In this issue, I'm going to review three new models of chromatic harmonica, all 12-hole instruments in C: the Bends Tonica, the Seydel Saxony, and the Suzuki Grégoire Maret signature model. Next issue I'll review the Hohner 270 Deluxe and the new CX-12 Jazz.
For many years you could only buy two or three models of chromatic harmonica, all of them from Hohner. This year, at the 2009 SPAH convention (SPAH is the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica), several new models of chromatic were on display from Hohner, Seydel, Suzuki, and a little Brazilian company called Bends. I couldn't resist the opportunity to try out these new models and write this review.
A Few Basic Concepts
In case you're not yet familiar with them, chromatic harmonicas have several features not present on diatonic harmonicas.
- Windsaver valves are little strips of plastic mounted to keep air from leaking around a reed that isn't being played. In any given hole, there is one reed activated by inhaling and one by exhaling. The valves keep the draw (inhale) reed from leaking air when you exhale, and keep the blow (exhale) reed from leaking air when you inhale. That way the tone of each note is stronger and you need less breath to sound each note.
- The mouthpiece is a strip of metal that covers the front of the harmonica and is shaped to fit your mouth. Each hole in the mouthpiece leads to two more holes in the body of the harmonica (more about that in a moment).
- The slide assembly consists of two or three layers of metal grids, each with a checkerboard pattern of square or rectangular holes. The slide assembly fits behind the mouthpiece, just in front of the body of the harmonica. One of the grids is called the slide because you can slide it from left to right by pressing on a button that sticks out of the right side of the harmonica. If the harmonica is in the key of C, you'll get the notes of the C major scale until you press the button to shift the slide to the left. The slide will then cover up the holes that lead to the reeds for the key of C and instead open a second set of holes that lead to the reeds for the key of C# - that's why each hole in the mouthpiece covers two holes in the harmonica, one for the notes of C and one for the notes of C#. The notes of those two keys give you all the notes you need to play any scale in any key.
- A chromatic can be cross-tuned or straight tuned. A straight tuned chromatic has all the notes of the C scale on top and all the notes of C# on the bottom. With the slide out, all the open holes are on top, as shown in Figure 1.
With a cross-tuned instrument, the keys of C and C# alternate between top and bottom. Consequently the open holes in the slider also appear in an alternating pattern, as shown in Figure 2.
Cross-tuned instruments have bigger holes in the slide, allowing for more air to pass through to the reeds. However, the wider holes in the slider require that you push the slide farther to change between C reeds and C# reeds. For fast playing, you may have to work harder to attain speed with a cross tuned chromatic.
Mouthpieces, slides, and valves help the chromatic harmonica to do things that other types of harmonicas can't do, but they also introduce a whole set of problems that other harmonicas don't have:
- The shape of the mouthpiece and the mouthpiece holes can be comfortable or uncomfortable for your lips and tongue. In addition, an abrupt change of slope where the mouthpiece ends and the covers begin can affect how airtight a seal you can make been your lips and the harmonica when you cover a wide area on the harmonica with your mouth.
- Slides can stick, or grind against the other metal layers in a grid, and they can move sluggishly. If the mouthpiece is loose, the slide can leak air and weaken the tone of the instrument.
- Valves can stick, pop, and buzz as they get wet or collect sticky residues from player's saliva and residue from food and drink.
In addition to features, performance, looks, and price, we'll examine mouthpieces, slides, and valves of the harmonicas under review.
Bends (www.bendsharmonicas.com.br/) is a recently formed Brazilian company that produces several models of 10-hole diatonic and two models of chromatic. Company principal Thiago Cerveira is himself a harmonica player and guitarist who takes great joy both in performing and in developing and marketing his new line of diatonic and chromatic harmonicas. While the existence of two harmonica manufacturers in Brazil inevitably raises potential comparisons with Hering, I can say after both playing and close examination of the parts of the Tonica model is that it is distinct both in design and in sound from the Hering chromatics I've played and serviced.
The Bends Allegro resembles the familiar chromatic harmonica design typified by the Hohner 270 and has brass reeds, while the Tonica model under review here has matte black covers that remain raised above the reedplates for the entire length of the harmonica and has bronze reeds fastened with stainless steel rivets that won't rust. One unusual-and desirable-feature of the Tonica is its Teflon-coated slide. This makes the slide slightly thicker than normal, but also makes for quiet, smooth, stick-free operation.
