How To Make Your Harmonica's Worst Enemy Its Best Friend!

Okay, first up, some scenarios for you:

  1. Your family and friends are over at your place (or you’re over there’s) and they ask for a little “muzak” from that harp of yours.

You gladly oblige them; pulling out your bestest favoritest harp up with your bestest favoritest tune in mind, you purse your lips up and blow and….

  1. You’re out and about shopping at your local $1 and/or discount store. In the checkout line, in front of you is a little girl squirming about as her poor mother tries to juggle paying for the items and attending to her at the same time. You’ve got the bright idea to pull out your harp and soothe the little savage’s beast soul. You purse your lips and blow and…

  2. You’re out and about and come across a little jamming session going on with a guitar player and percussionist. There’s no harmonica player, so you ask if you can join them for just awhile.

They ask “What you got, son?” You pull out your trusty little harp and smile “Well, I’ve got this. Will it do?” “Sure, pal, pull yerself up a chair, right chere!”

Sure enough, you hear/feel the beat, you jump right in, purse your lips and blow and…

In all these scenarios, and many more, you purse your lips and blow and…blow suck blow suck blow suck…in out in out in out…and…and nothing! Yes, that’s right, absolutely nothing!

Well not at first absolutely nothing. First come the squealing and other choking pitchy noises; then the kkkkkkkk sounds of something dying maybe, then there’s absolutely nothing! And all this nothingness is coming out and from your harmonica!

In less time that it takes to read this: Hello & Welcome to One of Your Biggest WTF Moments Ever! –

Within mere seconds, you experience panic, frustration, anger all at the same time. All the good things we like to tell ourselves we’re not like – But yes, there they are!

Most and worst of all, we experience embarrassment! Gut wrenching, red faced, WTF? embarrassment!!

We slap our harp, we slap the air, and we slap ourselves! We blow suck blow suck, in out in out – And still nothing!

“Um, okay everybody, sorry to have disturbed you; ya’ll just go back to whatever it is you were doing; that’s right, just ignore me over here; I’m just going to slink away now in shame, disgrace, and disgust.” And well you name it and so on!

WTF happened here? runs through your mind leaving you in a cold blank stare searching for answers! So what did happen here?!

Well, congratulations fellow harpsters and harpsterettes!

The answer is: You just met up with your harmonica’s worst enemy! And that is: Your Breath!

Seems a little overdramatic here; but no, it does, can, and will happen especially when you least expect it to!

Great thing is, by reading these tips and tricks and A-ha Eureka moments I’m going to share with you now – Well, forewarned is forearmed, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and worth its weight in gold.

The best way to illustrate this is simply in telling you how it all happened to me. So here goes:

My Golden Melody set just arrived from Musicians Friend. I was happy as the lark who got their big score for the day.

Later that night, I opened everything up, took out my first GM in C and tested it out. Sounded great! Yay! But my thrill was short-lived; very short-lived. Within a matter of minutes the harp started squealing and then choking and then nothing. Especially, mostly on the high end.

Ah, dammit, what’s wrong here?! Fortunately, I had my trusty little screwdriver kit, opened it up and found it was…drenched in condensation!

Yessiree bub! Not just a little, but rather a lot. It was on both sets of reeds as well as both cover plates. Taking the reed plates off the comb, it was again, all over.

Well I wiped everything down as best I could, but also hunted out a hair dryer my dear departed mother had in the bathroom cabinets underneath the sink.

After awhile, everything was dried out; put back together again; and all sounded A-okay.

At the same time, in testing out all the other harps, I warmed them up first before playing them.

No problems whatsoever.

Well I’m sure by now some of the older hands here will be saying I forgot the first rule of the harmonica, and that is: Warm it up before you Play it up!

But I’m a beginner, what did I know anyways?

Well in the older harmonica books and even on JPs dvd, they all say to warm up the harmonica – and usually it’s by – get this now – placing it under your arm pit.

Yeah okay, the arm pits are one of the warmest spots on your body for sure. However let me tell you about “my” arm pits. Um, better yet, let’s not. Still though, the only thing I do want under my arm is girlfriend as we’re walking along; sitting on the couch watching a movie; laying next to each other in bed snuggly and all. You get the idea.

So putting my harmonica under my arm pit – well not exactly my cup of tea, yo!

I found that if I’m wearing a shirt with pockets and a coat on top of that – Placing your harmonica in the pocket will certainly keep it warm. Also, if I’m wearing trousers with large enough pockets – Keeping a harmonica next to the other area of your body that’s warm will keep it just the same as well.

However it’s not always the case, especially ladies who wear neither shirts nor trousers. So there’s got to be an easier and better way to keep that harp warm. Oh, there is. But hold on. We’re getting there.

Yet though, at least in the house, if you have a hair dryer or even a heating pad, it’s generally a good idea to warm up the reed plates before playing.

I say generally now. Because Caution: If you have any ‘valved’ harmonicas – the ones that have plastic strips glued/affixed to the reed plates – Any kind of high heat will melt the glue and/or strips themselves. So never ever use high heat on those as you’ll really have more to say than a mere WTF?! no doubt about it!!

