It Doesn't Work!!!

Classic Cat's-Got-Your-Tongue-Block Embouchure.
(click here to send a better caption)

There are a limited number (9) of things that can go wrong while you're playing a chromatic harmonica.

Eventually, they all will. All at once, or evenly-spaced throughout your playing career..after a while, you'll know which straw you drew.

  1. Wrong notes can come out. (not good)
  2. No note comes out, (less not good). Can be a Stuck valve, reed obstruction, like the reed or valve hitting the comb dividers, OR, perhaps you simply forgot to blow, or suck. There's a remote possibility that you suddenly lost all of your hearing. IF you think that might be the case, go out and buy this book, and, when it comes, open it up and drop it on the floor. IF you hear it hitting the floor, you're not deaf, and Winslow Yerxa will thank you. Then you could consider reading the book.
  3. Sounds like a bike wheel does when you put a playing card in the spokes and pedal (valve issues OR there's a playing card inside your chromatic harmonica someplace)
  4. The wooden comb can crack (symptoms can be: two notes come out when you blow into one hole, or you hear a loud CRACKing sound and find that you're running out of air too quickly. Be sure to check with your physician about any breath issues.
  5. A reed can break (Screw it, literally)
  6. A note can be out of tune.You hope it's just water, or that the person who told that you you were out of tune was wrong.
  7. The instrument can be really leaky, so you have to work hard to make it play.
  8. You can have spent too little time practicing.
  9. Something else.

 Q & A (informal)

Q. When one of those inevitable things happens, what do I do, Jon?

A. Good question.

Your first instinct is correct. You find some one or some thing to blame, starting with The Obvious, (players near you who you are totally sure will never, ever, be in a position to hire you), and then "The Equipment" is blameable.
  • You miss a key change........turn and glare at your stand partner, and roll your eyes.
  • You play a wrong note.........take out your  pencil and pretend to correct the part.
  • You play out of tune.............shake your harmonica against your hand, it was the water's fault.

I did studio work for decades out here in Los Angeles, and if I had $500,000 for every time I saw a player, after having made a mistake, look at the person next to him, glaring, as if that player had screwed up, I'd have some Real Money.

Taking Personal Responsibility is for Others.

Valves, Bits & Pieces

Valves are very important. Take good care of them, they cost a lot these days. It's best to organize them by size, in little cellophane envelopes, so you don't have to spend time finding just the right one.  I sort mine alphabetically, as seen in the image on the left.

Keeping Track of Your Small Parts

The chance of ever losing a part of your chromatic harmonica is somewhere between 100% and 100%,  depending upon how expensive the carpeting on your workshop floor was.

High pile carpeting is considered the best for losing harmonica parts, and using a powerful home vacuum cleaner on that carpet is just icing on the cake.

It's good practice, when working on your chromatic harmonica, to temporarily put the parts in a nice place as you're working. Otherwise, there's a good chance that you will lose some of them. Your parts holder will, at first, be cleaner than my green one on the right, and then, it won't.

Having a box of parts, as seen below, is a pretty good idea. These parts, which I placed in a decorative rust-proof plastic box, were a gift from Dick Gardner, a Very Thankable Person. You can buy old instruments on Ebay sometimes, although with the price hikes in the business these days, they aren't as cheap as they used to be. Be sure to buy compatible versions of the kind of instruments you actually use. And, never throw anything away. In this case, and ONLY in this case, Corpses are good to keep on hand.

Due to the nature of this site and to the nature of me, I feel it would be good to point out that this next paragraph is really true. You CAN have your loved one's ashes put into jewelry that you can wear. The FAQ page reminds us that we can even take our Departed Ones' bits and pieces into the shower with us, if we seal the compartment correctly.  Ok  move on.

The online company, Ashes to Ashes, (The original cremation jewelry company) will offer to make memories out of your departed harmonica bits and pieces, but don't fall for it, that decorative, button-shaped jewelry is best saved, for when YOU need it, in This Lifetime.


If your newly-purchased "what a great deal I got!!", Ebay chromatic harmonica looks like the photo below, and is harder than expected to play, there are probably some important parts missing.

Some Useful Tools

Two versions of reed adjustment tools

If your dentist starts to work on your teeth with the bottom version, that's great, you've found a musically-inclined dentist, sensitive to your specific needs as a harmonica player with teeth.

Two Types of Reed Tuning Tools

Above, is from Bill Romel, a battery powered reed tuning tool / Christmas tree decoration maker.

Put a shim for support under the reed, and gently remove metal from the tip of the reed to sharpen the pitch, and from the rivet end to flatten the pitch.

With the tool spinning in the CORRECT direction, 'pulling' the reed towards you, you'll be able to fine tune the pitch of the reed. With the tool spinning in what we'll call the "WRONG" direction, you can make really nice tiny brass ribbons for your Christmas tree.
Inasmuch as it's hard for me to find words to exactly describe the spinning direction of the tool, just think about it. You don't want to have the rotation push the reed back into the rivet end.....unless it's Christmas, of course.

