[Harp-L] Comb Materials: the Perfect Test Harmonica?

Tom Halchak info@xxxxx
Sat May 14 13:27:21 EDT 2016


Thank you for restoring my powers of speech.  I’d be lost without them.

And thank you for your account of the comb test at SPAH 2010.  It is
unfortunate that in spite of your best efforts the test did not come off
the way you wanted and failed to provide any meaningful data.  Furthermore,
it is tragic that one of the participants deliberately sabotaged the test
and influenced others to perhaps do the same.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I’d like to describe my thinking as I
designed the format for The Great Comb Debate of 2012.  To begin with,
there was no attempt to conceal or deceive either the players or the
audience about the comb material being played in any of the sample

Here is what I did.  Months before SPAH, I communicated with Hohner USA and
Suzuki USA explain what I had in mind and asked for their assistance.  What
I wanted was five stock harmonicas that were as identical as possible,
which for the most part means that the reed plates were all minted in the
same month – they were all part of the same production run so at the very
least we would not be comparing on harp that had a reed plate which was
manufactured in 2010 to another which might have had a reed plate that was
manufactured in 2011 or 2012.  I purchased five Golden Melodys (all in the
Key of D), five Marine Band Deluxes (all in the key of G) and five Marine
Band Crossovers (all in the key of C) from Hohner.  Fortunately, by
default, Hohner Germany ships harmonicas in sealed bundles of five and that
is exactly the way Hohner USA sent them to me.  So my confidence that they
had been part of the same production run and were, in theory, identical
harmonicas was very high.  One could argue that no two sets of reed plates
are identical but let’s not go down that road.  This was as good as gets as
far as I was concerned.  Suzuki was just as willing to assist me and I
purchased five Manjis in the key of A that all had the same date stamp on
the reed plates.

I disassembled all the harmonicas and inspected the reed plates to be
certain that they were indeed part of the same production run.  I seem to
recall adjusting the gaps on a couple of reeds that were obviously too wide
(which is very common on stock harps).  Other than that, I did no reed work
to the harmonicas.  I simply reassembled them using the stock comb on one,
a brass comb, an anodized aluminum comb, an acrylic comb and a
Dupont™Corian® comb on the other four.

I solicited the assistance of four very respected professional players
hoping that my celebrity guests might add some curb appeal to the
workshop.  It was the first time I had ever presented a workshop at SPAH
and I was hoping to get at least a few people to attend and having a little
star power couldn’t hurt.  Todd Parrott, whose instrument of choice at the
time was the Golden Melody, agreed to do a demonstration of the five Golden
Melodys.  Michael Rubin demoed the Crossovers.  Richard Sleigh demoed the
Deluxes.  And Brandon Baily demoed the Manjis.  Aside from their star power
I needed competent players were capable of playing the same licks over and
over on the different harps.  I needed consistency.

It is worthwhile noting that I really didn’t have anything to “prove”.  As
I stated in my post earlier this week, the demand for high quality custom
combs is something that was present before Blue Moon came into existence,
it is present now, and it will be present when I am dead and gone.  If
anyone was inclined to purchase a custom comb it didn’t matter to me which
material they preferred.  I make them all.  So I was not out to prove that
one material was superior to another.   I did take a risk though.  What if
everyone agreed that the harmonicas with the stock combs sounded the best?
That would put a bit of a damper on sales of custom combs.  But I wasn’t
too worried about that.  I already knew what I thought and I was curious to
see how others reacted during the test.

And so, on to the actual workshop.  At the very beginning, I surveyed the
room to see who in the audience had any experience with custom combs and
who believed that comb material made any difference in the tone.  There
were about 30 people in attendance.  Predictably, about half the people
fell on either side of the question.  50% experience with custom combs.
 50% no experience.  50% believed comb material made a difference.  50%
believed it made no difference.  Everyone was curious though – even the
celebrity guests.  It is also worthwhile noting that the pro players had
zero exposure to the test harmonicas.  The first time they saw or played
them was in the workshop.  As each player demoed the harmonicas, they told
the audience what they were playing and offered their opinions and
thoughts.  We were not trying to trick or deceive anyone.  It was meant to
be an open honest examination and discussion.  There were lots of requests
from the participants to “play the Corian one first and then the Brass one”
or “play the stock comb and then the aluminum combed harp” so people could
listen for any differences back to back.  AB comparisons.  AD comparisons.
DE comparisons and so on.

