Technique and Method Valving A Diatonic Harmonica

One problem with diatonic harmonica is that there are missing notes. Some can be obtained through conventional bending, but there are still some missing. These can be obtained by overblowing, or by installing valves, also known as “windsavers”. It’s the same device, but is used for a different purpose.

Bending is accomplished by acoustically coupling two resonant devices so that one affects the pitch of the other. In conventional bending, the higher reed is bent by coupling it to the lower pitched reed in that hole. The lower pitched reed cannot be bent because the other reed is higher in pitch, and bending only works to lower pitch.

Using valves (or windsavers – little plastic flaps over the reed slots opposite the reeds) allows us to bend the normally unbendable notes, as single reeds, using our internal resonance as the “second resonance” in the bending process.

I feel that it is also a great way to develop your tone (resonance). If you can’t bend the valved notes, you are not resonant Your tone will be weak. It can be vastly improved. When your resonance is “right”, you will be able to bend valved reeds, and your tone will be spectacular.

Windsavers are available from Hohner, as well as other sources. The “technical” price is something like US$8 for enough to valve a 64 reed chromatic, but Hohner is pretty good about sending out samples – enough to valve a couple of diatonics. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to ask. You can make your own out of thin plastic, such as overhead transparency film. I’ve had good success with this. I’ve seen some made with nonadhesive ribbed surgical tape, backed with adhesive surgical tape. But it’s an awful lot easier to bite the bullet and order them from Hohner, especially for that first one.

To valve a diatonic for bending unbendable notes:

  1. Disassemble the harp, and lay out the reed plates reed-side-down.
  2. If you have precut windsavers, lay them out over the reed holes, dimpled end over the rivet, so they slightly overlap the reed holes, but not by much. If they overlap TOO much, they may interfere with the comb, especially on Oskars. Place them over draw 1-6 (lower reed plate, inside the comb) and blow 7-10 (upper reed plate, outside the comb), on the side OPPOSITE the reeds. If yours are not precut, or the wrong size, cut them so they overlap the reed slot by about 1/16th inch, or about a millimeter if you use that “other” ruler 🙂
  3. Place a drop of Superglue on a piece of cellophane, aluminum foil, or other nonporous surface. I like cellophane because it’s easier to see just where the drop is.
  4. SLIGHTLY dip the dimpled end (if it has a dimple), convex side up, in the superglue. One drop holds a ton, so a very little is all you need for a little tiny valve. If you use too much, you’ll get Superglue in the reed slot. I like to use tweezers, but they’re not required.
  5. Place the windsaver over the rivet, on the back side of the reed plate (not the “reed” side). Press into place with a little finger pressure, for just a scant second. Remove tweezers, press on the free end with your other finger, then remove your finger from the glued end. If you take too long doing this, you will become attached to your harp – literally. If it’s not on straight, it can be easily repositioned, so don’t worry too much about it. If the glue sets first, simply pull the windsaver off, chip the old glue off the reed plate, and reapply.
  6. Reassemble the harp and let it set an hour or so. Overnight is even better. It allows the superglue fumes to dissipate.

This will allow you to bend the normally unbendable blow 1-6 and draw 7-10 reeds IF you use the right technique – a very “open” mouth and throat. You won’t have to “force” these. They come quite easily and naturally with the right technique. I can play harp for twelve hours straight (with the traditional gaps and breaks of course), and I couldn’t do that if it were at all strenuous! This bending method (which I call “resonant bending” but you are free to call whatever makes your bobby-sox go up and down, produces a vastly superior tone, so if you have trouble bending valved harp, this will give you TWO eventual rewards; more bends and better tone.

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