HOW TO CLEAN AND LUBRICATE A
By David Kettlewell
If you play your chromatic harmonica daily, regardless of make, sooner rather than later you’re going to need to clean it and lubricate the slide. And every 10-40 hours of playing you may need to clean the comb/reed/ breath saver assembly.
The information on how to do this is below, broken down into chunks to make it easier. Read it several times, and view our video on HOW TO CLEAN AND LUBRICATE A HARMONICA, which we are working on.
The first few times you service your harmonica , it will feel awkward… then it becomes easy.
WHY HARMONICAS NEED TO BE CLEANED
When you blow on your harmonica (not when you draw) the moisture and some of the saliva in your mouth end up on the mouthpiece. Over time this builds up and the slide gets sticky feeling when you press the button which activates the slide.
You’ll also notice that on models (other than the Seydel Saxony, whose breath savers do not stick) of harmonica, regardless of manufacturer, the breath savers start sticking.
You’ll know this because when you start to blow on the note, it will hesitate…not sounding… and then as you increase air pressure it will “pop open” making a clear tone. But you’ve lost early response of the reed to the place.
The little plastic breath saver is sticking.
It sticks because saliva and moisture have accumulated on the breath saver and the reed plate, and this creates stiction (or stickiness) between the two.
You’ll also find that reeds sound a bit better when clean, the blow reeds get dirty too over time. The draw reeds do not get dirty as your mouth’s moisture and saliva don’t enter the harmonica when you draw…but only when you blow. (Note all draw reeds on cross tuned and straight tuned harmonicas are on the outside of the reed plates, draw reeds on the inside. This is done to allow you to service the blow breath savers if you are so inclined.)
So let’s get started and clean and lubricate your instrument.
For the purpose of this article we are assuming you want to clean and lubricate the mouthpiece and slide, AND want to clean the comb with its bolted on reed plates…that reed plate having the reeds and breath savers attached.
WARNING: ALWAYS WASH YOUR MOUTH WITH WATER BEFORE PLAYING, NEVER PLAY AFTER YOU EAT FOOD OR SNACKS UNLESS YOU BRUSH YOUR TEETH AND RINSE CAREFULLY, AND DON’T DRINK ANYTHING OTHER THAN WATER BEFORE YOU PLAY. OTHERWISE, SUGAR OR FOOD PARTICLES WILL GET ON THE INSIDE OF YOUR HARMONICA. IF IT’S IN YOUR MOUTH IT ENDS UP IN THE HARMONICA.
We will cover how to clean and assemble the mouthpiece first, then I’ll go over how to clean the comb with reeds and breath savers. But first…the mouthpiece.
STEP #1….DISASSEMBLE THE MOUTHPIECE, SLIDE, BLANK, MOUTHPIECE SCREWS AND BUMPERS
Taking your mouthpiece off is easier than putting it on.
First, find a well lit tabletop near a faucet. I use the kitchen counter. Wipe off the counter…be sure it’s clean…no food, no gook….and move the food and other stuff away from the area you will use to work on the harmonica. If the lighting is not good, bring over a lamp or work light. Most kitchen sinks have a window above them, so in daytime it’s bright.
Place the harmonica on its long backend (the back usually has the manufacturer’s name printed on it) with the mouthpiece (or holes) sticking up, on top.
You’ll notice that the mouthpiece is held on with two screws located at the far ends of the mouthpiece, which are almost always Phillips head, although Hohner uses flat blade screws. (A Phillips screw looks like it has an “X” on the top, a flat head screw just has a single sideways slit in it for the screwdriver. You use different screwdrivers for the two types: Phillips or Flathead. You must have a screwdriver which fits the screw head properly, if you don’t go to a hardware store and buy one. )
Insert the correct sized screwdriver into the mouthpiece screws and unscrew them (counterclockwise) until you hear a little “click” sound. The “click” sound means the threads have exited the threads.
Then take your fingers and remove the mouthpiece from the body of the harmonica (the body of the harmonica is made up of the comb or center section, and the reed plates attached on both sides, and the covers which you use to hold the harmonica when you play it, the mouthpiece screws and the two little tiny tubelike “bumpers” which go around the screws on the inside of the mouthpiece assembly.)
