Playing harmonica with thick specs
Otis, the Harp Surgery postman, stopped in this morning for a nice cup of tea and a sit down. He delivered a lovely letter from Mr Clive Langhorn who was the Harp Surgery’s very first student many years ago. Clive is now a great blues harp specialist who performs around the South of England. He writes..
I have recently fitted the thicker reed plates (normal .9mm / thicker 1.09mm) to a MS Blues Harp, and it sounds good. Can you tell me why anyone wouldn’t use them, and if different keys may be affected differently using the thicker plates. Best regards,
It’s wonderful to hear from you Clive. I trust you are still entertaining the masses with your masterful command of the blues. Your question is most welcome and I hope you won’t mind me publishing my analysis, both for your benefit and for the benefit of our reader.
You may have seen my review of Hohner’s Blues Bender harmonica, where the topic of reed plate thickness was hauled under the microscope. Blues Bender plates are 1.20mm thick which, from subsequent conversations with Hohner, will offer a player some clear advantages. My only real beef was the packaging statement which says the thicker reed plate gives consistent tone. What, I wonder, would inconsistent tone be? So, your question about Hohner’s MS replacement reed plates provides a welcome extension to this theme. For more information on Hohner’s MS plates, I contacted Hohner UK and I also emailed Steve Baker in Germany.
Gospel according to St. Hohner
Steve Proctor at Hohner UK confirmed that MS harps have separate distribution channels for the US and Worldwide markets respectively. Standard MS factory plates in the USA are 1.05mm, while Worldwide they are 0.9mm. Replacement MS plates in the USA are also 1.05mm, while Worldwide there is a choice either 0.9mm or 1.05mm plates. In addition, MS plates are interchangeable with Cross Harp (brass) and Meisterklasse (chrome) plates which are also 1.05mm thick. Chatting with Steve Baker I posed the following questions which I think go a long way towards answering your letter:
Why would Hohner HQ offer one reed plate specification to the Worldwide Market and another to the US market?
They don’t, that’s a marketing decision made by Hohner USA. Hohner in Germany doesn’t have anything to do with it. The MS series is manufactured using 0.9mm plates on Big River, Blues Harp & Pro Harp, and 1.05mm plates on Cross Harp & Meisterklasse. All these models are sold like that in the USA too. Hohner USA decided to only stock the thicker replacement plates for logistical reasons, as they work fine on all models.
What are the benefits of a thicker plate in terms of tone and volume (accepting that these are two different things)? Are the benefits theoretical or is there and scientific evidence?
In my experience, thicker reed plates definitely make the harp louder and brighter (stronger overtone partials), which may be desirable or not depending on your preferences. Various manufacturers use this as a method of making their instruments louder out of the box. Personally I don’t find it to be an advantage and prefer 0.9mm reed plates.
Hohner UK point out that thicker reed plates give reeds ‘a deeper swing, thereby providing more power. The reeds travel further as more air is pushed across them’. How does this improve performance, tone and volume? Are there any consequent disadvantages?
This appears to be true, see above. However, I don’t necessarily regard it as an improvement. Due to the greater amplitude, thicker reed plates can lead to greater reed stress and earlier breakage, so any advantages in terms of volume and “power” will be a trade off.
Are there any variables inherent in the different keys? Is there an optimum key in relation to reed plate thickness and overall performance?
It would seem to me that thicker plates make more sense in lower keys. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to make reed plates of varying thickness from the low end to the high end and Hohner’s 2 different guages are simply an attempt to find a workable way of offering viable alternatives. Both thicknesses work fine in all keys though.
I imagine any performance improvements relative to plate width, regardless of harp key, are minuscule as we are dealing with a 0.1mm degree of difference.
The differences are quite noticeable to me and I assume also to many other players.
Why would Hohner not advertise replacement plates as openly as, say, Lee Oskar? Is it simply because they wish to promote sales of their fully assembled units?
The service department at Hohner in Germany sells spare reed plates and all other parts directly to the consumer (also internationally). Lee only has one instrument so his situation is logistically much simpler. Few retailers know much about the harmonica and it’s understandably difficult to persuade them to stock spare parts which they may never sell. Many long-term players buy them online for that reason. As with cars, spare parts are proportionally more expensive and therefore more profitable, so Hohner in Germany has nothing whatsoever against selling as many as possible. I can’t answer for the policies adopted by subsidiaries in other countries.
From harp guru Pat Missin
Not a lot I can add to that. I personally don’t find that the thicker plates make a big difference either way. Double the thickness and you really start to notice a difference. I’m not sure it actually makes anything louder, but it does make it sound louder, if you see what I mean. They do tend to make more difference in the lower keys and at the lower end of the harp, also they tend change how you need the reeds to be gapped. Oddly, the thicker the reedplate, the lower the reeds need to be set, although again, the difference between a .9mm and 1.05mm reedplate is not all that much. Despite the commonly accepted wisdom, I’ve never noticed that my customers wear out the thicker reedplates any faster than the standard ones, but I’ve never done a controlled study on it. My own harps with double think plates last fine, but then so do all my harps. It could possibly be that if
you wear out harps quickly, you might wear out harps with slightly thicker reedplates slightly thicker.
Aside from that, the only thing I really mention is that the MS Blues Harps don’t really have a lot to do with the old Blues harps, in much the same way that the MS Marine Band (may it rest in peace) didn’t have much in common with the classic version.
Hohner reed plates decoded
On the Harp-L forum, Joe Broecker explains the current code stamp on the Hohner MS series diatonic harmonica reed plates.
This was printed on a blow reed plate: 1-216-1011018/1 G Dur Hohner 27/03 L9/KA2.
1-216-1011018/1 is the article number. I imagine that’s an inventory number
G Dur is German for G Major
27/03 is the 27th calendar week of 2003, probably dating the week of the reed plate’s production
09/KA2 is the reed plate thickness (0.9mm) and the reed alloy
The code may also be printed on other Hohners, I don’t know. It could be an important indicator of the harp’s vintage.
Further background on the Hohner Blues Harp
As you mentioned the Hohner Blues Harp, I thought you might find the following interesting. It’s about the reeds themselves rather than the reed plates, but it’s useful. Apparently there has been a common myth surrounding the Hohner Blues Harp that its reeds are thinner than those on other Hohner models and that they are ‘pre-stressed’. This common assumption has led to the belief that they therefore provide a weaker tone and have a shorter reed life span. Pat Missin dispels this myth on his excellent website here.
My thanks to Clive Langhorn for posing the question, and Steve Proctor, Steve Baker and Pat Missin for helping to provide the answers. I hope you find this helpful.