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What lubricant should I use on my chromatic's slide assembly?


Many chromatic players seem obsessed with finding the perfect slide lubricant. Over the years I've heard many things suggested, ranging from various oils and waxes to stuff intended for, let's say, more intimate uses. Some of them help in the short term, but many of them eventually make matters worse and some are harmful to the player's health. I've lost count of the number of times I have "repaired" a stuck slide by simply removing the "lubricant" that the owner had added to the it - and I've also lost count of the number of times that I've made that comment on various harmonica forums.

The substances most often recommended as slide lubricants fall into two main categories: water-soluble and non-water-soluble. The problem with the water soluble lubricants is that although they work for a while, they eventually dissipate due to moisture from the player's breath, necessitating reapplication. The problem with non-water-soluble lubricants is that they tend to be sticky and cause all sorts of debris to adhere to the parts of the slide assembly. If you don't believe me, try coating a coin with some lip balm (one of the most commonly recommended slide lubricants) and carrying it around in your pocket for a few minutes. You will find that it will soon become coated with all manner of fuzz and particulate matter - this is not something that you should wish to inflict upon your slide. To make matters worse, as you play your harmonica a lot of this gunk will part company with the slide and wind up inside your harmonica, where it can cause all manner of problems with the reeds and valves. One of my most memorable repair jobs was a CX-12 whose owner had coated the slide with lip balm and kept it in the original case with the red fuzzy lining. His slide had actually grown a bright red beard in spots and even more worrying was the fact that tiny bits of red stubble were glued all over the inside of the instrument. That was one time I was very pleased to have an ultrasonic cleaner in my workshop.

Some players even use various machine oils or WD40 on their slides. DO NOT DO THIS! Not only will your harmonica taste and smell really bad until you find a way to remove it, it is also not something that you should be inhaling.

So, if you're not supposed to lubricate it, how do you prevent it from sticking?

Some years ago, a Hohner UK catalog warned against lubricating the slide and gave a classic piece of advice - "the slider only sticks when it is sticky"! Amusing as this may sound, it is very true. In order to work properly, the slide assembly simply needs to be clean and correctly adjusted.

Cleaning the slide of the Hohner CX-12 is very easy - just pop out the slide and wash it in warm soapy water, perhaps using a toothbrush to remove any stubborn build up. Cleaning the slide assembly of most other chromatics is a little more involved, but a quick and easy way to get rid of any built up gunk is to place the harmonica mouthpiece downwards in a shallow container with just enough clean warm water to cover the slide assembly. Push the button a few times until it starts to move a little more freely, then take it out and tap it dry, being careful not to get the dirty water into the main body of the instrument. Hopefully, this should keep your slide moving freely for a while. If it doesn't, then a more thorough cleaning may be necessary - for more information, please see this page.

Whilst you have the slide assembly dismantled, check all the parts for straightness. The mouthpiece is usually slightly curved so that it presses lightly against the middle of the slide assembly. Too much curvature, however, will make it hard to get the slide to work smoothly without introducing leakage at the ends. The other parts of the slide assembly often take on a slight curvature too, but the slide itself should be straight and have no obvious kinks in it. If any of the parts have excessive curvature or other problems, exercise extreme caution in trying to fix them yourself as it is very easy to make matters worse. It may be better to have an expert look at it, or simply replace the offending parts.

Some chromatic harmonicas (the Hohner CX-12 and Chrometta series, for example) have no way to adjust the slide assembly, but most others require careful adjustment of the screws at each end of the mouthpiece. On most chromatics, if you tighten these screws all the way, the slide will jam completely. What you need to do is tighten them until the slide sticks, then back off the screw just enough so that the slide springs back to the open position when you release the button.

On wood bodied chromatics, those screws are driven straight into the wood and it is not uncommon on older instruments or those that have been disassembled often for the threads in the wood to become stripped. The usual cure for this is simply to poke a matchstick or toothpick into the hole, allowing the screw to grip more tightly. Exercise caution with this, especially at the screw nearest the button end, as the wood between the screw hole and the spring hole is not very thick and I have seen numerous harps where the matchstick fix has case the wood to split into the spring hole. A better fix is to fill the stripped screw hole with a wood filler of some sort and start a fresh screw hole. However, this is one of those issues where prevention is much better than cure. When reattaching the mouthpiece, place the screw loosely in the hole and turn it anticlockwise (counterclockwise) whilst maintaining a very light pressure. Before long you will feel a small click as the screw finds the thread. Now screw it in normally. Do it this way each time and you greatly reduce the risk of stripping the thread. This is not just for mouthpiece screws - I do this with every screw since learning this tip many years ago, courtesy of "Richard's Bicycle Book", by Richard Ballantine.

This should be enough to get your sliders moving more smoothly, but for more detailed information, I highly recommend the late Douglas Tate's book "Make Your Harmonica Work Better" (click here for more details from Amazon.com).

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