If the mouthpiece doesn’t come off easily the mouthpiece screws need to be unscrewed a bit more.
When the mouthpiece comes off, it’s really a mix of three major parts or two major parts, depending on the make of the harmonica, the two screws which hold the mouthpiece to the comb of the harmonica, and on the underside of the mouthpiece, the BUMPERS actually go around the two mouthpiece screws on the INSIDE of the mouthpiece.
The MOUTHPIECE is the part your lips touch. It has the big round holes in it. You put it in your mouth to play the harmonica, and your lips slide back and forth across it. With a 16 hole harmonica there are 16 holes, with a 14 hole harmonica there are 14 holes, and with a 12 hole harmonica there are 12 holes.
Just under the mouthpiece is the “SLIDE,” it’s called that because it SLIDES back and forth when you press the button, and it raises the tone a half step when it’s pushed in. Note that it seats on a little spring head at one end of the harmonica, so that the slide returns when you release the button.
Under the slide is a blank, or piece with checkered holes. Then there’s the comb and cover assembly which is still assembled, we haven’t taken the covers off yet.
Let’s get back to the bumpers for a moment.
They are very small, perhaps 3/8 inch long and 1/16th inch wide, just big enough to slide onto the mouthpiece screw on the underside of the mouthpiece. They are EASILY LOST when you work on your harmonica.
The BUMPERS play an important role: when you push the slide in, the slide bumps into the bumpers instead of hitting the mouthpiece screws…thus absorbing shock and keeping the slide from making a “click” noise when the side is pushed in or released.
Without the bumpers on the mouthpiece screws, you’d hear a click each time you push in the slide, and every time you release it, as the slide would hit the mouthpiece screws directly.
You can tell when the bumpers are worn out…because your slide clicks when you push it in and when you release it. (Another article and video explain how to replace bumpers).
(Note: the current Suzuki chromatics have a “2-piece” mouthpiece. They’ve eliminated the blank, so there’s just the mouthpiece and the slide which go directly onto the comb. Yes, you are correct, that means the slide runs right on the comb, it seems to work well.)
(Note: It is not necessary to remove the covers from the harmonica and access the reeds and breath savers if all you want to do is clean and lubricate the mouthpiece.)
Let’s finish cleaning and lubricating the mouthpiece, and then go over how to clean the reed plates and breath savers.
So, so far, we have the mouthpiece off. Remove the mouthpiece screws which are in the mouthpiece, and place the screws and the little bumpers somewhere where they will not be disturbed.
WARNING: it is very easy to lose the bumpers, they are often clear, very small, and thus very hard to see. Place them with the mouthpiece screws on a little dish, or someplace totally safe.
Take the slide off the mouthpiece, and if there is a blank take it off too.
The mouthpiece is fairly tough, but the slide and blank bend easily, so when cleaning they are laid down on a counter, and cleaned with a toothbrush with a drop of liquid dish soap on it.
To clean the mouthpiece, just hold it in your hand and wash it with the toothbrush. Just put one drop of liquid dish detergent on the toothbrush. When done just lay it in the sink.
To clean the slide it MUST be laid flat on the kitchen counter with the button protruding off the counter, so the slide is flat to the counter, then you can use the toothbrush. Lay it in the sink.
To clean the blank…if your harmonica has one (Hohner 280 C’s have them) lay it on the counter and clean it with the toothbrush.
Never bend the slide, or the blank…they will be useless and cannot be repaired.
Don’t forget, these are carefully machined parts and the slide and blank easily bend.
After you have scrubbed them they must be carefully rinsed in warm water, for about 20 seconds each.
Any residue of soap left will leave a soap taste in your mouth.
To dry the MOUTHPIECE, just take an older lint free towel and dab it, then blow it with air you’re your mouth, to blow off any residue moisture.
To dry the SLIDE, pick it up between your thumb and forefinger and run it through your fingertips to wipe off the water.
Then place it on a dry counter top with the button hanging over the side, and dab it.
Be sure there is no LINT RESIDUE left on the slide.
To dry the BLANK, if you have one, follow the instructions for drying the slide, but of course there is no button.