Fortunately, most all hair dryer and heating pads have adjustable cool or low settings. And on those settings, they’re actually cooler than your hot breath may be. Yet too again, Caution is definitely your ally here. Be that as it may…

So now as a beginner making beginner errors as far as getting my harps warmed up first – Well that’s all well and good when I’m home. However, what happens to me and my harmonicas when I’m not there?!

Well okay, I’m at the local Wal-Mart Super Center. It’s a cold day, I’m waiting outside for my cab; and there’s a lovely Salvation Army girl ringing her bell trying to get some spare change for The Cause.

I go over, pull out my Piedmont, and start playing some Christmas carols for her. She’s delighted; passers-by drop in their donations all the while smiling. But it’s cold out. She’s shivering; time for her break; inside she goes.

I’m waiting for my cab not knowing which end of the super center it’ll arrive at. As I continue playing on my own and having fun – I can already sense the Uh-Oh!

Yeppers, the reed plates are starting to freeze up. Well, okay, I always carry extra harmonicas with me. So I reach into my coat pocket and grab my Big River. Thing is, it’s so cold out that not even my body temp has kept it warm. I already know that once I start blowing on it, it will freeze up too.

But I’m kind of in the groove here. I don’t really want to stop playing. Even on my little Piedmont. What to do, what to do?!

At that moment, I heard a soft voice. From inside my head but outside my head too.

And the voice said: “Do the opposite of what you think you should do!”

Huh, what?

And I heard it again: “Just do the opposite of what you think you should do!”

Honest to God, Spirits, and the Angels – I simply said ‘Ok!’

I looked at the Piedmont, and at that time received an Aha-Eureka Moment!

And what I did is…Well, hold on, let me interrupt. Y’know it seems that doing the opposite of what you think you should do actually works more times than not, than you actually think it should or would. Why is that? I don’t know! Beats the hell out of me! It’s one of those unexplainable mysteries I guess that makes life so interesting. Okay, enough of that then.

So now let me explain to you what I did, and as you’re reading this you can follow along and do it too!

Take the harmonica you’re holding in your hand while reading this…Or go and get it, then come back. Okay, got it? Here goes:

With the harmonica in your left hand, numbers face up – Rotate the harp 180 degrees.

That’s right. Rotate it so that instead of looking at the holes on the top, you’re now looking at the bottom of the comb itself.

{For those with a bad sense of direction, no problem. - Instead of looking at the front of the harp where the holes and numbers are - Rather, you’ll now be looking at the back of the harp where the holes and numbers aren’t. Okay, cool beans! Moving forward then…}

Next, place your lower lip – of your mouth that is – against the comb itself. With a big breath go ahead - Blowing air into the bottom portion of the harmonica! Go ahead make it a big one, you won’t hurt or break anything I promise! If you do it correctly, the harmonica reed plate will sing!

Okay now once you do that, what I’d like for you to do is place your upper lip on the comb where your lower lip was just seconds ago. Yet instead of blowing, what I’d like for you to do is take a deep breath – Inhaling air from the bottom portion of the harmonica! And yes, go ahead make it a big one, you still won’t hurt or break anything, I promise. If you do it correctly, the harmonica plate will sing!

Once again, for good measure, place your lower lip on the comb and with a big breath give the bottom portion of the harmonica another blast of air! Make the reed plate sing again!

Now, it you have done all of this correctly, just wrap your hand around the harmonica and feel it! Is it warm? Really warm? If it is – Congratulations! You’ve just found your harmonica’s best friend, and that is: Your Breath!!

Hold on now, as you’re experiencing your excitement, let’s break it down a little bit more so you can fully understand and appreciate what we just did here together. So step by step:

  1. With the harmonica upright, with numbers on top – The blow reeds are on top; the draw reeds are on the bottom.

  2. When you rotate the harmonica 180 degrees, you simply just reversed them. Draw reeds are now on top; blow reeds are now on the bottom!

  3. Blowing a big breath into the draw reeds will actually open them up. The opposite of what they do as draw reeds. And this will help ‘push’ out/release whatever may be blocking them in their natural upright state.

  4. Inhaling a big breath from the blow reeds will actually close them up. The opposite of what they do as blow reeds. So what you’re actually doing is ‘pulling’ them closed and ‘pulling’ out whatever may be blocking them in their natural upright state!

See what I mean?! Understand?! Having your own Aha-Eureka Moments abound!? Yay!

Additionally here at the same time – Your big hot breath, which will be hotter than usual because it is a bigger breath – Is now and has warmed up your harmonica, not from the outside in, but rather and better from the inside out!

And that’s what you want to do anyways! Isn’t it?

Yes of course it is!

So now that your harmonica is all warmed up – Time to blow and draw and play it!

Hey if you’re lucky and listen closely – It may even sound better too! Why? Who knows – You just may’ve released whatever else was hidden inside that wasn’t exactly kosher and it’s freed and gone now too! So play away, dudes and dudettes!! Yay!!

Thing is, when I first did this – doing the opposite of what I think I should do; and reversed the blow/draw reed plates, as well as blew and inhaled through them from the bottom of the harmonica – the Piedmont immediately thawed, didn’t freeze up again, and stayed that way until my cab arrived. Hallelujah – Thank you, Jesus!!

