Keep that Slider Slidin’- Part 3
Chromatic for Diatonic Players
By Winslow Yerxa
Last time I showed you cross-tuned and straight-tuned chromatics, where to find the reeds for each note on each type, along with some cleaning tips.
This time, I’m going to look at slide springs.
When you depress the slide on a chromatic harmonica, and then release the pressure, the slide springs back to its original position. This is nice, as it saves you the work of manually shuttling the thing in and out. But it’s also kind of expected. After all, when you press on your car’s gas pedal or brake, you don’t expect that you’ll have to pry them back up again—they just spring back. The same is true of the keys of a piano or the pads on a flute or saxophone—they spring back when you release them.
But springs can be a pain for several reasons…
Too Strong? Too Weak—or Just Right?
Springs can be too strong and they can be too weak. I don’t think that you can order the kind of spring you want from the factory. Rather, I think manufacturers have a range of wire thicknesses they consider acceptable, and within that range you can get a spring that’s too strong, too weak, or just right.
If the spring is too strong, it resists finger pressure and requires an extra effort to depress the slide. This can result in delayed response that causes you to play wrong notes or notes that arrive too late, and can also cause muscle fatigue and cramps in your index finger (hey, don’t laugh; every muscle has its limits!).
If the spring is too weak, it may fail to return the slide all the way, or will do it sluggishly and with a delay, even when the whole assembly is clean and otherwise well-adjusted.
Working or Broken?
Springs can also break, leaving you to do the work of pulling the slide out after you press it in. For awhile, I tried playing without a spring (yeah, I was too lazy to replace a broken spring). After awhile I got used to it and kind of liked it. Dutch jazz harmonica player Wim Dijkgraaf took this concept a step further. Instead of the slide button and a spring, he had a finger ring installed on his slide so that he could easily wiggle it in and out, and has played springless this way for several years.
Good helper or Bad Neighbor?
Springs can make creaking noises every time they move, and even worse, the constant pressure from a slide spring can actually damage the comb of your harmonica.
Even with all the negatives, most of us prefer to have our slides spring back when we release finger pressure. But if your slide isn’t responding the way you’d like and you suspect that the spring’s not working well, you might want to know a bit more about what you can do.
Anatomy of a Wire
Most chromatics use spring made of wire, with a small coil of two or three loops that extend into two arms that point outward in a V shape. The spring is usually contained in a hole on the right end of the comb, with the loops wound around a spring post that keeps the spring in place. The spring post may be integrated into the comb if the comb is formed in a mould, or may be a separate piece inserted in a hole drilled through the comb.
One of the arms of the spring extends past the face of the comb and is inserted in a tiny hole in the slide. This is the part that makes the slide spring back. The other arm of the spring stays inside the hole, and presses against one of the walls of the hole. In the picture below you can see the spring mounted in the comb of a Suzuki SCX-56. Note that the spring is coiled around the plastic post, which is part of the comb. Also note the bend in the long arm of the spring.
The one modern chromatic that doesn’t use a V-coil is the Hohner CX-12, which has a cylindrical coil similar to the spring you’d find inside a ball point pen. This spring attaches to the slide button instead of the slider, and presses against the comb, where the base of the spring fits over a small protuberance that keeps it aligned with the slide button. This is pictured below.
The earliest chromatics had outside springs—springs mounted on the outside of the harmonica, made of a ribbon of brass screwed to the right end of the comb, then curved around and hooked behind the slide button. Known as the outside spring, this spring was easy to disconnect and never wore out. Some old-timers, such as Stan Harper, prefer the outside spring, and some customizers, such as Michael Easton, offer it as an upgrade. Below are pictures of an early Chromonica provided by Michael Easton (www.harmonicarepair.com).
Getting at the Spring
The inside spring made harmonicas look less geeky, and all manufacturers made it a standard since about 1930. To get at the spring, the design of most chromatics requires that you remove both the mouthpiece/slide assembly and the reedplates. Of course, to get at the reedplates you must also remove the covers, so you have to in fact completely disassemble the harmonica just to get at that pesky little spring!
One exception is the most archaic design, the Hohner 270—you need to remove the covers and the mouthpiece, but not the nailed-in-place reedplates (whew!). You can poke the spring post out through the holes drilled in the reedplates, releasing the spring for removal through the circular hole in the front of the comb—once you remove the mouthpiece and slide assembly.
The picture below shows the wooden comb of a Hohner 270 Deluxe. The spring lives inside the cylindrical hole drilled in the face of the comb. You can see the hole in the top of the comb for insertion of the metal spring post, which can be inserted or removed without removing the reedplates. Note that the 270 Deluxe is drilled to allow mounting the slide spring on the left side so that players can operate the slide with the left hand if desired.
Another exception is the Seydel Saxony, which uses one of the reedplate screws to double as a spring post—remove that screw and you can remove the spring without unscrewing the reedplates. This is pictured below.
The easiest spring to access is on the CX-12. Just unhook the slide button from the shell, pull it out, and the spring comes out with the slider. But this spring is also one of the least troublesome, so that easy access is kind of pointless.
Dealing with Problems
Noise and Excessive Resistance
If the slide spring creaks when you press the slide in, you can open the coils by running a knife blade between the coils at the base of the spring to slightly separate them. This procedure can also help make a spring less resistant to finger pressure. You can also use a small amount of lubricant to make the spring less creaky (and possibly help keep the spring from rusting).
A spring can damage the harmonica comb in two ways: causing cracks in the walls of the spring chamber from excessive pressure, and breaking the spring post if it’s part of the comb.
You can help prevent cracks by relieving some of the pressure by subtly re-bending the arms of the spring. This procedure is best explained in Douglas Tate’s excellent book Make Your Harmonica Work Better (Centerstream Publishing, ISBN 1574240625). If cracks do occur, you may be able to repair them by gluing the crack or by reinforcing the walls with epoxy or even sheet brass.
A broken-off slide post on a plastic body can be replaced by installing a bolt or screw. This can be a finicky operation, first to drill a hole without further damaging the comb, and then to install a bolt of appropriate size and adjust it and the spring well.
As a last resort, you can order a new comb from the major manufacturers such as Hohner, Seydel, and Suzuki, or from such customizers as Chris Reynolds
Replacing a Broken or Missing Spring
If the slide spring breaks, or flies away to parts unknown as you attempt to remove it (a good reason to wear safety glasses, by the way, as the spring could fly into your eye) you can buy a new one from the manufacturer, but you can also make your own from a safety pin.
Safety pins are usually chrome plated, making them less susceptible to rust. The #2 size safety pin is about the right size and resistance. You need to cut off the head assembly and the sharp pin end with wire cutters. Make sure not to cut off too little or much.
- The short arm of the spring should not extend past the front face of the comb.
- The long end of the spring must be long enough to poke through its hole in the slide, but not so long that it rubs against the slide cage or mouthpiece.
After you cut the ends of the spring, file them to get rid of any sharp edges. Remember to open the coils, and, if you’re so inclined, perform some of Doug Tate’s subtle arm modifications.
For once, I’m going to let the ringing in of the New Year set the winds in motion to suggest a subject. So watch this space…