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Harmonica Workbench: Sure, you heard of Volvo…

7 December 2010 16,823 views 2 Comments

with Kinya Pollard

Q: What do Volvo and Dick Sjoeberg of Master Harp have in common? 

A: Both call Sweden their home, and both are known for uncompromising quality and innovation.

In the Beginning

Late 2007, while visiting the Harpsmith workshop, Jason Ricci enthusiastically spoke about the unbelievable craftsmanship of the combs he had received from harmonica builder, Dick Sjoeberg of Master Harp www.masterharp.com. If only Jason had the comb to show me!

October of 2008, I had the pleasure of meeting two of Dick Sjoeberg’s students: Magnus and Krister at Steve Baker’s Harmonica Masterclass in Trossingen, Germany. As luck would have it, I was able to examine a freshly minted Sjoeberg Golden Melody comb that they were hand delivering to Carlos del Junco. Indeed the craftsmanship of the comb was museum quality, but most intriguing to me were the never before seen channels cut into the comb tines. Who is this guy Dick Sjoeberg and what is the source of his creative madness.

Biography

To appreciate and understand Dick’s innovative engineering prowess with harmonicas, one has to set their time machine back to 1962. This was when Dick first learned the harmonica at 14 years old. At 15 years, he became a Seaman and rose through the ranks to become Chief Engineer. Dick said the one thing he could rely on, without fail for those 26 years, was his best friend—the harmonica. Of course it was small enough to carry anywhere, and with plenty time to practice, Dick became a skillful harmonica player. Dick received his B.S. in Marine Engineering, Certified Master Of the Art Metal, and tool making.

The Master Harp Workshop is located in beautiful Malmo, Sweden.

A common curse of “tinkering” harmonica players (yes, guilty as charged ;o) is that we have a tendency to ponder the mechanics of the instrument, more than we play them. This was a bittersweet reality for Dick. Three years ago he suffered a stroke curtailing his harmonica playing, but not his passion for tinkering with all things harmonica.

Comb Innovation

Comparing the sound his tuning fork made—before and after—it made contact with his workshop table, Dick began contemplating the phenomena of frequency and resonance transference. In fact, Dick challenged himself with a question, “Why can’t these principles apply to the harmonica as well”? After numerous prototypes, Dick was able to successfully answer his own question by building the ultimate Golden Melody harmonica comb. Good news for GM fans who suffered for years with easy-to-crack acrylic combs (especially on the back corners) on their favorite Golden Melody harmonicas. Since 2005, Dick has built and shipped 200 GM combs worldwide. Marine Band Deluxe combs will be available in 2011.

Don’t let the exquisite workmanship distract your attention from the “silver tubes” (think tuning fork) embedded into the comb’s screw holes. Also notice the unique channels (shapes vary between blow and draw sides) that were milled into each comb slot. These “compression ridges,” as Dick calls them, were designed to expand the cubic volume of each slot and create more space for resonance to occur. Expectantly, Dick wishes both the player and listener alike to enjoy the benefits of his innovation.

Also notice the metal inlaid to support the cover plate posts.

There are three distinct channel lengths: the longest in holes 1~3, followed by medium length in holes 4,5,6,7 and the shortest are found in holes 8,9,10. Admire the precision milling in these close-up shots of the DuPont Corian “Night Sky”:

A close-up view of the mouthpiece reveals funnel shaped holes milled into each opening. Dick explained these were purposefully designed to mimic the “Venturi Effect”—infusing airflow into the slot. This was designed to enable the player to play their harmonica with less air pressure.

First Impressions

The fit and finish were extraordinary, every comb I received from Dick were all works of art, which raises the question, “should I hang them on the wall, or play them?” Mating surfaces were precision flat and polished for an airtight union between the reed plates and comb. Dick Sjoeberg set the benchmark for customized harmonica combs. Every custom harmonica comb maker should endeavor to reach this level of craftsmanship.

A variety of comb materials are available from Dick:

Category | Laminated Tone Woods | Honduran Mahogany/Maple (My favorite)

Category | Dymondwood Composite | Chestnut

Category | Dymondwood Composite | Black Silver

Category | Dymondwood Composite | Cherry

 

Category | DuPont Corian | Night Sky

Not shown: Dymondwood Composite: Birch, Cherry, , Black-Silver, Cocobolo colors, and Tone Woods/Rio Jacaranda

Many readers by now are probably thinking, “Alright, so they look good, but will the Sjoeberg combs contribute to my sonic bliss, or are they ‘all bark with no bounce’?”

The Set Up

As recommended in previously featured, Harmonica Sessions “Comb Over” series, it is beneficial to select a set of reed plates that you are already familiar with. This way any changes to your harmonica playing experience, and listener, can be isolated to the new comb.

I chose to use an assessment rating system similar to the recent 2010 SPAH Comb Test conducted by Brendan Power and Vern Smith:

1 = Not Appealing

2 = Moderately Appealing

3 = Average (similar to stock harmonica)

4 = Quite Appealing

5 = Very Appealing

I listened to multiple sonic characteristics for this testing:

  • Bright/Dull Bright refers to the presence of overtones. Its opposite Dull refers to the absence of overtones.
  • Thick/Thin Thick refers to the body of the tone. Other commonly used words for this quality are solid, fat, round, or brown, and the opposite is normally described as thin, reedy, or weedy.
  • Loud/Quiet Loud refers to the overall sound level or volume (usually measured in decibels).
  • Balanced/Unbalanced Balanced refers to the loudness variations with pitch.
  • Pleasing/Displeasing Pleasing refers to the player/listener’s overall subjective feeling about the sound.

 

Taking it to the Bench

My donor reed plates came from a NOS (New Old Stock) B-flat Golden Melody (GM). This vintage GM still had nails rather than bolts to hold the instrument together. This was a terrific opportunity to thread (0-80) the draw reed plate holes left behind by the nails. For this article, swapping combs with one set of reed plates was as easy as turning a few bolts. In the future, servicing this harmonica will be a snap. Step by step instructions are available at: http://archive.harmonicasessions.com/jun06/workbench.html

Drilling Clearance Hole

Tapping the Threads

Installing Reed Plates

My mission was to identify, and rate those features and perceived benefits that most harmonica players would consider noticeable differences over the original stock Golden Melody comb.

Here are my overall scores from the Sjoeberg combs examination:

●     Aesthetics      | 5

●     Comfort          | 5

●     Durability        | 5

●     Sonic             | 3

●     Playability       | 3

Average score = 4.2

Assessment

My findings were 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, in order of priorities; my harmonica to-do list would position reed plate (draw/blow) calibration as Job #1, followed by the comb enhancements and/or replacement, and lastly the cover plates enhancements and/or replacement. 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 allot of little things well.”

 

To contact Dick Sjoeberg of Master Harp, email: info@masterharp.com

Printable Version

Celebrity Hands

Yikes, this is a tough one. See if you can guess who this hand belongs to.

“Play the notes people want to hear” © 2008

Kinya Pollard
The Harpsmith

Musician & Harp-Tech
Harmonica Masterclass Workshop Instructor
Mel Bay’s Harmonica Sessions Columnist
www.bluesharmonica.com Harp-Tech Expert

2 Comments »

  • Robert Coble said:

    It appears that the modifications to the slots looks similar in purpose to the so-called “Tate ramps.” Is that what they are, or is there a different purpose?

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