3 min read
17 Jan

Well, I haven't been in the studio much at all of late after a string of pencil commissions eroded my enthusiasm somewhat. Then there was a custom frame to make as well as several recent art sales, a couple of which went off to a lady in Ontario. This particular customer asked about a further, very large commission so it was planning for this that occupied my thoughts for a while, buying in more drawing materials, as well as the hours spent in my shed, packaging. 

While rummaging through a drawer looking for something, I stumbled across my old harmonica which hasn't seen the light of day for decades. It's a very old Seydel Chromatic I got sometime in the 70s/early 80s, so more than 40 years old. It has most certainly achieved the status of 'vintage'.

I've played the harmonica since I was about 9 years old but gradually lost interest when my children came along, (not wanting to wake the buggers up if I could help it) and stopped playing altogether probably about 30 years ago. 

I picked up my old friend and tried giving it a blow but all I got out of it was a few faint, strangled, farting noises. Attempting a draw wasn't the best idea I've ever had as something shot out of the number 2 hole and into my throat, setting me off on a choking fit that lasted a good 10 minutes. It was as if the old timer was breathing its last breath, and was determined to take this old timer with it.

In latter years I've become a sentimental old prat and felt a bit guilty about allowing my lovely old harp to get in such a state. After all said and done, it holds some memories for me. So I decided there and then to set about restoring it.

My first job was to strip it right down for inspection. This proved to be harder than you might think as, underneath the chromed covers, the components were actually nailed together. Most harmonicas were constructed in this way years ago, some still are. The tiny nails holding the reed plates down were corroded and really difficult to remove. As it has a plastic/composite comb, I had to be very careful not to crack it. However with much patience and a little persuasion with a small hammer I was eventually able to prise it open to reveal all.

The first thing I saw was that within the comb, (the central part which the harmonica is built around) several creatures had taken up residence over the years, although long since departed. Number 3 hole was filled by a fluffy cream coloured cocoon of some sort, possibly from a small butterfly. Number 2 hole contained the remainder of a large, flaky brown crysalis, the rest of which was now jamming up a portion of my lungs.

The brass reed plates were a little tarnished but not too bad, however all of the valves (aka windsavers) which were made of felt, had hardened, discoloured and curled up thus making them useless and the main reason the harmonica could no longer sing. I pulled these off and discarded them.

I cleaned everything with a tooth brush and some bicarbonate of soda in lemon juice until it all sparkled like new. Next I got online and ordered the parts I needed. While waiting for them to arrive I drilled out 2mm holes where the nails had been, ready to take tiny nuts and bolts instead.

The new valves (made from a more modern double layer of flexible plastic) were fitted next. This involved dissolving and removing all of the glue residue from the old ones, before supergluing the new ones in place. For someone with fingers like bananas this was not an easy job, even using tweezers I managed to stick myself to my workbench a few times.

My next job was to regap all of the reeds. This was achieved with the aid of a set of feeler guages from my toolbox, and a watchmakers screwdriver set I happen to own. The gaps have to be as small as possible but not so small as to not work, a rough guide being about as big as the thickness of the reed itself. A lot of trial and error here. Thank goodness for Youtube videos.

Once reassembled, using a smidgen of vaseline to ensure air tightness and to lubricate the slide, it was time to play.

What a bleeding racket! Both dogs leaped to their feet and bolted for the back door. Jenny wasn't far behind them.

Despite this I'm pleased to say my vintage harmonica now looks and plays like new. However I've totally lost the knack of playing it.

Not one to be beaten, it was back to Youtube for some much needed lessons. My musical taste has migrated over time from the folk music I used to enjoy playing, more to Delta blues and suchlike and for this my old chromatic hamonica is not really suitable unless you are far more skilled than I am. Time to invest in a new Blues harp. They're not too expensive and are wonderful little instruments. The only thing is you really need several in different keys if you want to play along with backing tracks or tutorials. 

I began by buying a new Hohner Blues Harp in C, then found another vintage harp on ebay which I won for just £15! It's a 1960s (possibly even earlier) Hohner Marine Band in A, and needed some renovating as above (although much more simple with a diatonic as opposed to my chromatic and didn't take more than an hour or so) I'm so pleased with this one. It has a wonderful voice! 

Harmonicas have become a bit of an obsession now though, and I've gone and bought another 2 (a DaBell Contender from Sonny Boys and a DaBell Story which I hope will arrive this week from Italy). I also got a case off eBay to keep my old chromatic in. Gotta keep the beasties out!

After a couple of weeks, my playing has improved slightly from the downright diabolical to just plain awful. I'm hoping to attain the level of 'bearable' by the end of this month. Watch this space for my first blues harmonica video once I feel I won't embarrass myself too much. Meanwhile I need to come up with a name. As we know all blues men have names like Blind Owl this or Howling that. Due to the state of my hands I'm thinking of Crooked Finger Williams but I'm open to suggestions, please reply in the comments.

I do really need to get back to creating some more art, but I may be some time.

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