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Suzuki SUB30 UltraBend

I remember back when I first learned to bend notes, I was more than a little frustrated that there were only certain notes I could bend and a whole bunch I couldn't. Some time later I found out the reasons why, but that did little to reduce my frustration. However, this harp makes the frustration vanish entirely - all the bends of a standard 10-hole harp are there and all the other notes, those that wouldn't bend on a standard diatonic, can all be bent by a semitone on the SUB30. Even more amazing, Suzuki have managed to cram all of this into something the same size as a standard 10-hole diatonic.

It all looks so unassuming - reedplates neatly recessed into a white plastic comb, topped with chromed brass covers of a typically sleek Suzuki design with minimal engraving, no sharp corners and no protruding screws. The harps feels comfortable in the hands and smooth on the lips and tongue. It's very consistently tuned with a light compromise temperament rooted around A=443Hz and nice crisp response. In most ways, a pretty typical top of the line diatonic harmonica. Except that holes 1-6 blow and 7-10 draw can all be bent by a semitone and those bends work every bit as smoothly as the "normal" bends. Note: these are not the extra bends you can get with a valved diatonic, such as the Suzuki Promaster 350V (another Brendan Power idea, by the way), but full on bluesy dual-reed bends enabled by the 10 auxiliary reeds built into the harp. There are valves involved, but they are just to make sure the airflow goes to the appropriate reeds to enable the bending. It certainly doesn't sound like a typical valved harmonica - it sounds and plays like I wanted all my harps to sound and play 35 years ago!

Of course, there are some things the SUB30 can't do. Most notably, you can't play overblows on this harp - although with the additional bends, you don't need the overblows for chromaticism anyway and I think the majority of players are much better with standard note bending than they are with overblows and overdraws anyway. I also stumbled across one small negative - on the sample harp I have in the key of C, if I slide in to 3 draw and 4 draw simultaneously with a slight bend, the auxiliary reeds (which are only there to enable bending and should normally remain silent) can be caused to sound. It is not a pretty sound, but I've not been able to recreate the same issue with single note, or with any other combination besides 3 and 4 draw together and then only if I slide into them with a bend. I suspect it may be a key-related issue and some adjustment of the auxiliary reeds did improve things a little, but as this sort of a lick is not uncommon in blues playing, I feel obliged to mention it. I should also add that Richard Sleigh has addressed this issue with a simple modification, described in this YouTube video:

Generally in my reviews, I prefer to avoid comparing two different models of harmonica, but I think some comparison between the SUB30 and the now-discontinued XB40 is not unreasonable. Although both harps use a similar mechanism to achieve the extra bending capability, they are quite different beasts. The XB40 has a very particular sound - some like it (myself included), some don't. It's also possibly the loudest harmonica I've ever tried. The SUB30 is not so loud, but it sounds pretty much the same as a standard diatonic. Likewise, many players felt that the XB40 was a bit bulky. I never really had a problem with that, but the hole spacing on the XB40 is the same as that of a typical chromatic, some of my really wide interval double-stop playing was not practical. That's no problem on the SUB30, which has the same spacing as a standard diatonic, meaning that seasoned diatonic players will not have to relearn their embouchure. The design of the XB40, with its 20 auxiliary reeds versus the 10 auxiliary reeds of the SUB30, makes bends possible on each and every note, whereas the 5 draw and 7 blow on the SUB30 are like the same notes on a standard 10-hole and can't really be bent to any useful degree. Also, the XB40 allows for two semitone bends on each note except 3 draw, which has a three semitone bend. The SUB40 only allows for single semitones on the additional bending possibilities. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on how you play - the reduced bending range of those notes on the SUB30 make it considerably easier to control those bends. Of course the biggest difference between the SUB30 and the XB40 is that the latter will become impossible to obtain once current supplies sell out. Personally, I hope the sales of the SUB30 are enough to help convince Hohner to change their minds about discontinuing the XB40, as I love the possibilities offered by both instruments.

The SUB30 comes in the usual Suzuki hard plastic case, with a nice clear leaflet explaining how everything works, along with some tips on maintenance and adjustment. Initially, they will be made available in the keys of A, C and D, with other keys to follow later. My only reservation is the price - at a suggested retail price in the US of $219.00, it is not exactly cheap, but I urge anyone who can afford it to give the SUB30 a try.

Kudos to Brendan for the basic idea and a big tip of the hat to Suzuki for bringing it to the market.

More information available from:

www.suzukimusic.com/harmonicas/sub30


Update

A couple more thoughts on the SUB30. First of all, the price. The official retail price of the SUB30 in the US is $219.00 and I believe the official retail price in Europe is similar. However, the retail price in Japan is 8,925 - at the time of writing that's about US$85. I don't know what Suzuki USA's reasons are for charging more than twice the Japanese price, but I feel that this will not be good for sales. Even with international shipping costs, it works out cheaper for people in the US to buy them from the various Japanese dealers on Amazon and eBay, rather than buying from a US store.

I have also heard from several trusted sources that not all SUB30s are set up quite as well as the one I was sent for review. Hopefully, this is due to their being a new product with some unique issues and consistency will improve over time.

There is perhaps a more immediate solution to the issue of sub-optimal SUB30s. Brendan Power has teamed up with Zombor Kovacs, a Hungarian harp player with a background in engineering, to form X-Reed Harmonicas, a partnership dedicated to producing upgraded version of the SUB30, with the promise of many more exciting products to come.

Check them out at X-Reed.com


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