow harps because the pressure to play them and the effort to manipulate the reeds has been reduced tremendously. The last time I bought a new harp was probably 2 or 3 years ago. O have had some blowouts though. In that time I've probably repaired 5 or 6 harps. Just this past week I had a bitched F harp and had to replace a reed. I stole one from a bad C harp that fit the bill and all in all if was about 20 minutes before it was gig worthy again.

If you play wood combed harps I would suggest at the minimum to seal them and add screws. That alone will make a huge difference and it's fairly easy to do.

If I end up playing a stock harp these days it just seems like so much work and frustration. Just my .02.


Garry said...

i agree that you should learn how to work on your own harps. you don't have to be an expert; just doing the basic gapping/arcing thing can work wonders. in this context, though, it may be worth owning at least one custom harp, because it'll give you an idea of what you're shooting for when you work on your own.

David said...

Just happened upon this discussion ,Rick. Everyone makes salient points. One thing I'd mention from my own experience is that if you tune reeds using a polishing wheel (or extremely fine sandpaper) you remove stress risers that occur from traditional file tuning and thus actually can increase the life of the reed. I think very high end custom harps polish out all milling marks for that very reason.