Mike Easton is a harmonica repairman from Harrisburg, PA, USA.
He kindly wrote this page on tuning techniques & tips that he has worked out for himself in his trade to share with you.
Tuning is neccessary when reeds go out of tune, or if you wish to rearrange the notes available to you or if you require a different pitch base or temperament.
There are currently four methods used to tune harmonica reeds which serve to provide the same end result.
Two involve manually filing the reeds by hand and the other two involve the use of rotary tools.
I will give a brief description of each and then discuss the method that I discovered based on my background as a metal finisher in the dental industry.
This article isn't intended to pit against nor dismiss any method used.
I feel the degree of proficiency in using any tuning method is based more so on the user ability to master the tool than the method used.
I received a lot of criticism at first for suggesting my method of tuning but it has found its believers and users.
At the end of this article I've included a resource for puchasing all the products mentioned.
For years there has been several known methods used for tuning harmonica reeds. The first and most widely used method is the use of small jeweler files to reduce the metal either at the tip or base of the reed in order to sharpen or flatten the pitch of the reed respectively.
The second method came about with the use of rotary handpiece/drills.
Note: I have used very expensive dental versions of these tools for the past 25 years and commonly refer to them as handpieces in the trade. I may use the term, rotary tool or handpiece interchangeably in this article but they mean the same thing.
Unlike the common shop drill these handpieces run at higher speeds and offer options such as variable speeds and special attachments for specific uses. The most common being Dremel and Foredom brands.
The Foredom consist of a hanging motor that has a long flexshaft that leads down to the collet where the rotary tools are attached. A foot pedal is used to control the on/off and speed of the Foredom. This tool has mainly been used in the jewelry industry and looks somewhat like an old style dentist drill.
The Dremel is basically a hand held motor designed for use by hobbyist. Newer models of the Dremel handpiece allow for the attachment of a flexshaft, which provides, for some, easier hand control of the device.
Small dental burs (usually round carbide #.05 or #1 burs) are used with this method of tuning to mechanically scratch or notch the reed to bring into proper pitch.
It is an advantageous method to tune reeds on some chromatic harmonicas
because of the difficulty in removing the reedplates to get to the inner reeds.
Only recently have screws been used on chromatics, but most manufacturers are still behind the times having used nails on wood and plastic combed chromatics.
The use of the dental bur allows one to remove the coverplates and/or the mouthpiece of a chromatic and tune reeds without causing trama to the windsavers.
The third method of tuning is useful more so on diatonic than chromatic harps. Because of the awkwardness of windsavers and not being able to always remove the reedplate to get to the intended reed it serves itself minimally on the chromatic.
This method involves the use of sanding sticks. These are developed for the hobbyist trade for manually filing small plastic, wood and metal parts. It has found its way into many harp players tool kits as a quick fix method for bringing a reed back into tune when other methods aren't at ones disposal.
The sanding stick comes in different grits and coarse ones should be avoided.
Note: the one shown in the photograph above is too coarse for use on reeds and is only used to show what the sticks look like.
They are used the same as jewelers files but lack the ability to get into reed slots if needed, especially when you need to flatten an inner reed.
There is a new thinner stick available on the market that advertizes being able to go into narrow slots but I haven't had the chance to see if it will work on harps.
The fourth method is based on the use of the rotary tools.
A message was posted on harp-l in 1997 about the need for a tool to file reeds to a very exact pitch.
It occurred to me that I use such a tool every day at work. Like most harp players I've never tuned a reed in my life prior to that point and it seemed like the perfect way to introduce myself to the mystery of tuning reeds.
The tool I use is the Shofu brand abrasives or rubber wheels as they are commonly called. They come in either a conical or wheel shaped design mounted to a 3/32 mandrel. They are made either to smooth (Brownies), polish (Greenies) or high shine (Super Greenies). For the average user the Brownies work best and are the main rubber wheels I use to tune.
For the brownies to work properly a little training in the proper use of a handpiece is fundamental. While the desire to hold it like a pen is natural due to its shape, the proper method for holding any rotary tool is the whittle position.
Your thumb is supported against the object being worked on.
In this case the reedplate either mounted or unmounted to the harp.
Keeping the thumb pressed against either the plate or harp you want to draw your hand and rotary tool
toward you in a sweeping down-toward-the-reed
and upward-away-from-the-reed motion.
This entire sweeping action only needs to take space in the area of 1 inch / 2.5cm.
A good method for getting the feel of using a rotary tool for the first time is to find an old reed or coverplate and smooth out the corrosion without putting a nick or dimple in the metal. I do use them on reed/cover plates to remove corrosion and gunk and also on the slide channel of the mouthpiece to smooth out metal burrs from manufacturing.
I use a variable speed Dremel set at its lowest setting and have it connected to an on/off foot pedal.
That way I don't have to move the setting on the Dremel every time I need to start and stop it.
There is also a portable rotary product on the market that has a momentary on/off switch that is disengaged when you move you finger off the button.
I use two different Shofu Brownies when working on the reeds:
The first is the Brownie product #WH6. I use this at the tip of the reed to sharpen the pitch. Since you will be holding the handpiece at a slight angle it is important to contour an angle on the brownie so it will lie flat against the reed. You can do this by rubbing it against a finishing stone, sometimes referred to as a burnishing or grinding stone (Shown in the above photo). They are used to contour and sharpen rotary tool bits and you can find them where you purchase Dremel tools.
One does come with a new Dremel. I use the Brownie product #PC2 at the base of the reed to flatten the pitch. I recontour it to allow for access through the reed slot if needed and to keep it from rubbing against the reed rivet.