The Tonica comes in 12, 14, and 16-hole configurations. The 16-hole models come in the keys of C, Bb, and A, while the 12-hole models come in the keys of C, D, G, A, Bb. In this issue, only the 12-hole Tonic in the key of C is reviewed. The 12-hole Tonica has a suggested retail price of $339, but can be found in the U.S. for about $240. The main source at present is www.instrumentalsavings.com, which also has the 14-hole version of the Tonica for about $50 more. It has round holes and is straight tuned. Its comb (the middle “body” part of the harmonica) is injection-molded transparent acrylic. The reedplates are 1.2 millimeters thick which is slightly thicker than reedplates on many chromatics. The extra thickness allows for a wider swinging arc for the reeds, increasing volume but potentially slowing response slightly.
California blues master Gary Smith and Brazilian jazz harmonicist Rodrigo Eberienos (www.rodrigoeberienos.com/) are among the many endorsers of Bends chromatics. California jazz artist Slide Man Slim (www.slidemanslim.com) tells me that he uses the Tonica for recording (he plays a Super 64X for most gigs).
Seydel, founded in 1847-ten years before Hohner, is perhaps Germany's oldest surviving harmonica manufacturer. It emerged from the communist era in East Germany as a small 22-person company focusing on high-quality products, often customized to player specifications. Recently they have pioneered the use of stainless steel as a reed material in place of the more common brass or phosphor bronze, starting with their 1847 series of diatonic models.
The Saxony is Seydel's first chromatic with stainless steel reeds. It has large, round holes and is straight tuned. The comb is milled from a block of aluminum and powder coated with a mottled gray finish. The reedplates are made of German silver (also known as nickel silver, which is an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc). At 1.0 millimeters thick, the Saxony's reedplates are the thinnest among the models reviewed here, and yet the Saxony puts out far more volume than the Bends Tonica and possibly even more than the Maret model. The Saxony carries a suggested retail price of $349.95. You can order directly from Seydel's website at www.seydelusa.com, or from any of several online harmonica dealers.
David Naiditch (www.davidnaiditch.com), who plays Bluegrass on chromatic in an all-acoustic setting, bought two of them because he feels they will have both the loudness and the brightness to be heard among banjos and fiddles. Jazz harmonicist Chris Bauer (www.chrisbauermusic.com) now favors the Saxony as his main harmonica, except when he needs notes below middle C, for which he goes back to his Hohner Mesiterklasse.
Suzuki Grégoire Maret Signature Series
Suzuki Musical Instrument Co. (not related to the motorcycle maker) was founded by Manji Suzuki in 1953 in Hamamatsu, Japan and has branched out from harmonicas to manufacture pianos, educational and band instruments, and Hammond organs. Mr. Suzuki retains a love for the harmonica and Suzuki has continued to drive innovation and quality improvements in harmonica design and manufacturing. (The new Manji diatonic model is named for Mr. Suzuki, who received SPAH's Pete Pedersen Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.)
Suzuki's newest chromatic harmonicas are the G-48 and the G-48W Grégoire Maret signature models, designed to the specifications of the Swiss jazz harmonica virtuoso who has been forging an international reputation in recent years.
The Maret harmonicas are cross-tuned 12-hole models in standard C tuning. (It remains to be seen whether the line will be extended to other keys or ranges, or to 14-hole or 16-hole models.) The G-48 has glossy midnight blue metal covers whose shape is reminiscent of Suzuki's top-of-the-line Fabulous models. The G-48W has similarly shaped rosewood covers intended to deliver a darker sound. This review will cover the metal-cover model. Suggested retail prices are $699.95 for the metal-cover G-48 and $749.95 for the wood-cover G-48W model. As of this writing (October 2009) these models have not been made available for sale, but should be available by the time you read this. For updates check www.suzukimusic.com/harmonicas/ or www.suzukimusic.co.uk or www.suzuki-music.co.jp/special/gregoire/interview_en.htm.
As the Maret is not yet released to the public as of October 2009, Grégoire Maret is presently the only known player. You can hear some samples of him playing the instruments at http://www.suzuki-music.co.jp/special/gregoire/movies.htm.
Opening the Box
The Bends Tonica comes in a rigid, fabric-covered zippered pouch with the company logo impressed and a dimple that creates an area to protect the protruding slide button. The pouch is small and space saving and probably won't suffer cosmetic damage from being jostled in a gig bag with the usual assortment of microphones, cables, loose instruments, and other accessories.
