There is probably no greater frustration experienced by players than reed failure. It happens and unfortunately for some, it happens frequently and at the worst possible times. Reed failure is the point where the base of a reed is weekened to the point that the reed goes drastically flat in pitch and no amount of re-tuning will bring it back. In some cases, the reed will actually break. This happens because the reed vibrates and there are a finite number of vibrations that can occur in every reed. After a reed is manufactured it immediately begins the deterioration process. Every reed is doomed to fail at some point. This is basic physics. It is just that in some cases the reed will vibrate well past the lifetime of the harmonica and even the player and in other cases it will fail at a point some consider premature. The number of vibrations that a reed could theoretically produce is predetermined by laws of nature. But just like the tires on a car, a the deterioration process can be advanced by a number of factors, namely force. So for example, if a reed could theoretically vibrate 50 million times before failure, that number could easily be reduced to 25 million or even 5 million if force was applied to the reed while vibrating. The easiest illustration of this is found when we bend a paperclip. Eventually – if we bend it enough – it will break. The further we bend it, the quicker it breaks. Lets work on the presumption that reed life is a function of vibrations, applied force, the swing above and below the slot (The result of force), and reed construction.
Every reed dimension (Length and width) has an optimal pitch. To make this simple, let’s assume that this corresponds roughly around the pitches of a standard (C) harmonica. In other words, in holes 1-10 of a (C) harp, the reeds are relatively balanced at the tip and the base. Although this is not entirely the case, it is close. The further we get away from the pitches of our (C) harmonica, the more unbalanced the reed becomes. Material is either added or removed from the base or the tip of the reed to increase or decrease pitch. As the reed becomes more unbalanced, the finite number of vibrations before failure is reduced. That’s not all that happens as we move further in pitch from our (C) harmonica; the reeds also become trickier to play. Have you ever noticed that many of the techniques you master on your (C) harp are much more difficult on your (G)? As we play the more advanced playing techniques, especially single and dual reed bends, we are applying more force to the reed and causing the reed to swing wider through the slot. This is one of the ways we vary pitch and add expression. However, each time we do this, we reduce the finite number of vibrations that nature allotted to that reed.
If we translate this to some more practical applications it will come into perspective. The (LowD) is a very popular Seydel harmonica that seems to find a home in the gig bags of Irish style players. Most likely this is because the standard higher octave (D) is a little shrill sounding and the (LowD) fits in nice with fiddles and other stringed instruments. Played in 1st position the root note falls on blow 1, 4, 7, and 10 with blow 7 being one of the more common notes. In the Irish style of music the root falls on the downbeat. It is highly likely that this reed is played more than any other reed throughout the song and furthermore it is accented because of where it falls in the tune. Under our premise above, we are have a finite number of vibrations that are reached more rapidly because the note is played more, it is played with more force, and because the tip of that reed is much heavier than the blow 7 reed on our (C) harp. This adds significantly to the stress or force that is applied to the base of the reed as it swings above and below the slot.
There are other more common examples where reeds tend to fail. For example, many blues players commonly play blow bends at holes 8, 9, & 10 on (G) and (A) harps. Both harps are commonly used in 1st and 2nd position play and the blow bends on those notes are in the ideal pitch range for a soloist or lead player to get out above the other instruments in the band. However, these notes and the related techniques used to play them require a very narrow stream of high pressure air that is directed at both the blow and draw reed. There are a high number of useable notes within each of these holes and hence players will frequently play entire solos on holes 8-10 (Steve Wonder – Boogie On Reggae Woman and a host of Jimmy Reed tunes come to mind) and so it isn’t surprising that these notes will reach their finite number of vibrations much sooner than say the reed at the 2 draw.
Reed failure is simply a natural consequence of playing the harmonica. In the same way that guitar players wear out strings and golfers wear out balls, reeds are going to fail at some point. They are going to fail often for some players and for others very rarely. Experience has shown that players who came up using harps from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, tend to play harder. This is most likely because the harps from these eras were a little stiffer to play and hence the players developed a playing style that contributes to reed failure. Experience has also shown that players who gig regularly see reed failure more frequently than those who mrely jam with friends or play in the studio. This is most likely because the stage still causes even the most seasoned of musicians to get excited and play harder in addition to having to play harder to hear oneself on stage over the other amped instruments.
It is unlikely that reed failure will ever be eliminated. However, it can be reduced somewhat and it can be managed to an extent. In the next article on this topic, we will explore options for the player to deal with the aggravating circumstances surrounding reed failure. As a Seydel partner, we at 16:23 Custom Harmonicas specialize in tailoring a program that keeps harps in the hands of our customers.