From "Harmonica World" Dec-Jan 2010/11
Search the archives of any harmonica forum, you'll soon find debates on custom harmonicas. Some swear by them, others maintain that "off the shelf" instruments are just fine. Some say the sound comes from the player only.
I was introduced to custom harmonicas in 1999, by Trip Henderson in New York City. He handed me a Joe Filisko custom Marine Band (in G I think). I burst out laughing. I couldn't believe that a harmonica could be so good.
For the last decade I've had my own set of custom instruments. Joe Filisko is generally acknowledged as the best customiser, however his waiting list is fully booked, and includes some of the world's best players. Neil Graham (www.NeilGraham.com.au) from Australia makes my instruments. I have 10 of them.
Clearly I'm in the custom harmonica camp. This article explains why.
First, consider the economics of a standard mid priced harmonica, say a Hohner Special 20 or Marine Band, retailing for around $35 US dollars. Assuming a 25% retail markup, the wholesale price is about $25. Add shipping, marketing, business overheads and raw materials, the company (Hohner in this case) makes say $15 per instrument. Then include labour costs for the harmonica assembler, considerably less than $15 dollars. Otherwise there is no profit.
Assume also that it costs Hohner $30 per hour for each harmonica assembler (including overheads, insurance etc), with a $5 labour budget per instrument. This means that each assembler must make at least 6 instruments an hour.
While these figures are approximate, you get the idea. A maximum of 10 minutes per instrument.
Compare this to custom instruments. Neil Graham spends around a day preparing each of his harmonicas. He uses Hohner parts (like most customisers), makes his own combs, then applies a specific profile to each reed, based on the Filisko technique. Neil has studied the Filisko instruments closely, has spent time in Joe's workshop, and acknowledges Joe as the leading customiser.
Joe Filisko is a toolmaker by trade. Neil Graham was a blacksmith. Richard Sleigh, another leading customiser has a degree in Fine Arts. The common thread is professional skills in manual arts, focusing on metal trades in the case of Joe and Neil.
So. With Neil Graham you get a master craftsman working for a day on your instrument, rather than 10 minutes (or less) from someone in a factory. Likewise for other harmonica customisers. Prices for Neil's instruments reflect the extra preparation time. When reeds break, he replaces them for a fraction of the new price. Most customisers provide a similar deal. A custom harmonica is a long term investment. As mentioned above, I've had mine for a decade.
Enough economics. What are they like to play?
With Neil's harmonicas, the difference compared to off the shelf instruments is startling. The reed work and other detailed attention result in minimal leakage. All the air goes to making sound, so the acoustic volume is enormous. I play traditional fiddle tunes mostly, some are very brisk. They are much easier to play with the custom instruments, as less air is needed to sound the notes. This difference is marked at high speeds, tunes I manage easily with custom instruments are a struggle with regular ones.
The increasing market for custom instruments has forced the major brands to lift their game. Two new instruments stand out - the Hohner Crossver and the Suzuki Manji. The Crossover is a reworked Marine Band, with a laminated bamboo comb. The Manji is a completely new instrument. Both are more than 50% above the cost of standard professional grade instruments. I've tried the Crossover and Manji extensively. Both have faults (in my view), and fall short of the custom instruments. Hardly surprising, given the respective preparation times. Nonetheless the Crossover and Manji easily justify their extra cost, and are substantially better (in my view) than mid priced harmonicas.
So. Is it worth the upgrade, either to the higher cost Hohner Crossover or Suzuki Manji, or to custom harmonicas. I have three answers.
Yes, yes and yes.
Consider guitarists. Starting with a beginning instrument (e.g. Fender Squier Stratocaster), a serious student will move up to the real thing, perhaps a second hand American made Stratocaster or Telecaster. A professional player will upgrade again, either to a new instrument, or maybe even a vintage one. Similar amplifier upgrades are likely. Add in effect pedals, maybe a custom case, the stage setup for a professional player is easily $5000. A harmonica player then walks on stage with a 10 instrument case, total cost less than $500, including the case.
There is no point to spend money just for the sake of doing so. However the extra expense for premium or custom harmonicas makes a real difference. Our peers on other instruments invest in good gear. We should do the same.