A few months ago, working with Tom Halchak of Blue Moon Harmonicas, I performed a series of tests on harmonica combs. Here’s what we did:
1) Tom supplied six new Hohner Big River harmonicas in C, and 5 combs: Dulce Wood, Aluminum, Fancy Corian, and others that you’ll hear about on the recordings.
2) I recorded all six of the harmonicas out of the box.
3) I disassembled all six harmonicas, flat sanded the draw reed plates, and re-assembled all the harps, after which I recorded them again.
4) I kept the best-performing Big River as a control, replaced the combs in the others from the kit supplied by Tom, and recorded the results again.

Every harp has a comb.

A few conclusions from these tests:
1) The harmonicas varied in playability out of the box.
2) Flat sanding and gapping improved the performance of all the harmonicas.
3) The loudest and most characterful combs in these tests were Dulce wood and aluminum. Both of them had distinct tone: round and sweet from the dulce wood, darker from the aluminum.
4) The linen fiber and fancy Corian combs made less of a notable difference compared to the control harp. Listening back to the recording, I think I hear more of a difference than I perceived at the time of recording. I recall being enamored of the linen fiber combs in particular while I was testing them. Anyway, listen and decide for yourself.

Note that this is NOT a scientific experiment. For a start, six harps is not a statistically valid sample, and I can’t guarantee that I treated all the harmonicas with precisely equal measures in setup, testing, and recording. I did the best I could to create a level playing field. Note that no post-recording processing (except normalization) was applied to the clips located below, which were recorded live in my living room on a Zoom H4 as 320 kbps MP3 files.


Out of the box harmonicas

Flat sanded and gapped

Combs swapped

the 21st century blues harmonica manifesto in sound

Get it on Amazon

Get it on iTunes