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David's Tip of the Day: Are You Ready for a Custom Harmonica?

David Barrett Admin's picture

It’s important to understand that a custom harmonica will reward good technique and punish poor technique.

A custom harmonica is extremely responsive. With the cultivation of good technique you’ll be able to bend with more ease and the tone of your bends will improve. The main reason why we play custom harmonicas is so that we can play softly. The instrument will respond well with very little volume, giving you extreme dynamic range. Dynamic range was one of the trademarks of Little Walter’s mastery. He turned his amp way up and then played at 40% of his capable volume as his default volume. This gave him amazing dynamic range for when he wanted to play powerful for a passage, or even just a couple of notes… he jumped out of the recording and grabbed you when he wanted to.

If you play loudly, you’ll overwhelm the reeds of the custom harmonica and they’ll stall. If you play with too much tension (commonly causing the middle and back of your tongue to raise and throat to constrict), this will also cause the harmonica to stall, or produce unintended bends.

By the way, playing loudly is the #1 killer of harmonicas, custom or out of the box. If you’re going through harps quicker than you think you should, save some money and improve your technique at the same time by playing softer.

If you tend to play loudly and tense up while you play, a custom harmonica will punish you and it will be no fun to play. If you enjoy working on your technique and are willing to give it the time it requires to grow, you’ll benefit from a custom harmonica. A custom harmonica will reward your good technique with easier bending, consistent response over the entire range of the harmonica and provide you with amazing dynamic range. I find playing my custom harmonicas (thank you Joe Filisko) extremely pleasurable to play and I know my music sounds better because of them. I can play harmonicas out of the box, that’s not an issue, but my custom harmonicas allow me to do what I do with much less effort and my enjoyment of playing the instrument goes way up.

With all this said, you need to decide if you’ll benefit right now from a custom harmonica. If you play loudly or with a lot of tension, then the answer is no... at least for right now. If you’re not a loud player and realize that when something sounds bad on the harmonica that you must be doing something wrong and some introspective practice is required, then you’re ready.