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Harp Reviews

by Pat Missin


Suzuki BR-21 Bariton Harmonica, SS-37 Soprano Single and AS-37 Alto Single

The BR-21 Baritone, SS-37 Soprano Single and AS-37 Alto Single have actually been available for a while, but I've only recently been able to obtain samples for review. The production quality of all three harmonicas is nothing short of outstanding.

The BR-21 Baritone Harmonica seems to be grouped together with the Alto and Soprano Single, although I am not entirely sure why it would be considered an orchestral harmonica as it is merely a tremolo harmonica. I say "merely " a tremolo - it is without question the best tremolo harmonica I have ever played and one of the few tremolo harmonicas that could truly be considered a professional quality instrument. It is also a rather unique design. The same size and shape as a typical 12-hole chromatic harmonica, the reedplates are fully recessed into the ABS comb and the front of the comb is extended to form a mouthpiece, again the same size and shape as that of a typical chromatic. The comb is bright red and the brass covers contrast nicely with this, having the same smooth glossy black finish as the Hammond/Suzuki HA-20. The steel cover supports are shaped like soccer goalposts and look much sturdier than those used by most other makers. The instrument looks stunning and feels very nice in the hands, with no sharp corners or rough edges. It comes in a form-fitted hard plastic case with a cleaning cloth enclosed.

The chrome-plated reedplates are 1.1mm (.0435") thick and attached with 8 screws. As with most other Suzuki harps these days,the reeds are spot-welded into place and tuned using Suzuki's laser process. Tolerances seem pretty good, reed response is very even and the tuning is extremely consistent, with the base row tuned to 12TET at about A=444Hz. The amount of tremolo is moderate, ranging from about 2Hz at the lower end of the harp to 5Hz at the top. The note layout is the typical Asian pseudo-solo tuning - I wish I knew what this system is "officially" called. Anyway it covers three octaves starting from the C below middle C. Unlike the typical Wiener-system tremolo there are no missing or repeated notes in the lower octave (although the B is omitted from the highest octave) and unlike the solo tuning used on chromatics, there are no repeated C notes. I think most chromatic players could get used to this tuning without too much work. I find that the extended mouthpiece makes for more comfortable playing than the usual tremolo design. It certainly makes it easier to isolate individual rows to allow note bending, or simply to shift between a full chorused sound and a thinner single reed tone. A nice touch is a small white dot on the front of the mouthpiece to indicate where the C notes lie on the instrument.

As I said, this is simply the best tremolo harp I have ever played and I would recommend it to anyone serious about tremolo harmonica playing. It is available in the keys of C and C# (for the typical Asian stacked diatonic approach to playing chromatically) and I for one would really like to see it made available in a few other keys as well, although as far as I know Suzuki currently have no plans to do that. An octave tuned version would also be nice.

SS-37 Soprano Single and AS-37 Alto Single

These two harmonicas are identical apart from their pitch range. They are all-blow harmonicas, with the notes laid out in the manner of a piano keyboard. There are two rows of holes, the lower one containing the notes of the C major scale and the upper row providing the sharps/flats in groups of two and three, like the black keys on a piano. These are not the first harmonicas to use this configuration. Back in the 1930s, Hohner introduced a series of instruments with the name Educator (not to be confused with the much later Educator I solo-tuned diatonic and Educator II chromatic), consisting of Bass, Tenor, Alto and Soprano harmonicas with the piano-style layout. Tombo still make their Contrabass (again, strictly speaking neither a contrabass, nor a bass instrument, but actually a baritone) and their Alto and Soprano Pipe Horn Harmonicas, which are similarly constructed. However, the Hohner versions are long discontinued and the Tombo instruments can be quite hard to find outside of Japan.

The SS-37 and the AS-37 each arrive in a box that suggest a professional quality instrument is contained inside. It is a substantial wooden box, leather covered and velvet lined, with latches and a carrying handle. This is appropriate, as the instrument inside weighs in at around 29 ounces (about .8kg), being about 12 1/2" long (32cm) and 2 1/2" front to back (6.5cm). The obligatory cleaning cloth is included in each case. The instruments themselves use a sandwich-style construction, with the reedplates attached by 14 sets of nuts and bolts and lying very flat against a beautifully finished hardwood comb. The covers are brass, again with the same glossy black finish as used on the HA-20 and a slightly bigger version of the soccer goalpost style steel cover supports. As with the Baritone tremolo, both of these instruments feel very nice to hold, with no rough parts, despite the exposed edges of the reedplates.

