Once upon a time, virtually all harmonicas had bodies that were made from wood. Wood was readily available, comparatively inexpensive and easy to machine. Times changed and more options became available - plastic became a cost-effective alternative and metal was used for the bodies of more expensive harmonicas. Although many traditionalists preferred to stay with wood bodied instruments, many other players preferred the advantages offered by plastic and metal. After all, we all know that wood combs are leaky and prone to swelling and warping, right? Well, perhaps not...
Suzuki have introduced quite a few innovations over the last couple of decades so it might be surprising to learn that they have introduced two new 10-hole diatonics to their range that both feature combs made of wood. However, I believe that these harmonicas might perhaps change your preconceptions of wood combs.
At first sight the Suzuki MR-500 Fire Breath looks very much the Hammond HA-20 with its black finished brass covers, but closer examination reveals a beautifully finished rosewood comb. The reedplates are attached to the comb with just two screws, but the parts fit together perfectly without any of the leakiness often associated with wood combed harps. The outside edges of the comb and the inside of the chambers are treated with a gloss finish that makes for an extremely comfortable playing surface, as well as further reducing the possibility of the wood absorbing any moisture. I've racked up quite a few hours on this instrument and I am so far seeing no signs at all of any warping or swelling. The comb is not the only new feature of these harmonicas. The reedplates are plain brass of standard thickness, with spot-welded reeds of similar sizes to those used in other Suzuki harmonicas. However, the reeds themselves are phosphor bronze with a new profile that Suzuki have recently developed to give a slightly thicker tone than that usually associated with their harmonicas. An additional benefit of the new reed design is that it makes the reeds more stable when the player uses overblows and overdraws. Of course, as with any harmonica, careful adjustment of the reeds is required to get the perfect response for the overblow technique, as everyone's playing style is slightly different. Having said that, the factory adjustment of the samples I received was a good compromise and I think the average player would be more than happy with the response. The tuning of the reeds is also up to Suzuki's usual standard, being in Equal Temperament based around A=442Hz.
The Suzuki MR-550 Pure Harp goes one step further - in addition to the rosewood comb, it also has satin-finished rosewood covers. To the best of my knowledge, there has only been one attempt in recent yearsto make a commercially manufactured 10-hole diatonic with wooden covers. This was by the M&M Harmonica Parts Co., who were later bought out by Hardwood Harps. These vanished from the market a few years ago and those who own them are generally reluctant to part with them. I have one myself and I like it, but in my opinion, the Suzuki Pure Harp is a better design. I am not sure what process is used to produce these covers, but the harp looks simply beautiful and feels extremely comfortable in the hands. I was initially concerned that the wood would drag a little on the lips, but I have not noticed any problems with that. The reedplates are identical with those used in the MR-500, producing a tone that is both clear and rich.
Each harp will be available in the usual twelve keys, plus low F and high G. Recommended retail prices in the UK will be £39.95 for the MR-500 and £69.95 for the MR-550, inclusive of VAT. In the US, the MR-500 will be $69.00 and the MR-550 will be $119.00. In Europe, the MR-500 will be €59.90 and the MR-550 will be €89.90.
These are beautiful instruments, but I should add just one note of caution. Rosewood can cause allergic reactions in a few individuals. The finish that is used on the wooden parts of these harmonicas should reduce the chances of this causing a problem, but it is best to be aware that there is a slight possibility of an adverse reaction for a small number of people.
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