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Hohner Marine Band Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is a variation of the Marine Band Crossover developed with input from legendary harmonica customiser Joe Filisko, whose picture appears on the box and whose signature appears on the upper cover. They share the same key features - patented laminated bamboo comb, reedplates attached with screws, stainless steel covers attached with interscrews, neat zippered semi-hardshell case, etc. - the difference being that th Thunderbird is tuned lower. How much lower? Well, the highest key of the Thunderbird is Low F!

A little audio being worth a lot of words, here is a simple riff played first on a standard F harp, then on a Low F and finally on a Low Low F.

I remember back when I was a fresh-faced young lad eagerly exploring the world of the harmonica, 10-hole diatonics started with G and went up to F#. If you wanted anything lower than a G, your only option was a 12- or 14-holer in in Low C. Then in the mid 1980s Huang and Lee Oskar introduced their low F harps and before long, Hohner made the Special 20 available as far down as low D - in fact, I think the very first instrument review I ever wrote for a magazine was for the S20 in Low D. Since then Seydel have added some super low 10-hole harps to their range and now Hohner have got in on the act with the Thunderbird. It's available in 9 keys: Low F, Low E, Low Eb, Low D, Low C, Low Bb, Low A, Low G and Low Low F, the latter being tuned one octave lower than Low F. I was very pleased to discover that these are not merely standard harps with extra blobs of weight added to the tips of the reeds. Instead, the reeds have been specifically designed to deliver these low pitches with good volume and response. True, they can't quite compete with a bass harmonica, but the sound is pretty impressive for an instrument only 4 inches long.

I got the chance to try out a Low F and a Low Low F and I fell in love with them right away. Naturally, it's a little tough to get any appreciable bends on the lowest couple of holes, although I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I could get the hole 6 overblow on the LLF. However, I suspect that most harp players are going to using these as much for rhythmic chordal playing as anything else and they really sound great for that, especially with the lower cover being specially shaped to give clearance for the extra distance those lower draw reeds move - not even a hint of them rattling against the covers, no matter how hard you play.

They also sound really cool for doing those first position Jimmy Reed licks in a much less ear piercing range! The standard Crossover is tuned in a compromise temperament, but both the Thunderbirds I have seem to be tuned much closer to Just Intonation (although without the "flat" 5 draw of traditional JI) which gives the chords a particularly full, rich sound. It's too early to make any comments on reed longevity, but I suspect that if you are someone who usually wears out reeds quite quickly, you might go through these even faster if you are not careful. Hopefully though, replacement reedplates will be available.

All in all, it's been a long time since I had this much fun with a new harmonica. I think when the time machine is eventually invented, the first order of business should be to send someone back to 1960 and present Rice Miller with a set of Thunderbirds!

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