Its been a while since I played a harmonica, around 30 years at least. I remember the black Hero harmonica that dad had. In fact most of my friends who had harmonicas had Heros’. Its quality was pretty good and I was surprised to find out a few days back that it was/is made in China. I always thought the print on the cover was Japanese.
My mother presented it to my dad sometime after they got married, sometime in the late 1960′s.
I called her up yesterday and she told me that she had paid about Rs. 34 for it. The cost of a Hero today is around Rs.240, still cheap -the price of a decent meal at a not too pricey restaurant. When I remember the Hero, I remember it with a pang of guilt, because as a kid to satisfy my scientific curiosity I took it apart in such a way that it would only make farting noises when put back together. Dad had various things locked up (for good reason) in his cupboard -always for display and never for use, but this harmonica was one thing that he sometimes used and loved to play whispering hope on it, although I don’t remember hearing it very often (guilty pang again).
The harmonica (or what was left of it) which soon became my toy was soon forgotten except for a couple of toy harmonicas bought at fairs which had covers that would rust, bad quality reeds and
wooden combs painted pink which cut into my lips when playing it. Of course there was no way one could play any decent tune on it. When I was nine, I started learning the violin and it was my companion for many years until a few fractured fingers later (at work) I stopped playing it. It was a beautiful instrument no doubt but had too much maintenance associated with it -tuning, proper posture, notes, changing strings and of course perfect fingering and bowing to eke out the proper sound. This always made it feel like a tedious chore rather than an enjoyable and relaxing past time -like I felt when I played my cheap bamboo flute. Soon my violin was relegated to its case for close to 10 years and it still awaits repairs as some of the parts have begun to separate.
When I was working on a draft for posts in my bug-out category. I wondered if I were to pack a musical instrument in my bug-out bag, which one would it be? I knew that the mood lifting properties of music are a great stress reliever and from experience I knew that my body and soul responded better to music I played rather than those heard through head phones. The answer was pretty simple as the instrument had to be light, compact and more or less maintenance free, so the choice boiled down to either a flute or a harmonica or probably both!
Searching Youtube for small harmonicas, I finalized on the Hohner Golden Melody primarily because of its size. Although all recommended that a C harmonica be procured for beginners, I opted for the GM in D as that was what was available at the Furtado’s website where I bought it for Rs 1875 + Rs. 50 for shipping.
Although I knew it was relatively small, I was shocked at how small it was when I actually received it. Its size was comparable with my Victorinox Swiss champ and it looked like one of the toy harmonicas that we bought as kids from fairs for a few rupees. This seemed more so because the harmonica was seated in a a black formed plastic holder which looked as it was made of recycled garbage bags and was formed (inset) in a similar way to disposable blister packing. The lower holder had also come unstuck and I used some petroleum based adhesive to stick it back on. Another visible feature was that the M.HOHNER stamped on the covers was not sharp as though the impression was worn out or the stamp had failed to cut deep enough into the metal.
On the positive side, the red plastic box was without reproach with all the printing impressed onto the hard plastic cover in golden colour. This plastic feels very good to the touch, shuts with a positive click and doesn’t open easily if it is dropped. It has two rectangular cut outs which form slits when the box is closed thus allowing air circulation and drying of the harmonica when inside the box.
The golden melody comes with a red plastic comb and its sound is hauntingly sweet. The low tones when properly played sound like a pipe organ and are incredibly beautiful. I found a lot of complaints on various forums that some of the reeds were stiff and needed more energy to blow. I have the same “problem” but I don’t think the good folks at Hohner have anything to do with this. Although I am a beginner, I think this has to do with the laws of physics. I feel that just as it is more difficult to bend a shorter object and easier to bend a longer object, similarly the higher notes need more air pressure to bend/vibrate their reeds. I could be wrong on this though.
In a similar way, when you create a proper resonant cavity with your mouth and blow from deep inside, the lower notes sound sweeter. This again uses the same principle of a woofer requiring a large resonant cavity and so has nothing to do with Hohner’s quality control but more with playing style and skill.
I enjoy playing the GM every night before going to bed. Unlike my violin I can play it with the lights out with one hand and even sometimes lie on my side while playing. The deep breathing probably relaxes the body as a psychiatrist friend had once told me that stressed people breathe in a shallow way and that they must consciously breathe deep. The GM helps me do this in a melodious way and clears the mind.
I was a bit apprehensive about the plastic comb and personally I’d prefer a wooden comb, but the sound was still excellent and the comb will definitely last a long time. Although I read on some sites that there is no data to prove that wood is better, with my experience on the violin and the flute, I feel that wood being a natural material resonates better. Wooden speakers sound the best too! Some people swear that the sound gets sweeter as the instrument gets older.
Of course I’ve realized that I can’t play all tunes on the GM without bending. Initially I thought that the GM was defective. Then of course you can’t play half notes which takes away a bit of the joy. The beauty of the chords however do patch up some of this lost joy, but I went ahead and ordered a Hohner Chromatic 270 deluxe with a Pear wood comb. This time I bought it from www.newharmonica.com as it worked out cheaper in spite of the International shipping and I should have received delivery in a couple of days if it wasn’t for this unpleasant Independence day security delays. In addition it wasn’t displayed on the Furtado’s web site. I will let you know how it performs in a new post. In case you are contemplating on buying the diatonic Golden Melody, go ahead and get it, its a great buy! BTW if it means anything, mine says No. 542 on the cover, and it is in D. Do remember that a diatonic harmonica will have some notes missing unlike a chromatic harmonica so you might not be able to play some melodies on it. If I’d known this before, I’d not have bought it. After I received my Chromatic 270 deluxe, I presented my Golden melody to my nephew.
After using my Chromatic 270 Deluxe for over a month, I have learned to appreciate my Golden melody more, not that the Chromatic is bad. I’m just amazed at how easy and effortless the golden Melody is to play -hats of to the Hohner team. Comparing the wooden and plastic combs, I couldn’t make out any appreciable difference in sound quality. The plastic comb however seems to stink when played regularly in humid weather. With the wooden comb on the other hand, I was inhaling sawdust for quite a while and close inspection saw the inside of the comb finished pretty roughly. More on the Chromatic 270 Deluxe in a separate review.
Browsing for some more information on the diatonic scale I found this meaningful information at the bluesbrothers forum…
“During my first Chicago blues harp class, my instructor talked about how the diatonic harmonica was invented in Germany as basically a poor-man’s instrument that can still play along with accordions, etc., and is literally a mouth organ, but because it’s a budget instrument, it’s limited in what it can play.
Now…it’s tuned to the diatonic scale, and as such, there are some notes missing, as opposed to a chromatic harmonica, which has all twelve notes of the scale.”
“AFAIK the notes were originally laid out so that a harp can play chords (in it’s labelled key and the relative minor) at the bottom end, and melodies in the middle register. This is why you have incomplete scales at the bottom and complete ones at the top. The multitude of bends at the bottom end really are an accident that have arisen from laying the notes out for chord playing. Cross harp and note bends were discovered when the harp hit the Delta and became a blues instrument (probably more to do with its price than anything else). I’d say your instructor is right.”
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