Harmonica Workbench: Passion On The Bench
by Kinya Pollard
Over the years, I have been approached by numerous harmonica players who have confessed their love for tinkering. Many of you spend more time on the workbench than on the bandstand—sound familiar?
Motivated by the economic downturn or simply a desire to monetize their hobby, a few of you out there officially set up shop and began marketing your harmonica centric business.
As a business owner for over 30 years, I am always intrigued and delighted when I find an enterprise that has crossed over the notoriously difficult five year hurdle. Statically, 50% of all new businesses fail in the first year, and 95% fail in their fifth year. There are numerous well-documented causes for a company’s demise, a lack of funds being at the top of the list.
This is why I found the Hetrick Harmonica Company www.harpcase.com story compelling. Five years ago, Scott Hetrick initially introduced his custom-built harmonica case to Matthew Smart, who found this case, “the most amazing harp case I had every seen.” Configured in black and silver with a system of interlocking Lexan plexi-glass dividers, this tool case was designed to vertically stand the harmonicas. This system allowed up to 42 various harp models and bullet mics to be held in a small tool case (84 Marine Band harps placed opposite each other in one slot). To acknowledge and honor Scott’s creation, it was overwhelming decided to place a metal plaque on top of the case bearing the ‘Hetrick’ logo.
Passion fueled their stamina as they worked tirelessly to fulfill orders. Both men continue to hold down full time “day jobs;” therefore, were able to plow profits from Hetrick Harmonica Company sales into raw materials and equipment. Essentially, this company operates debt free and manages its growth accordingly.
As the Hetrick Harmonica Company matured the founders refined and formed a strategic business plan, “we cannot just be a harp case company, we need to do everything harmonica.” The company slogan became, “Custom, Cutting Edge Harmonica Gear made by Harmonica Players,” and ushered in the next undertaking of new combs.
Through trial and error they found the best woods and materials for both their collection of combs, fitting more than twenty different harmonica models, and customized harmonicas. Each comb material has its own color, tone and performance. Understanding that sound and tone is subjective, Hetrick tries to provide as many options and choices as possible to fulfill the individual needs and requirements of their customers.
Taking it to the Bench
Swapping out stock harmonica combs with high quality custom combs are the easiest way to personalize your out-of-the-box harmonicas and boost performance. Most players notice a new confidence in their playing as a result of the air tight fit between the mating surfaces of their reed plates and new comb.
Harmonicas are essentially mass produced hand built instruments, requiring machines to produce the combs, reeds, reed plates, and cover plates. Employees perform functions, such as attaching reeds, profile (gap) the reeds, tune the reeds and assemble the finished product by hand. There a numerous opportunities for sloppy manufacturing and workmanship to slip into the harmonica that gets shipped to customers. Many out-of-the-box harmonicas have distorted combs and reed plates as a result.
“Readers don’t be too hard on the manufacture. All things considered, being able to own hand built instruments for relatively low prices is nothing short of astounding. My buddy just paid $6,000 for his Selmer saxophone!”
The deficiencies I am referring to are difficult to see, but are noticeable when you begin to play. Your breath will bleed through the unwanted crevices. Not only will your tone suffer, but you will be too pooped to pop! Have you ever attempted to blow up a beach ball that had a hole in it?
Non-swelling attributes aside, the primary advantage of a custom harmonica comb is the flatness of the comb’s mating surfaces. Each custom comb builder obsesses with the finishing processes to achieve near perfection +-0.001” deviation. As a reference, human hair is about 0.0071” in diameter. Simply stated, the flatter the comb and tighter the seal between the comb and reed plates, the better your harmonica will perform. The rest will be up to you.
So Many Choices…
Available in an endless array of colors, the most popular “composite” comb is machined from DymondWood. Sometimes referred to by the generic name of COMPREG, DymondWood® is a highly engineered wood/plastic composite that has the physical and mechanical properties of high-density hardwood, acrylic, polycarbonate plastics and brass.
Hetrick Harmonica Company offers a variant of the Hohner “bamboo” comb. Hohner originally pioneered the use of this material for harmonica combs with their patented construction technology specifically designed to increase bulk density, maximize surface hardness, and improve comb stability. As a laminate, bamboo is harder than pearwood but lighter than water. By forming the comb with thin strips of superimposed and triple laminated layers of bamboo, bulk density and surface hardness were increased. This materially enhances sound volume and eliminates shrinking and swelling. The laminated surface also provides a perfect seal between the reed plates and comb.
CORIAN (a Harpsmith favorite)
Popularized and perfected by Randy Sandoval of Genesis Harmonicas, Hetrick Harmonica Company also offers “Corian” combs. Corian, patented by DuPont, can be found as counter tops in millions of bathrooms and kitchens worldwide. Corian is durable, easy to machine and clean. The pallet of colors and finishes are endless.
The topic of the “best” comb materials can be the stuff of many spirited conversations (and fist fights ;o). After testing numerous combs over the years, my assessment is still consistent with the results of the Mel Bay’s Harmonica Sessions, “Comb Over” series, and the 2010 SPAH comb test (results available at http://www.brendan-power.com).
In general, due to the nature of most custom comb’s attention to detail, the superior fit between the mating surfaces of the reed plates and comb, will improve the playability of almost any stock harmonica. The comb provides a more visceral experience for the player, and will not be noticeable to most listeners. In other words, comb enhancements will benefit you—the player—more than your audience.
Having said that, if you endeavor to push the capabilities of your harmonica a little farther, my HARPSMITH to-do list, in order of priorities:
- Modify reed plates—size reed slots and profile (gap) reeds
- Replace combs
- Swap vented cover plates (e.g. Marine Band) with non-vented cover plates (e.g. Special 20), or vise-versa.
This is a good segue for me to remind everyone of Rick Epping’s (formerly of Hohner USA) advice, “To build an excellent playing harmonica is to do a lot of little things well.”
Matthew and Scott of Hetrick Harmonica Company wanted all Harmonica Session readers to know that they are always looking for innovative ideas and products; producing and offering quality harp tools, key label kits, free videos, and many other products for Harp players. This is their passion, “We want to come up with the most innovative and creative products that will help harmonica players play better. That’s all.”
To purchase products from Hetrick Harmonica Company contact: http://www.harpcase.com or call: (404)826-3241
“Play the notes people want to hear” © 2008
Musician & Harp-Tech
Harmonica Masterclass Workshop Instructor
Mel Bay’s Harmonica Sessions Columnist
www.bluesharmonica.com Harp-Tech Expert