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Harp Reviews

by Pat Missin

SP20 Low D

Hohner's XB-40

A few initial comments on one of the most eagerly awaited harmonicas ever.

First of all, the negative stuff. As soon as I removed it from its case, I noticed just how many rough edges and sharp corners it had. The nearest other harp for comparison was an old Lee Oskar and the LO felt much more pleasant to hold. I guess that with a list price of US$100, we might feel we should be getting something as comfortable in the hands as a Filisko. Of course, that's not at all reasonable - if Hohner were to employ German workers to hand-finish each one as it left the factory, the retail price would probably double. Likewise, it would also be nice to see it come in a container more befitting such a special harp, rather than the plastic case with the snap fastener that will inevitably give way prematurely. Again however, a fancy case would simply add to the retail price and I assume that Hohner do want to sell ~some~ of these things. The harp also feels surprisingly lightweight, almost flimsy. Given the wealth of possibilities that the harp contains, I guess I was expecting it to weight several pounds - it actually weighs in at around 3.75oz. Personally, it's not a big deal to me at all, although I do know that some folks like a harp to feel nice and substantial.

Anyway, as soon as I hoisted the thing into playing position, all the above criticisms paled into semi-insignificance.

Yes - it does exactly what it set out to do. Each and every note bends two semitones, except for 3 draw which bends 3 semitones just like a regular diatonic. Some have reported that the low blow bends are a little awkward. I didn't find that to be the case, but there again I do have some experience with harps that allow bending of the lower blow notes - I'm sure that helped me. What I did find a little troublesome was getting clean blow bends in the top hole. It was all too easy to hit them wrongly and get nothing but that dreaded high pitched squeal. A bit of practice and maybe a little careful reed adjustment will fix that. This is somewhat less of a issue with the lower keyed harps, where conversely those low blow bends can be more of a problem.

The valves on these samples are very well placed - better than on any of the Hohner chroms I've seen for a long time. Mostly the valves behave as they should, except for some very slight noise now and then. Again, much better than the valves on most chromatics - probably the innovative method of valving the reed chambers rather than the reeds themselves helps here. The comb can be taken apart to allow adjustment or replacement of the internal valves. The black plastic mouthpiece (ABS, if I'm not mistaken) feels very nice in the mouth. The hole spacing is the same as on a typical chromatic - the distance between the centre of holes 1 and 10 is a little over 3 1/4", versus about 2 5/8" on a typical Richter. Octaves are still a nice comfortable reach, although ~really~ wide intervals are a bit impractical (but only me and Richard Hunter are likely to be bothered too much by that).

The reed plates appear to be typical Knittlinger plates, as used on harps like the Auto-Valve and the MB Full Concert. Manufacturing tolerances seem decent and the tuning is pretty good too, with nice clean octaves. The temperament is similar to that used on the S20, rooted around A=443Hz. The reed adjustment was also pretty consistent, but not entirely to my taste. Easily fixed and not all that surprising given that I almost always have to regap out-of-the-box harps to get them to respond ideally for my playing style.

The possibilities? Well, they are perhaps not exactly endless, but there is a hell of a lot of potential here. For example, take the first position major scale between holes 4 and 7. There are two ways to play each note in the scale - C can be played as either 4 blow or 4 draw bent two semitones; D can be 4 draw or 5 blow bent two semitones; E can be 5 blow, or 5 draw bent one semitone; F can be 5 draw or 6 blow bent two semitones; G can be 6 blow or 6 draw bent two semitones; A can be 6 draw or 7 draw bent two semitones; B can be 7 draw or 7 blow bent one semitone; C can be 7 blow or 8 draw bent one semitone. So, taking into account all these possibilities, there are literally hundreds of ways just to play a simple first position major scale, before you even start to venture into other positions and more chromatic stuff.

One of the big problems of the harmonica (the chromatic as well as the diatonic), is legato - playing notes in a smooth flowing manner, rather than the "huff and puff" of all those blow and draw notes. The big advantage of having these alternate ways of playing the same note is that it allows you to choose a path that allows you to reduce the number of breath changes, or to phrase things so that the changes of breath fall in musically appropriate places. For example, you can play the classic blues scale (1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7) in first position across all three octaves of this harp, all as blow notes.

