The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #152573   Message #3568638
Posted By: Big Ballad Singer
20-Oct-13 - 07:31 PM
Thread Name: A tricky question for paid players
Subject: A tricky question for paid players
You have the opportunity to perform, for guaranteed money, regularly (at least every weekend).

You do not have an instrument.

HERE'S the tricky part: You play the harmonica.

Gig-worthy harmonicas in the US cost an average of 25 bucks each. Most prices drop considerably for models below that range, but the quality does, too, and it's a serious drop. The difference between a 25-dollar Hohner "Special 20" and a 7-dollar Hohner "Bluesband" is the difference between a Honda Accord and a wind-up toy. One is solid and can be maintained and made to last; the other is cheap plastic that won't even stand hobbyist-level playing for very long.

Interestingly, the cheaper Hohners used to be made better; the Special 20 of today is now made to the same standards as a Bluesband of 20 years ago. The Bluesband model of today is awful. It doesn't even WEIGH the same amount. The cheaper harmonicas made by Hohner and others today even FEEL cheaper.

I bought a Hohner "Hot Metal" harmonica when I was 17 years old. It was a model (I think they still have it out there) made to have a brighter tone. It was meant to cut through loud rock guitars, because certain American pop-metal bands at the time had ballads or some such with lousy harmonica breaks in them, so Hohner wanted to capitalize.

I paid seven dollars for that harmonica. It was abused, played and not cleaned, even stepped on so that one of the steel covers is dented.

It STILL plays well. It's not perfectly in tune anymore, and I wouldn't gig with it, but it is still serviceable for fooling around on. It's nearly 25 years old now.

Conversely, I've paid 10 or so dollars for some of Hohner's lower-end models within the last few years (including the Hot Metal), and most of them lasted ONE jam session. ONE. The reeds blew out of tune, and when a thin reed like that gets bent farther than it should, it usually bends in a way that doesn't lend itself to being bent back properly.

The problem is you can't BORROW a friend's harmonicas like you borrow guitars. You also can't gig with just one harmonica.

An electric guitarist can "make do", sometimes, with a cheap Squier or other import-plywood thing; at least I've heard that said. I don't know any guitar players who have done that.

The crappy, toy-quality harmonicas at the big-box guitar stores are junk. I wouldn't even give one to a child to learn on; I've bought some that were warped or out of spec right out of the box!

My "brand" back in the day was Lee Oskar. They are manufactured by Tombo, a Japanese company, and have been since the 1970s. Lee Oskar was the harmonica player in the 60s rock band War. I was passingly familiar with their music ("Low Rider" is their most popular tune, and it features Oskar's famous harmonica riff), but I bought them because they were praised by some famous blues players I admire.

These days, a standard 10-hole major diatonic Lee Oskar harmonica retails for an average of US $33.00.

The MINIMUM number of harmonicas necessary for the player in a run-of-the-mill blues cover band would be at least four. The keys of A, D, E and G are ubiquitous in blues music, and most songs can be transposed to those keys without ruining the feel of the song.

That's over $160, and that's just for the harmonicas, not counting replacement parts.

What possible solution is there to a quandary like this?

There are three- and five- piece packaged sets that average $110-$150. Should anything happen to any one of those harmonicas, the price of replacement would be 30% of the total cost of the package. That gets very expensive very quickly.

You can't gig with instruments that won't hold up under serious playing, you can't play all your songs in the same key and you can't play an instrument that is permanently out of tune. Sure, I've played with a couple of harmonicas that are worn out and flat by a few semitones, but eventually you can't cover that up anymore; they go too flat to hide by skipping notes or glossing over them.

Any other harmonica players out there? What to do?