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