I must first point out that when using this method on chromatic harps you must be able to remove the reedplate from the harp if you need to tune inside reeds. Even though it is recommended to push inside reeds up through the slot to tune it this becomes pretty tricky when working on the higher pitched reeds and damage to the reed may occur.
If you have just one or two reeds to bring back to pitch, first determine where they are located on the reedplate. It may not be necessary to remove the plate if it's an outside reed.
I prefer not to tune on the surface that contains the windsaver so as not to risk damage to it, instead I tune from the opposite side and place a thin feeler gauge under the reed to support it.
I found that you could use 1/4 to 1/3 of the reed surface to sharpen or flatten a reed. I avoid the middle third of the reed altogether as smoothing or filing that area can have a negative affect on the pitch you want to achieve.
If you use a variable speed Dremel use its slowest setting. If you use a variable speed Foredom learn to use it at a speed that lets you work comfortably without the tool controlling you. If you are using a non-variable high speed handpiece it is recommended to connect it to an on/off foot pedal so that you can "pump" the action of the handpiece. Try to avoid using it at it full speed when working on reeds otherwise you will need to develop a Very light tough when working with these handpieces.
To begin with it would be a good idea to work on an old diatonic or chrome harp to get comfortable working on reeds with a handpiece.
Start the rotary tool and using a brush motion begin brushing over the top 1/4 end of the reed tip area.
One of the nice things that you can do with a rubber wheel that you can't achieve with other methods is reduce the reed area in a even fashion across the reed. There is less stress placed on the reed surface because you are reducing the metal in an even polishing fashion rather then scraping, nicking or gouging the reed. Reed metal tends to become dull with time. As you're smoothing/brushing/polishing, whatever term you want to use, over the metal you will be able to notice the area you worked on by the high shine created on the reed.
If you take notice to how a reed appears fresh from the dealer the heel of the reed usually has scrap marks across it from side to side. Like a scratch in glass this can act as a fatigue area on the reed in time. You can reduce the chances of fatigue in a area that has severe file marks by smoothing out the marks and bringing the reed back into pitch by sharpening the tip.
First start with the low reeds when tuning as they take the most amount of time to bring into pitch and require several short strokes over the reed. As you move up the reed plate you will notice that you will need to use fewer strokes to bring the reed into pitch. If you over sharpen the reed you can easily bring it back into pitch by detuning the reed at the heel.
Be very careful when working on the higher reeds since no matter what method you use to tune the reed, pitch can be affected with little effort.
I personally like to remove the reedplates for any reed that is inside to flatten reeds. On chromatics this is a given since damage will occur to the windsaver from trying to pull it back far enough to tune at the heel of the reed. If possible try to remove the reedplates to tune any reed under a windsaver rather then lifting it up.
When I work on a client's chromatic harp that needs tuning
I first tune all the exposed reeds on the top and bottom plate while still mounted on the comb.
Then carefully take off one of the reedplates and do all the inside reeds. This way I don't have to mess at all with pulling back on the windsavers. If you can avoid a potential problem then do so.
With any tuning method patience is the key to getting it right.
You will also need to go back and check the tuning several days later as the tuning tend to drift slightly as with all forms of tuning.
If you have poor vision like I do it would pay you to invest in a set of magnifying loupes.
I wear a pair of 10x loupes that fit over the head and are adjustable to any head size.
They are also good for finding minute objects stuck in reed slots and properly positioning replacement reeds over the slots.
Having a wife that is a jeweler and a craft artist tends to be a blessing at times. I sometimes borrow tools and supplies from her workbench when I can't seem to find one on mine to fit the task. A case in point was trying to find a pin that I could comfortably hold while trying to roll down a windsaver. On her workbench was a T pin. They can be purchased at craft and fabric stores. I have used it with great success lately on both plastic and leather windsavers though not in the usual method prescribed.
On plastic windsavers I slide the head of the pin though both the strips of the material.
I then hold my finger on the base of the windsaver so as not to pull it off and tilt the pin downward toward the front of the reed.
I then slowly pull the pin forward and off the windsaver.
NOTE: You don't want to position the pin too far back on the windsaver or you may create a kink in the plastic valve.
The main idea of this method is NOT to create any kinks in the valve in order to make the windsaver flat. If you have a windsaver that is severely twisted or has kinks it would be best to replace it rather then having more problems occurring down the road. Several passes through the pinhead may be necessary at times for valves that have an extreme curl. I find this method to be one of the least traumatic and most effective methods to flatten a windsaver. By opening or closing the slot of the pin head you can control the degree to which you are able to roll the windsaver flat.
Dremel rotary tools are available around the world and can be found in most hardware and hobbist stores and on the internet.
Foredom rotary tools can be purchased through suppliers of jewelers tools
or internationally on the web @ http://www.foredom.com
Shofu Brownies product code WH6 & PC2 as well as dental burs can be purchased at:
Darby Dental Supply Co.
Lincoln Dental Supply
Zahn Dental Supply
Check the internet for special prices. You need to establish an account with a dental supply co. They usually don't care if you are a business or not to purchase but require that you set up an account which only takes a few minutes.
Custom Craft Harmonicas 1-702-256-7470
F&R Farrell 1-800-438-3543
F&R Farrell Co. and Custom Craft Harmonicas Ltd. (also see Links, Online Shops and Harmonica Reviews, Custom) also market their brand of rotary tools designed for tuning reeds. I don't know how heavy duty they are to perform outside of tuning reeds so you may want to inquire from them first if you intend to use it for other purposes.
The dental supply companies as well as MicroMark and F&R Farrell Co. sell optical loupes.
Files suited for tuning can also be purchased through F&R Farrell Co.
Sanding Sticks can be puchased at Woodworkers specialy stores and on the internet from MicroMark Inc.