The Maret box is smooth hard plastic, a bit larger than the Tonica pouch, but durable and unlikely to suffer significant cosmetic damage. The blue color hints at the covers of the harmonica inside.
The Saxony box looks like a jewel case-It promises (and delivers) something special and precious. While the inside seems tough enough to protect the harmonica, the textured silvery outer surface of the box is pressed paper and might suffer scratches, gashes and other damage that would leave it looking shabby unless it were carried in a protective bag or second box.
That First Thrilling Glimpse
Each of these harmonicas presents their own aesthetic vision. The Bends Tonica has a matte black finish with wraparound covers, set off nicely by the swirling designs cut into the finish and by the chromed mouthpiece. As with the box, this harmonica is stylish, yet invites easy companionship. Pretty as it is, I wouldn't hesitate to carry it in my pocket.
The Saxony presents a vision of timeless style with a hint of luxury items from the 1920s with its extra-large mouthpiece holes, and the frosted silvery matte chrome finish on the traditional covers whose shell extends only the width of the reeds, terminating in side tabs at the ends of the harmonica. While the frosted finish is distinctive, it's also practical-It helps to prevent the harp from getting slippery when your hand get wet under hot stage lights. (The covers are also available in a shiny stainless steel finish.)
The Maret presents the simplest and most mysterious appearance, with almost no graphics to interrupt the dark sheen of the midnight-blue covers, which form a nearly continuous wraparound surface with the rounded smoke-toned mouthpiece.
Picking It Up
The Bends Tonica is the lightest of the three harmonicas at only 215 grams (7.6 ounces). You can easily put in it a pocket (with or without the zippered case) and not feel the weight-just another thing that makes this harp seem like a casual friend you can take anywhere on a whim.
The Saxony has a solid aluminum comb but at 272 grams (9.6 ounces) still doesn't feel heavy. Still, I'd think twice about treating it casually, as I'd want to protect its appearance.
The Maret, like the Tonica, has an injection-molded plastic comb, but at 341 grams (12 ounces) is much heavier because Suzuki fills several of the voids inside the comb with brass weights that are screwed in place, as shown here:
Suzuki claims this has a positive effect on the sound. I simply like to have a heavier harmonica in my hands. However, you can change the weights to suit your preference (and decide for yourself what effect it has on the sound). Each brass weight is actually a stack of four identical pieces screwed to the comb. If you prefer a lighter weight, you could unscrew the weights and reduce the number of pieces in the stack, or even remove them all.
In addition to being the heaviest of the three, the Maret is also the thickest top to bottom and the deepest front to back to front.
Putting It In Your Mouth
All three harmonicas are comfortable to play. However, when tongue blocking and playing two notes several holes apart, you need to get the harmonica far inside your mouth. At this point some harmonicas will cause a problem. As soon as your mouth encounters a steep rising angle-such as the front of the covers-this can break your embouchure seal, causing you to lose air (it can also be uncomfortable).
The Tonica does present a bump that for me created difficulty in maintaining a good embouchure seal for wide intervals:
The profile of the Saxony puts the covers farther away than some harmonicas (such as the Hohner 270) but not as far as others (such as the Hering 5148). However, the low profile of the covers does not create as much of an obstacle as most other harmonicas, and wide intervals can be played with relative comfort and minimal air loss.
The Maret is designed to make a continuous curve from rounded mouthpiece to the covers, and maintaining a sealed embouchure is easy for wide intervals. However, some players may find that the thickness of the harmonica might take some getting used to when placed deep in the mouth
I do have one complaint about all three harmonicas under review here. All three are premium priced models, yet all three fail to implement discrete assembly. To remove one cover, you have too remove them both, as a single nut-and-bolt assembly holds both covers on. Likewise, all the screws that fasten the reedplates go through the comb to fasten both reedplates, meaning you have to remove both reedplates to remove just one. Years ago, Richard Farrell pioneered inexpensive, easy-to-manufacture methods to independently fasten each cover and each reedplate. As long as you the consumer are spending multiples of the price of a standard chromatic harmonica and the manufacturers are investing in great looks and superior performance, why don't they make the tiny and obvious additional investment in designing an instrument that is easier to disassemble for service?
Harmonica Covers and Shaping Tone with the Hands
Cupping your hands around the openings in the harmonica's covers allows you to shape tone. All three models allow the player to effectively cup the harmonica.