And still, before leaving you to play with all this on your own – Here’s just a few more things I’ve learned since:

  1. The Reverse Breathing Into Your Harmonica Method as described here should work on all your harps.

I say should because most harps have small enough chambers on the bottom to use your mouth, lips and breath for either blowing or drawing.

However too, I have a custom made Elk River. And the chambers on this are larger and wider than any of my others. Yet though in directing my breath just right, I can easily heat up the reed plates no problem. So you’ll have to work with your own harps with your own breaths as the case may be.

  1. Now also, I find it works or should work on chromatic and valved harmonicas too!

I don’t have a big chromatic; only the piece of crap Chrometta 8 I wrote about elsewhere on these posts. But a valved instrument is a valved instrument nonetheless.

Great thing I discovered is that you can blow and draw on the same half of the bottom, for each half of the bottom. You’ll have to check it out yourself to get the full effects of what I’m describing. But again, no problem, eh?!

  1. Just because it’s summertime or warmer outside doesn’t necessarily mean the insides of your harps are going to be too. Actually, when it’s hot outside, I’m indoors with the A/C on. And those reed plates have to be warmed up so as not to get condensation in them.

Yet I’ve been out riding on my bike. Pulling a harp from my backpack; pursing my lips to blow and suck and…Oh no!! “Freeze up/Lock up” time! Freeze and Lock up as in yes, that dastardly condensation again.

But now that I know how to unblock and unclog everything, well when the moisture comes shooting out from the bottom, as you may experience yourself – Have no fear, as it’s all good! At least a lot better than what I find under my arm pits on any day, but hey now! once your harp is all cleared out – Just have at it!

So bottom line: For beginners as well as older hands, if there’s ever anywhere when you’re all raring to go on your little or big playing moments – And you forgot to warm up your harmonica ahead of time, and it freezes/locks up on you, well now you can feel confident in knowing you can correct it soon enough. And no need to slink away and act all embarrassed anymore!

And sure enough as anything else goes – You’ll be happy and safe knowing you’ve just turned your harmonica’s worst enemy: Your Breath, into your harmonica’s best friend, which is: Your Breath too! Sooo…

Keep on smiling!

Keep on harpin’!

Thanks for reading!

Thanks SPD!! I get that quite often and always start slamming harp in my hand OUCH :o

Or against something hard a desk or floor and sure enough I’ve broken a couple.

I thinks I better try your way before I break any more of me Harps :wink:

Harp on!!

Great tip there, Mr SPD :wink:
On cold days, I’ve been known to carry my harps in my trouser pocket, but there’s only so many ya can get in… ???

Which begs the question: Is that a harmonica in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me? :o

Well you know ‘it’ - wink, wink - has to work even in the cold; ever see just “one” Eskimo! ;D

And um, they don’t call you ‘hotrod’ for nothing, eh? :wink:

Have fun!


Thanks for reading my post!

Keep on Harpin’! :smiley:

LOL! I enjoyed the post SPD!!!

The technique doesn’t make sense to me but I still loved the article.

I’m pretty sure breaking in a harmonica is partly a function of heat but more importantly vibrating the reeds to create a “memory” in the metal. I’m not 100% sure but that’s what I’ve gathered from reading several articles on the subject.

Does anyone have a link to an article from hohner that talks about “Breaking In The Reeds”… I did a quick search and couldn’t find one.

I personally don’t worry about “breaking in the reeds” because I generally play a moderate volume which is the ideal volume for “exercising” the reeds in order to structure the metal in a way that the reeds hold their tune for longer.

Thanks SPD. Great topic!

My answer: Seppeku

“Well, Alex (Trebek) the question is…?” ::slight_smile:

Oops, sorry time ran out. Anybody else?! ???

Shout out to JP

Breaking in the reeds is one thing - Like you show on your vids and others with chugging first. I do that too thanks to you. :wink:

This was more what to do if/when your harps lock/freeze up due to differences in temperature between the colder inside reed plates and your hot/warm breath.

Condensation and all that stuff! :stuck_out_tongue:

Living out on the East Coast here, we experience all sorts of weather changes. From cold to hot! :o

Yet am still waiting for my plane ticket to them nice, comfortable island beaches of yours - And when I do will probably find my harps won’t have any problems with those temp differentials! Yee haw! :smiley:


Keep on harpin’!!

I get that quite often and always start slamming harp in my hand OUCH

I know what you mean there, JF! :-\

And believe it or not, condensation builds up fast in GMs. I think it has something to do with its overall design. :o

I’ve had the covers off and while regapping, will test them out, and you can see your breath all over the reed plates. :stuck_out_tongue:

Yet too, the reverse blowing/drawing from underneath the harp really seems to help in warming them without all the condensation build up. :wink:

IDK! Something about physics or whatever. Mwuahahahaha! :smiley:

Keep us posted!

Keep on harpin’!

Thanks SPD nice one [will file it upstairs ] …new player 8 months now. ;D

Thanks for the clarification. Now it makes more sense.