The reedplates are chrome plated and about 1.5mm (.058") thick. The reeds (phosphor bronze, according to the press handouts) are unique in that with the exception of the very highest reeds on the Soprano, they are all slightly tapered in width - this is the first time I have seen tapered reeds on a harmonica. They are also quite sizeable - for example, the middle C reeds on these harmonicas are 21mm in length, compared with about 17mm on a typical chromatic. The reed adjustment is very good, giving a nice even response with good tone across the full range of each harmonica. The timbre of the Alto is especially rich in the lower register, almost cello-like. The tuning is outstanding - the Soprano Single is almost perfectly tuned to 12TET at A=442 and the tuning of the Alto is only slightly less impressive. Although the advertising claims that these harmonicas were tuned using Suzuki's patented laser process, both harmonicas show signs of being tuned with a small rotary burr. However they did it, these harmonicas (and the Baritone tremolo) are some of the most accurately tuned factory made harmonicas I have ever played.

Despite weighing a couple of ounces more than a Renaissance, they are surprisingly comfortable to hold in playing position. I suspect that not having to worry about how to get the optimum finger placement for pushing a button makes for a more "natural" playing position. To move from the "white notes" to the "black notes" takes a slight movement of the wrists, the switch from upper to lower rows being made easier by the slightly convex face of the comb. I feel that it wouldn't take too much practice for a player of conventional harmonicas to adapt to one of these. I had a head start as I have played the Tombo Contrabass for some time and I suspect that anyone with good keyboard skills would take to one of these very quickly. Compared with conventional chromatic harmonicas, they have both advantages and disadvantages. Obviously because of the sheer size of the instrument, large interval leaps are much harder (an octave span on one of these is a little over 90mm or 3 1/2"), double-stops or chords are less than practical and the lack of draw reeds means that breath conservation is more of an issue (something with which most wind instrumentalists have to deal all the time!). On the other hand, the all-blow layout makes for a nice smooth legato when playing runs of closely spaced notes and certain trills and turns are much easier than on a regular chromatic where you have to deal with breath changes and slide movements. Staples of the Chromatica/Polyphonia repertoire such as "Flight of the Bumblebee" would probably be easier on one of these instruments, the layout of the notes making it much easier to keep your place. Due to the reed adjustment and airtight construction, note bending is easy over the full range of both instruments, much better than on most off-the-shelf chromatics. Of course, these are single reed bends rather than the typical dual-reed bend of the blues harp, still they add a great degree of expressiveness. I sincerely doubt that Suzuki really had the blues players in mind as their target market, but given that Paul Oscher can play some stunning blues on his Tombo Contrabass, I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear someone do something in a similar vein on the Alto Single. If you are looking for an alternative type of harmonica, particularly if you are frustrated with the leakiness of the standard slide chromatic, then one of these could be an excellent choice. They are unlikely to be easily found in local music stores, so interested parties should probably check with their local Suzuki branch for availability:


Lamberti Bros (WHOLESALE) PTY LTD.
Attn.: Mr. Joseph lamberti
Unit 6, 88 Dynon Road, West Melbourne VIC 3003, Australia
Tel No.(03) 93816810
Fax No.(03) 93763666

New Zealand:

Mr. Andrew McElroy, Managing Director
P.O. Box 6246
Wellesley Street
New Zealand.
Tel No. +64-9-6340099
Fax No. +64-9-6345615
Mobile No. +64-21-934309


Suzuki Corporation
PO Box 261030
San Diego
CA 92196

Tel: 1-858-566-9710
Fax: 1-858-566-9517


Suzuki Europe Ltd.
18, The Granary
Lodge Farm Business Centre
Wolverton Road
Milton Keynes
MK19 7ES

Tel: 01908 511488
Fax: 01908 511904

As you have probably gathered from the lack of criticisms in these reviews, I was very impressed with all of the above harmonicas. My only criticism, is not really much of a criticism at all: the BR-21 Baritone covers exactly the same range as the AS-37 Alto Single - and that range is what most of us would describe as being a tenor instrument! However, that is about the biggest complaint I have regarding these instruments. They are not exactly cheap (although you could buy more than a dozen Alto Singles for the price of one Renaissance chromatic), but if the ones I tried were representative samples, then Suzuki are delivering factory-made harmonicas with the kind of quality that you would normally expect from custom made harmonicas.

Pat Missin

Planet Harmonica - 2004