The covers of the Tonica extend the shell-the raised area that projects the sound-over the entire length of the harmonica. A full-length shell contributes to a sleek appearance and makes for hand comfort if you hold the harmonica by its ends:
The Saxony's traditional covers extend the shell only over the reeds, not the ends of the harmonica. This reduces the area that needs to be covered by the hands for tone shaping. In addition, the edges of the Saxony covers are flared and rolled in, with the intent of preventing the edges of the covers from obstructing the passage of sound.
The Maret has a full-length cover shell. One hidden design advantage to the Maret is the heavy-duty cover supports. Most harmonicas have a screw (as in the Saxony) or a pair of tabs (as in the Tonica) to support the backs of the covers to prevent crushing. The Maret G-48 uses a frame reminiscent of the roll bar on an all-terrain vehicle that gives maximum support to the covers:
The mouthpiece and slide assembly are critical to the operation of a chromatic harmonica. If air is lost, tone is weak and the player can't control the reeds properly. If the slide grates, moves sluggishly, or even sticks, then the player can't access the notes he or she needs.
The Tonica uses the traditional four-part slide assembly. To give the slide a stable surface, a backing plate is laid over the front of the comb and reedplates, and the slide rests on the backing plate. The slide is housed in a U-channel, which resembles the backing plate but has curved edges, creating a U-shaped channel for the slide to move in. Above the U-channel is the mouthpiece, which is screwed down to hold the entire assembly in place.
The front surface of the Tonica comb is hand sanded to assure flatness. The ends of the mouthpiece are bent upward to curve away from the harmonica. When they are screwed down, they exert extra pressure on the middle of the mouthpiece to assure airtightness. The middle part of the mouthpiece is also hand sanded to assure flatness in that critical area.
However, the most notable part of the Tonica slide assembly is the slide itself, coated with Teflon in a patented process. This makes the slide notably smooth and quiet in action, and is likely to help prevent sticking.
The Saxony uses an ingenious variation on the four-part slide assembly. The flat backing plate becomes the front plate, and the U-channel is replaced with an I-beam. One side of the I-beam helps clamp the front of the comb to the reedplates. The other side creates a channel for the slide to travel in. The flat front pate rests on top of the slide and I-beam, with the mouthpiece on top of the entire assembly. The Saxony mouthpiece is completely flat, with a large amount of bottom surface area to contact the front plate. This assembly allows for very tight clamping of the mouthpiece without causing the slide to bind.
I found evidence of careful hand finishing in the surfaces of the slider, front plate, and I-beam on the Saxony I disassembled, which all contribute to the airtightness of the instrument. However, in two different instruments I did notice a breathiness in the sound of some of the notes in the first octave, even though I still experienced full power and control in those notes. However, when I examined the slide, I found a very subtle bend in the slide whose placement corresponded to the location of the breathy sounding notes. While the Saxony is already an airtight, powerful instrument, closer attention to the flatness of the slides could result in a more prefect uniformity of tone.
The Maret uses a simple two-piece slide assembly that reduces possible sources of leakage by reducing the number of layers. As with most cross-tuned instruments, the Maret's comb has a front fence that hides the edges of the reedplates. On the Maret, the fence takes the place of the backing plate-the slide rests directly on the fence, which is sanded flat. The slide is also hand finished to create a flat, smooth surface. The back of the mouthpiece is shaped to function as a U-channel to allow for travel of the slide, and is also finished to create a flat, smooth surface. The result is a slider assembly that is simple, easy to disassemble and reassemble, and is both airtight and slides smoothly and noiselessly.
Valves can stick and pop and buzz, but they are necessarily to conserve air in chromatic harmonicas. Traditionally Hohner does not valve reeds above Hole 9. On the Tonica, the inside slots are valved to hole 12, while the outside slots are valved to Hole 9 and on the C# reedplate Hole 12 is also valved. On the Maret the inside slots are also valved all the way to hole 12, with the outside slots valved to Hole 10.
The Saxony is valved to Hole 11 on both sides of both reedplates. However, the most remarkable thing about valves on the Saxony are the specially designed dimpled valves. The tiny dimples in the surface of the bottom layer of the valve are intended to prevent the valve from sticking to the reedplate.
All three test harmonicas played easily and smoothly through al three octaves, with fast, even response. All three seemed airtight. However, each one has distinctive tonal qualities.