Below is the Greener and Slower version of Bill's tuning tool

(Can't take this in your carry on bag a flight, though.
And YES that happened to me going to Boston last month. )


Standard Reed and Reed Slot Adjustment Tool

This tool is one that I use quite often. It's made of a bit of BLUE tape from HOME DEPOT, and a thin metal strip that will fit in the reed slot between the reed and the edges of the slot, and, among other things, removes any burrs or detritus that might be impeding the reed's progress.

One of the first things I do to a NEW instrument is to go through all the reeds, cleaning those spaces out as needed. Care must be taken so as to not mess with the valves on the reverse side of the plates, of course.

Those are available at Home Depot, but you have to know how to get them.


Go to your local Home Depot, find an easy-to-carry item that you really want but don't want to pay their price for......the Ryobi 18-volt One+ 18-Gauge Cordless 2 in . Brad Nailer comes to mind for me..... Simply put it under your coat, and start to walk out of the store. The Alarm will go off, and the security people will want to know why you're stealing their merchandise.

At that point, feigning ignorance, you just ask them "How did you know I was stealing something?" They'll show you the "Inventory Protection Device" that they'd placed in the box. THAT'S what you want. Hand them the Brad Nailer, and take the inventory protection device home with you, and, hidden inside a plastic casing, you'll find TWO tools, ready to use on your reeds.

IF you are a minority of some sort,  don't do this in The South. You'll end up in jail where they'll issue you a DIATONIC harmonica, which is NOT what this site is mostly about.

Reed Replacement Tools

A reed removal tool,(from Bill Romel), a hammer and a reed wrench.

The top tool can, in theory, be used to both remove and replace the rivets.

For the six living humans who can actually put a new rivet in a new reed, that's all you need, however, for the rest of us, you'll need to drill and tap threads in a hole and get things set up for bolting the reeds in place.

The Tap.

Here's the process, as written by Vern Smith (see the page on Reading for more Vern.)

For reeds, you can use 0-80 x 1/8" screws and use your 0-80 tap to thread the reedplates.  If you are careful, you can tap the rivet holes in the soft brass of the plate without enlarging them.  If you want to go by the book, you can use a 3/64 tap drill in the plate before tapping the holes.  No nuts are required for the reeds.  

The reed is about .014" thick and the plate is about .040" thick so about .071" will protrude from the plate on the side opposite the reed. IF you are not going to replace many reeds, you can use your 0-80 x 1/2 screws and cut off the long .43" protrusion with a Dremel abrasive wheel.

If you are working on chromatics, you must grind or file off the screw protrusion flush with the other side of the plate so you can glue a valve there.


Thanks, Vern.

From Somebody Not Vern, but still good info.

The most significant thing you can do to a chromatic harmonica to make it play better is to do what's called "jeweling" the slide. What you are doing is decreasing the amount of space between the slide and its carriage, thus tightening up the leakiest part of a chromatic.

What you do is lay the slide carriage down to where the tabs are facing up. insert a .002 inch shim. Take a tuning file and file down the sides of the slide carriage to where it's flush with the slide... and make sure the shim is under wherever you are filing. File ONLY BETWEEN THE TABS. There are these tabs sticking up that sort of lock into place with the lower part of the slide assembly. LEAVE THOSE TABS ALONE. People usually, when they try this for the first time file or sand on those tabs. There are notches in the lower plate those tabs fit into. Their height has no impact on the rest of the slide. They are important, leave them alone.

Once you've filed, use fine grit sandpaper or cloth just to smooth away burrs on the slide carriage. The idea is when you are done, you have reduced the tolerance in the slide assembly down to .002. Try it on an old slide first, or order a new slide ahead of time. I screwed things up all the time when learning different repairs. I was lucky, my first jeweled slide turned out great. You might not be so lucky, so try it first on an old slide or order a spare slide ahead of time. You can never have too many parts anyway.

Interested in tweaking your instrument?


  • Be sure it's as airtight as possible, and as you play, the leaks will fill up with gunk and it'll work even better. When you reach that point, only play 'blow" notes, since the drawn notes put stuff in your lungs that only a lung surgeon with college-bound children would appreciate.
  • Use that little blue taped tool to clean out the spaces between the reeds and the slots.
  • Adjust the gaps so that the reeds respond easily at low air pressure and don't bind up when you see an attractive person in The Audience and want to impress him/her with your licks and how loudly you can play them...those reed lock-ups can be embarrassing, and a real detriment to  any long term relationships.
  • No amount of putting tinfoil, magnets, or having springs made out of Special Metal will make you play better.
  • The most efficient tweaking of chromatic harmonicas is Practice. (Which, I've read, Makes Perfect.)

What else is in the toolbox? Check this page out.

There is no end to all this stuff, but, for now, you've arrived there.

THE END...see?

top of this page | next page>>>>>>