Naturally, to make stuff like this work, you need to have good control over your note bending - and this harp does not automatically do that for you. Winslow's "Ode Challenge" showed that even good players can have difficulty playing bent notes with consistent tone and good intonation. Although the XB-40 does allow you to bend all the notes, it does not make the task of bending any easier than on a standard diatonic. In fact in many cases, because of the increased "bendability" of the notes, it is even easier to bend the notes too far, or not far enough. For this reason, not only am I looking forward to hearing what some players will be able to do with this harp, I am also dreading what some other players will do with it!

Have you ever heard those players who learn to bend notes, then happily go about bending every note they can bend, regardless of whether it is musically appropriate to do so? Imagine what auditory atrocities they will commit when they get hold of an XB-40!! In many ways, Rick Epping could have opened a Pandora's Box of terrifying proportions. I can only hope that a little angel called Taste will manage to save the day...

... but I digress.

There has been much talk on harp-l of late about "rethinking Richter". I'd like to take the opportunity to say that this is NOT a Richter harp. The term "Richter System" applies (if you are an out and out pedant) to the physical construction of the harp. A Richter System harmonica has roughly square sections chambers each containing a blow reed and a draw reed; each note of the harp having but a single reed. The Marine Band, the Lee Oskar Melody Maker, the Huang Cadet Soloist, etc. are all Richter harps. The XB-40 might have the same tuning as the typical 10-hole Richter, but it is really a completely different beast. Its construction is based on the Knittlinger frame, but really it is the first new harmonica design since... well, perhaps the Harmonetta. The first really new harp in a very long time, anyway. Although the vast majority of people who buy one of these will be coming from a Richter background, rather than just rethinking what you've already learned, I think it would be productive to try to ditch
preconceived notions about harmonicas when playing this animal. Easier said that done, of course.

Does the XB-40 make all other harmonicas obsolete?
Does it make the overblow technique obsolete??
Should you sell all your Filiskos and invest in XB-40s???

No, not really.

In the same way that the slide chromatic did not make the Richter harp obselete, I don't think the XB-40 will instantly make all other harps museum pieces. For a start, I have found that quite a few things are actually easier on a regular diatonic using overblows. Also, the XB-40 has quite a distinctive tone. No doubt many players will (wrongly) blame the plastic comb, but I can imagine that a lot of die hard blues purists will simply prefer the tone of their Marine Bands. There is also a lot to be said of the simplicity of the Richter design. Besides which, I have a case full of 100 of the things in various different tunings - I simply can't afford to replace them all with XB-40s! Despite being able to bend all the notes, you still have the limited chord resources of the usual major diatonic tuning (although retuning an XB-40 would be no problem), so I can't give up my natural minors and the like. Also, no matter how accurate your bends, some things are still going to sound better on a chromatic harmonica. After all, there are already several alternate tunings for the Richter harp that allow it to be played chromatically using regular bends, without the need for overblows. None of these have really displaced the chromatic harmonica when it comes to heavily chromatic music. About the only harp which would perhaps seem pointless in the light of the XB-40, would be the semi-valved diatonic in standard tuning, but as I can only think of one person who plays that harp pretty much exclusively, I don't think that is a huge issue. I guess a valved Richter would have the advantage of being considerably cheaper than an XB-40 which might be a factor, depending on the longevity of the XB-40's reeds. I sincerely hope spare reedplates become available for these things. In the meantime, however, any reasonably skilled (and reasonably stocked) harp technician should be able to fix a blown out XB-40 with no problem.

Whilst on the subject of a which list, there are a couple of other related things I would like to see. First of all, a chromatic using the same technology as the XB-40. Imagine something that plays like a standard chrom, except every note can be bent like a blues harp...

Also, it would be nice to see some good octave harps built using the XB-40s comb and mouthpiece. I'm sure it wouldn't be too much work to make an Auto-Valve-Harp with a nice plastic comb and comfortable mouthpiece. The XB-40's valving system could also be incorporated.
(I'm sure Douglas Tate would confirm something I said to him a few years back, that the current practice of valving reeds is all wrong and what we should be doing is valving the reed chambers - but I digress again...) Not sure how much market there would be for the latter, but I'm sure the former would be bought up as eagerly as the XB-40.

OK I did say something several pages back about "a few initial comments.", so I'll quit while I'm ahead. In the meantime, I can't praise Rick Epping or Hohner highly enough for finally getting this thing on the market. "Worth the wait" would be something of an understatement.

Should you buy one?

No. You should buy several.

Pat Missin

Planet Harmonica - 2004