The Tonica has a very clear, well-defined sound, a little like an oboe. It has a dryness that seems well suited to intimate playing, and responds well to amplification, whether played into a microphone on a stand or handheld. However, it does not deliver the volume of sound-or the dynamic range from soft to loud-that can be produced by the other two models. As you can hear on the sound samples later in the article, trying to get a large sound from the instrument actually has an artistic side effect-I got a dramatic, dark throb for all my effort.
The Saxony has a distinctive bright sound that I've noticed both when I play it and when I hear others play it (you can hear David Payne and Pat Bergeson playing it in YouTube videos). Perhaps because it produces volume so effortlessly, I felt more ease than with the Tonica-even though the Saxony is airtight and efficient, it felt almost breezy to play.
The Maret has a powerful sound that delivers the largest volume and dynamic range of the three harmonicas, without the bright edge of the Saxony. Even while it has its own distinctive sound, I feel that I can shade and direct that sound almost infinitely. I find something very inviting about this harmonica that keeps luring me back to it.
Both the Saxony and the Maret harmonicas deliver high performance, and if neither price nor other design elements are important to you, you might decide between these instruments based on the difference in tone color.
To compare the three harmonicas playing identical passages, I played them 4 inches (10 centimeters) from a Shure SM-58 microphone and recorded the results. I used the same input volume settings for all recordings, with an open hand cup. I did not use any equalization or compression, but did use a slight room ambience patch as the only effect.
C Major Scale Comparison
On each instrument, I played the C major scale, ascending and descending, first softly, then at medium volume, then loudly, in the low, middle and top octaves.
To hear the Tonica play the scale, click here: 24-01.mp3
To hear the Saxony play the scale, click here: 24-02.mp3
To hear the Maret play the scale, click here: 24-03.mp3
Long Tones Comparison
On each instrument, I played the note F, first as a draw note and then as a blow note, playing a long note that starts softly, swells to loud, then back to soft. I do in the low octave, then the middle, then the high octave.
To hear long notes on the Tonica, click here: 24-04.mp3
To hear long notes on the Saxony, click here: 24-05.mp3
To hear long notes on the Maret, click here: 24-06.mp3
Third Position Blues
Cupping the harp to an Audix Fireball V microphone, I play two verses of blues in D, using tongue-blocked chords, split intervals, and octaves. The first verse is played with no effects, the second with an effects patch that emulates amplifier distortion. As these performances are improvised, I do not attempt to play the same things literally on each instrument. Rather I let the qualities of each instrument guide me.
To hear the Tonica playing third position, click here: 24-07.mp3
To hear the Saxony playing third position blues, click here: 24-08.mp3
To hear the Maret playing third position blues, click here: 24-09.mp3
Playing into an SM-58 microphone left on a stand to allow for hand cupping, I improvise over a backing track in the key of E major (from my original song "Cup of Wine"), again letting each instrument guide my improvisation.
To hear the Tonica playing in E major, click here: 24-10.mp3
To hear the Saxony playing in E major, click here: 24-11.mp3
To hear the Maret playing in E major, click here: 24-12.mp3
Comment: The more power an instrument has to spare, the easier it is to relax and improvise-providing you feel confident that you can control that power. However, you can also hear me simply hanging on a note to luxuriate in the rich sound that all that power affords. In moving from the Tonica to the Saxony to the Maret, I felt like I was ascending a power curve. Sometimes accessing more power gave me assurance and freedom-no need to push to get more out of the instrument; it's already there. Other times, all that power was a little scary and I found myself holding back.
All three harmonicas reviewed here are worthwhile instruments and good values at their respective price points. If you're looking for an easily portable instrument with a clear, intimate sound (and if the ability to deliver unusual levels of loudness is not a primary concern), the Bends Tonica is worthy of your consideration. If you're looking for higher performance with plenty of volume and a bright edge to the tone, and if you like classic styling, the Seydel Saxony is an excellent choice. If you're looking for power but also want more subtlety of tone and the ability to do delicate hand shaping and wide tongue blocked intervals with no interruption of embouchure, then the Suzuki G-48 Grégoire Maret Signature Model is an outstanding instrument that will repay the considerable investment.
I'll test drive the most recent Hohner 12-hole models, both of which are updates to already classic models, the 270 Deluxe and the CX-12 Jazz.
Recommended Book – Basic Blues Chromatic
Please visit http://www.harmonicasessions.com/feb05/ChromaticTab.pdf for a notation key.