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Modular-Reed Harmonica by Brendan Power

If you've played harmonica for a while, you have almost certainly wished for a harmonica that lets you change reeds as easily as a guitarist can change strings. So how about a harmonica that makes changing reeds even easier than changing strings on a guitar? Say hello to Brendan Power's Modular-Reed Harmonica.

Aside from the rather intriguing name on the upper cover, this looks like a pretty ordinary 10 hole diatonic. It is, in fact, a modified version of Kongsheng's Amazing 20, with stainless steel covers, black ABS comb and recessed reedplates. Just playing it, you wouldn't notice any difference from a stock Amazing 20. It's well tuned, the reeds are nice and responsive, all the bends play really smoothly and even though I haven't tweaked any reeds since I got it, the middle octave overblows are all really easy to hit. However, if you take a look inside...

Instead of having two reedplates, it has twenty, each containing a single reed. (I should note that this is a prototype, so there may be a few small cosmetic difference between this one and production models.) To remove a reedplate, all you have to do is pry it loose with the tip of a screwdriver:

Installing a new reedplate is even easier - just press it into place and then reattach the covers. Each reedplate is held in place by a slightly tacky gasket, ensuring a nice airtight fit against the comb, with some additional support from structures on the insides of the covers. It seems like it can't really be this simple, but it really is. Seriously, the toughest part of the whole process is removing the covers!

So what does this offer the harmonica player? Well, if you tend to blow out the same few reeds on your harps, for a blues player this is typically the reeds from the 4 and 5 holes, then you just buy one of these harps and a whole bunch of 4 and 5 reeds for it. That would be way cheaper than replacing two complete reedplates each time you blow out a single reed, or worse still, replacing the entire harp. However, that's just for starters. Do you sometimes use a country tuned harp, or maybe a Paddy Richter, but you don't want to haul around full set of each tuning to every session? Just bring one set of harps and a bunch of spare reeds, making up the alternate tunings as you need them. You could probably even do this on stage in the time it takes your guitarist to play a solo! Do you feel like experimenting with altered tunings, but like the idea of the safety net of being able to put the harp right back to where it was when you started, just in case you didn't like the new tuning as much as you hoped? No problem - in just a few seconds you can be right back where you started. Of course, even if you are comfortable retuning reeds, there are limits as to how far you can raise the pitch of a reed without running out of brass at the tip, but that's not a problem when you can just pop in a reed that's already at the right pitch.

However, that's just the start. The Modular-Reed system offers whole bunch of new possibilities. For starters, reeds no longer have to be a blow reed or a draw reed. Take a reedplate with a blow reed on it and turn it over so that the reed is on the outside - now it's a draw reed! You can even have two blow reeds or two draw reeds share the same hole, if you want. Also, reeds are no longer permanently linked to one particular hole on the harmonica. Any reedplate can be placed in any chamber that is long enough for the reed to move freely. This means that any reedplate in its normal reed orientation can be moved three holes upwards of its original position, or any amount of holes downwards. You can even put the reeds from hole 10 into hole 1, although the reed response might be less than optimal. Which brings up a whole other aspect of this harp - hands-on experimentation with such variables as chamber size, reed orientation, etc. You could learn a whole lot about how the harmonica works by just trying out various configurations, always knowing that you can easily put everything back the way it was when you started.

Of course, all this exploration needs a good supply of reeds/reedplates and, not surprisingly, Brendan has got that covered too, with an online shopping interface that must have taken almost as much work to design as the Modular-Reed Harmonica itself. You can order the basic harp in all keys and with more than a dozen different tunings to get you started, although of course, everything is fully customisable. To help with the latter, there is function that lets you preview how chords sound on your selected tuning. Then there is a section where you can order individual reedplates, again with audio to help make sure you have selected the right note in the right octave. Both order forms come with handy video guides to help you navigate all the options. Also available is a nifty case to keep your spare mini reedplates organised and protected.

So, are you getting the impression that I am excited about all of this? I think this is potentially the biggest thing to hit diatonic harmonicas since Lee Oskar introduced replaceable reedplates back in the 1980s. It's retailing for £90, which is considerably more than you would pay for a typical diatonic, but this far from a typical diatonic and the price is comparable with other specialist harmonicas, such as the TurboSlide, the Suzuki Sub30, or Seydel's All Minor. That price also includes shipping (with tracking) to anywhere in the world. If you're the sort of player who blows out reeds on a regular basis, then this investment should pay for itself quite quickly and if you want an easy, non-destructive way to try out alternate tunings, this is pretty much the only game in town.

So, is there a catch? Not exactly, but if you are interested, you probably need to move quickly. The Modular-Reed Harmonica is being initially released as a limited edition, with just 70 of them available. Hopefully it sells well enough to justify being produced in larger numbers later, but I think "don't delay - buy today!" would be good advice.

For more details, please visit Brendan's Modular-Reed web page.

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