Parenthetically it seems to me that with the test in 2010, where the
emphasis was on using the same reed plates on different combs, you did not
have the ability to test the comb materials side by side as it was only
possible to have the reed plates on one comb at a time.  Taking the time to
disassemble the harp, clean the reed plates as Michelle Lefree has stated
she did, and then reassembling the harp with a different comb had to have
taken five minutes more or less.  That’s a long time between listening to
different comb materials with zero opportunity to do a side by side.  In
addition, based upon your statement that the combs and reed plates were not
flat enough and therefore did not make an airtight harp leads me to believe
that there was some inconsistency in the combs.  That wasn’t the case with
The Great Comb Debate.  All my combs are CNC Milled on the same machine
using the same program.  It doesn’t matter what the material is, all the
combs for each given model are identical dimensionally speaking.  They are
flat and we had no issues with leaky harps.

And so it went.  Each player did a demonstration of their respective harps
all the while offering their opinions and thoughts and answering questions
from the audience.  In the end, we, the 30 in attendance plus the four pro
players and myself, developed a consensus opinion.  It was our opinion that
the harmonicas with the metal combs, in particular the brass combs, were
“louder and brighter” than the other materials.  The Brass was the
brightest and loudest followed by the aluminum and then after that there
was no consensus.  Not many people could tell the difference between
Corian, Acrylic or the plastic of the Golden Melody combs.  That’s not
surprising since they are all kinda sorta plastic.  Some felt that the wood
comb of the Deluxe produced a “darker” tone.

To the best of my knowledge, not one person left that workshop with the
opinion that comb material did not make a difference in tone.  In fact, it
really only took about five minutes.  Todd Parrott was the first to demo
his harps and as soon as he played the brass combed GM, the jaws hit the
floor.  The difference was that pronounced.  There were audible gasps and
lots of “Holy S#*ts!  And that was reinforced as we proceeded through each
set of harmonicas.

At the end of the workshop we had a contest to see who would win “The
Golden Ear Award”.  Everyone had a score sheet.  One by one each of the pro
players went behind a curtain out of sight and played each of the
harmonicas in a random order.  I kept track of which one they played first,
or second, etc.  The audience could request that any of the harmonicas
could be played again, such as, “play the second one again” or “play the
first one and then the forth one back to back.  This continued until
everyone was satisfied and then we moved on to the next set of harps.  The
object was to see who could correctly identify which harp was being
played.  The winner got their choice of a Custom Blue Moon harp so there
was some incentive to do well.  Coincidentally, the winner of The Golden
Ear Award happened to be a lady named Margie Goldsmith.  I had no idea who
Margie was but as it turned out, she is a writer and she authored a story
about here experience for the Harmonica Happenings Magazine that served as
a follow up to SPAH.   That was a bit of serendipity.

The Great Comb Debate Workshop was held on Wednesday afternoon, the first
day of SPAH.  For the next four days, I had all 20 of the harps prepared
for the workshop available at my booth for anyone who wanted to do their
own testing.  And perhaps 75 or 100 people did just that.  When people
asked me if the comb material affected the tone, it was very easy for me to
just hand them a case full of five identical harps each built with a
different comb and let them see for themselves.

In my message posted earlier this week I posed a question.  I asked, “When
was the last time you had the opportunity to play five brand new identical
harmonicas, same brand, same model, same key, with the only difference
being the comb material?  So you could do an AB comparison or an AC
comparison, or AD or AE or BC or BD or BE, etc. etc.”  I didn’t get any
responses.  My guess is that very few, in any, of you have had this
opportunity – unless you participated in The Great Comb Debate of 2012 or
stopped by my booth that year.  Is this the ONLY way you are qualified to
offer an opinion?  Perhaps not, but I am amused by people who offer their
opinions while prefacing their comments by saying, “I have never tried a
______________, but I think this about it.”

Do I think that this is “Settled science”?   Not at all.  I know what I
believe.  I had the temerity to organize a workshop (it wasn’t like I led a
Satanic Worship Service at SPAH).  And I am reporting, as accurately as I
can, what happened.  That’s all.  My word is not law.  Hardly.  You can
believe what you want and I will believe what I want and we don’t agree I’m
fine with that.  I hope you are too.

*​Tom Halchak*

*Blue Moon Harmonicas LLC*
*P.O. Box 14401 Clearwater, FL 33766*
*www.BlueMoonHarmonicas.com <http://www.bluemoonharmonicas.com/>*
*(727) 366-2608*

More information about the Harp-L mailing list