The late Richard Farrell is often quoted as saying something along the lines of "If you can't repair your own harmonica, you can't afford to play one" and there is a lot of truth in that statement. For a long time, there was very little information available on how to repair, maintain or modify harmonicas, but the internet has definitely changed that. Availability of appropriate tools has taken a while to catch up though and harmonica repair folk have traditionally accumulated tools from a wide range of sources, including modeling and dentistry supplies companies, as well as making their own tools. However, over the past few years most manufacturers have marketed their own dedicated kits for harmonica repair and over the last few months, some very special tools have become available.
The Lee Oskar tool kit has been available for some years now and contains most of the tools you need to take care of basic maintenance issues. The kit comes in a soft vinyl case and includes a screwdriver, a reed wrench for centring reeds, a reed support tool for use when tuning, a reed adjustment tool for setting gaps, etc., a narrow chisel, a broad chisel and a file. Add to this kit some sort of tuning device and you will have all you need to take care of reed tuning and adjustment, the two most important things for keeping your harps in tip top shape. The screwdriver fits both the cover screws and reedplate screws of the LO harmonica and others that use a Phillips #1 screw, but for other brands, you will probably need a slightly narrower reed wrench than the one included here. The kit comes with very clear, easy to follow instructions for basic tuning and reed adjustment. It is available from most stores that stock Lee Oskar harmonicas, or online from Amazon.com
The Hering Harmonica Maintenance Kit has also been around for a while, but has recently been upgraded. In addition to the file, reed scraper, reed wrench (which will also fit Hohner and other brands, but is a little too small for Lee Oskar reeds), reed support, screwdriver and reed adjustment tool, the Hering kit also includes a rivet knockout punch, rivet setting punch and small flat anvil, all packaged in a zip-up case complete with instruction leaflet. With the addition of a small hammer, this allows you to remove and replace fatigued reeds. The kit even includes a supply or rivets and some replacement reeds. It can take a while to get the hang of riveting reeds to a reedplate, but with a bit of practice, this is definitely the fastest way to replace reeds. The last time I bothered to time myself, I removed and replaced eight reeds with punches and a hammer in about 20 minutes, including centring, gapping and approximate tuning. Of course, as with all the tools reviewed here, it is best to do some practice on some old harps first. Available from your usual Hering supplier.
The Hohner Harmonica Service Set gathers together a similar set of tools - screwdriver, combined reed wrench and reed lifter, file, reed support and reed scraper. Additionally, it includes some stuff for chromatics, namely a selection of replacement valves, a tube of valve glue and a small bottle of slide lubricant (I'm not a fan of lubricants for slides, but I'm not going to get into that here). It also comes with a nicely illustrated little instruction booklet in German, English, French and Spanish. I particularly like the screwdriver that comes with this kit, which has a reversible bit with a flat blade at one end and a Pozidriv at the other, to cover all the screws you will find on Hohner harmonicas. I also really like the case - a substantial nylon folio with velcro fastener, that rolls up very compactly and would take up very little space in a gig bag. Available from the usual places, including Amazon.com
The Hohner Harmonica Instant Workshop debuted earlier this year. It consists of the afore-mentioned Hohner Harmonica Service Set, along with an additional set of tools for reed replacement. Aficionados of precision tools will be pleased to see such names as Knipex and Wiha included here, with a specially modified set of pliers that double as a deriveting tool and windsaver perforator, a very small screwdriver, a drill bit for deburring, a miniature nut driver, a reamer, an M1.4 tap and a universal handle, along with 50 tiny bolts and 50 equally tiny nuts. These tools allow you to remove a dead reed and its rivet, harvest a replacement from another set of reedplates and then attach it with a nut and bolt. This method is somewhat slower than using rivets (although the deriveting tool makes removing the old reed a breeze), but it does offer several advantages, especially for those who tend to blow out the same reeds every time. Once the rivet hole has been enlarged and tapped to accept the screw, future replacements are much faster. The kit comes with a DVD full of video instruction in all aspects of harmonica maintenance and repair using these tools, these videos also being available in YouTube. A printed version of the instructions is also available from www.hohner-cshop.eu
All the tools are also available individually from C-shop, along with replacement parts for the pliers and the reed scraper. I mentioned above the time honoured practice of scavenging replacement reeds from old reedplates - there is obviously a downside to this. First of all, if you are using old reeds, they are potentially already stressed to some extent, which could possibly make them a short lived replacement. Also, if you tend to blow out certain reeds more than others, you will naturally run out of those reeds quite quickly, leaving you with a drawer full of old reedplates, all missing the same couple of reeds! Thankfully the Hohner C-Shop comes to the rescue once more, with individual reeds available for most Hohner harmonica models at really affordable prices. Those of you with internet access should be able to order these items from your usual Hohner supplier, but access to the C-shop website makes things much easier and quicker. This is possibly the best thing to happen to harmonica maintenance since Lee Oskar pioneered replaceable reedplates in the 1980s.
Hohner have also collaborated with Dirk's Projects to produce the Hohner Harmonica Tuner. This is a software based tuner and is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time a tuner has been designed expressly for harmonicas. I've been using some of Dirk's excellent software for a while now and I was pleased to see that Hohner chose him to design this tuner for them. It is very easy to use and has all the basic features you would expect - a very clear, easy to read display, especially when used in full screen mode; automatic note detection; the ability to adjust the base frequency over an extremely wide range, but quickly reset to A=440 with a single mouse click; automatic calibration to ensure accuracy; various filters and noise reduction to help the tuner read your harmonica more clearly; multi-language user manual, etc. The tuner is particularly useful to people who work on tremolo harmonicas, as it is capable of measuring two reeds sounded simultaneously. If you've ever tried to tune a tremolo harp one reed at a time, you'll know how challenging that can be, as the reeds tend to work differently when sounded individually vs sounded as a pair. This tuner makes the job much easier and allows you to set your desired degree of beating across the full range of the harmonica with much less frustration and/or swearing! The Hohner Harmonica Tuner can use either a built-in microphone or an external one and requires Windows 2000, XP, Vista or Windows 7. A Pentium II 1 GHz or better is preferred, although I've currently got it working well enough on an old laptop with a 500Mz CPU. I'm also told you can run it on a Mac with a Windows emulator, but you're own your own with that. Thankfully, a trial version of the software is available. For more details, visit www.dirksprojects.nl
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