An out-of-tune harmonica will ruin that solo you've worked so hard to perfect. One note that is less than pitch-perfect is all it takes to ruin an otherwise flawless performance. What can you do about a harmonica that has gone out of tune?
You can tune your harmonica by filing down the reed that is playing out of tune. To tune a flat note, file the tip of the reed. To tune a sharp note, file the base of the reed, or you can add a tiny drop of putty or solder to the base. Always file a reed lengthwise, so you don't damage it.
Harmonicas are relatively maintenance-free, but there are a few things that can go wrong, especially if your harmonica has some years on it. Most of these issues can be fixed without a professional repair. Let's look into the process for fixing what ails your harmonica.
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You Can Re-Tune Your Harmonica
If your notes have been sounding a bit “off” lately, it may be time for a tune-up. Here's how you can return your instrument to perfect pitch again:
- Remove the screws holding the outer plates in place.
- Remove the reed plates from the comb.
- Slip a thin shim under the out-of-tune reed.
- Carefully file down the reed at its tip to raise the pitch, or at its base to lower the pitch.
- After a couple of strokes with the file, test the note with a tuner.
Be careful that you do not bend the thin metal reed under too much pressure. Also, do not file a reed crosswise. This will weaken it.
File a reed lengthwise with light, gentle strokes. For the tip of the reed, always file toward the tip from the middle of the reed. If you file inward from the tip of the reed, you may accidentally fold the tip over, ruining it. You can file inward from the base because this end is thicker and not so susceptible to damage.
If you press down too hard on the reed, you may bend it or change its offset, which will change the note's pitch or may even change the note itself. Always use the lightest pressure possible when filing reeds.
Be careful not to remove too much material from the reed. This will overcorrect the note and cause you more work in the end. After every couple of strokes, you should test the pitch against a tuner.
If you file too much off the tip of the reed, you'll need to add solder or heavy putty to the base to balance the pitch.
Can Harmonicas Go Out Of Tune?
Harmonicas can go out of tune over time with heavy usage. Sometimes even a harmonica straight from the factory is not in perfect pitch. This is especially true with cheaper knock-off brands. There are several reasons why harmonicas go out of tune, including:
- Cracked reed
- Blowing too hard
- Bending notes
- Worn-out instrument
Just playing a harmonica regularly will eventually make it go out of tune. Just like any other instrument, harmonicas need re-tuning from time to time. Especially for blues players who bend a lot of notes, harmonicas need re-tuning fairly often.
The reeds on a harmonica are made of extremely thin metal. This means that the constant pull and push of air required to produce sound will change the metal reed's curvature over time. Any change to the reed will change the pitch of the note.
Since metal contracts and expands in response to heat and cold, the thin reed can also crack from exposure to harsh temperatures. This will cause the harmonica to go out of tune.
For newbies, the most common cause of an out-of-tune harmonica is blowing too hard. Until one learns to control airflow, they tend to blow with too much force into the harmonica. This causes the metal reed to vibrate too violently, which changes its curvature, resulting in an out-of-pitch note.
Bending notes requires changing the reed curve, so this will make the harmonica go out of tune. As well, if your harmonica is just old, it will go out of tune because of changes in the metal itself. Time is not kind to most metals, and as the thin metal reed ages, it becomes compromised and unable to hold a proper pitch. Most harmonicas are inexpensive enough that it's easier to replace them than to re-tune them.
One more thing that will make a harmonica sound out of tune is cold. Let your harmonica warm to body temperature before playing and see if it still sounds out. A cold reed will play a different pitch than a warm reed.
Can You Replace A Cracked Reed?
If a reed cracks, there is no way to fix it; it must be replaced. However, this is not a DIY job unless you are incredibly knowledgeable in the way harmonicas are built.
Replacing the actual reed is simple enough; you can replace just one reed, or you can replace the whole plate. This is a job of simple mechanics. The complicated part of the process is shaping the reed to the correct curvature.
This should be done by a professional who knows what he is doing. The process of installing the reed will change the curvature, which changes the pitch of the note. It can be extremely difficult to get this curvature right, and if you don't know what you're about, you can damage the new reed by trying to shape it.
The reed needs to be a proper gap from the plate to vibrate freely, and it needs to be straight and centered. These jobs require finesse and expertise because of the delicate materials involved. If you blow a reed, you should either take it to a professional repairman or buy a new harmonica.
Usually, the new reed plates cost more than a new harmonica by nearly $10. And you'll still have to tune them once they're installed!
How Do You Fix A Stuck Harmonica Reed?
Occasionally, a reed will stick, rendering the note unplayable. When this happens, it is usually because saliva has dried inside the hole. Most of the time, a few firm taps of the harmonica against your hand is enough to dislodge whatever is making the reed stick.
However, if this doesn't fix the problem, you can rinse your harmonica top and bottom under warm water. Do not use hot water! Hot water will compromise the quality of the reeds. Tap all the water out of your harmonica and allow it to dry before storing.
If this doesn't unstick the reed, there is probably something solid blocking the gap. Open your harmonica up and run something thin, like a paper clip or safety pin, under the reed that is not playing. This should be enough to remove whatever is blocking the gap between the reed and the plate.
Keep Your Harmonica Healthy
A little routine maintenance goes a long way toward preventing problems with your harmonica. So, for a few tips to keep your instrument healthy and happy:
- Always rinse your mouth before playing to avoid food particles or sugar residue getting into your reeds.
- Always tap your harmonica upside down against your palm a few times before storing it.
- Never blow as hard as you can.
- Don't try to play as loudly as possible.
It is probably a good idea to let your harmonica air dry before placing it in its case. Remember, this thing goes in your mouth, so the last thing you want is mold setting up on the inside of your harmonica from damp reeds!
How To Fix An Out Of Tune Harmonica, Final Thoughts
Harmonicas get out of tune, but they can often be fixed. Maintaining them helps them last longer, but if you find things sound that bit off, the above tips should be helpful.