Lubricating the slide most certainly does provide better operation of the harmonica, a very slight amount of oil on the slide allows it to slide more smoothly, and quietly.
But one must be careful, because if you use too much oil, you can mess up the breath savers and the reeds. Suzuki does not sell the oil in the U.S. because it’s misused, and ends up gunking up harmonicas which they have to clean.
Put one very small drop of slide oil on your index fingertip, and rub it with your thumb.
I recommend Hetman Synthetic light bearing and linkage lubricant #13 (used to lubricate saxophone linkages) if you cannot locate slide oil, which is likely the case in the United States.
You now have a very thin film of oil on your thumb and forefinger of one hand.
Take the slide in one hand and rub the oil with your thumb and finger onto both sides of the slide, and on the very thin outer edge. Take the oil up to within ¼ inch of the button on the slide.
Dry your thumb and forefinger and lightly wipe the slide again, removing all but a very very thin layer of oil from the slide. You want no extra, no drips, no runs, just a very very thin coating of oil you cannot see, and can only barely feel.
Now the mouthpiece assembly is ready for reinstallation on the comb.
Your first step is to place the lubricated slide back onto the comb. The comb should be placed bottom down with the checker holes on top and the covers on either side. One end of the comb has a tiny spring head protruding up, and this spring end goes into the tiny hole on the slide.
When on correctly, the slide fits on top of the comb.
Orient the comb with slide so that the spring is on the right side.
(If you have a blank on your harmonica, it goes on top of the comb, and sits underneath the slide, with the little rectangular cutout oriented on the same side as the slide spring. This way, the spring can slide left and back when you press the slide.)
Now reinstall the two mouthpiece screws into the mouthpiece, with the screws facing down.
Correctly installed, the screw heads will be visible from the TOP of the mouthpiece, and the screws will project out the bottom of the mouthpiece about half an inch.
They don’t fit snugly and will fall out if you turn the mouthpiece bottom end up…don’t do this.
Holding the mouthpiece parallel to the kitchen counter, screw ends down, orient the mouthpiece with screws until the screws face away from you and horizontal.
Using your thumb to keep the screw heads in place in the mouthpiece, gently place the bumpers back on the screws.
This is not as easy as it sounds.
They are hard to fit on, very small, and note they actually seat just a little bit into the underside of the mouthpiece.
You have to make sure the bumpers are on all the way.
Push the bumpers into the underside of the mouthpiece as far as you can.
Notice that one end of the mouthpiece has a slide cut into it at one end, which allows the slide to move on the spring.
That end of the mouthpiece should be lined up with the comb’s right side, as you put the harmonica comb on the counter with the slide spring on the right.
Place the left screw into the hole in the comb and then drop the right side into place.
NOW, TURN THE harmonica so that the button is on the left. Depress the slide gently and wiggle the parts gently until the slide seats into the mouthpiece…but the screws are still not tightened.
You can push down gently on the mouthpiece to be sure the assembly is correctly aligned.
When correctly aligned the slide will move smoothly and all will feel snug.
If you lifted the slide button at all it will lift off the slide spring, and you’ll have to take the mouthpiece off again and reset the slide on the spring, then follow the above directions to get the mouthpiece back on and aligned.
After you are sure all is aligned correctly, start gently screwing the mouthpiece screws back into the comb.
Go slowly, see how it’s going, the screws should go in smoothly, tighten just a bit on one side, then the other.
When the screws are just barely starting to grip the mouthpiece, holding all snug…just snug…not tight, TEST the fit of the slide and mouthpiece assembly again. It should operate normally.
Now the screws can be tightened just a little bit more, you want them tight enough to seal the mouthpiece assembly, but not binding.
They are not tightened as tight as a typical screw to nut, but just a little tight.
If the slide is binding, loosen the mouthpiece screws.
If the mouthpiece feels loose, tighten a bit more.
When you tighten or loosen mouthpiece screws, adjust both ends to keep things equal, then test the slide operation.
A clean, well lubricated slide will move easily and quietly in the mouthpiece, WITH NO BINDING.
(If your slide is binding, it may be too tight, or it’s possible a little piece of the bumper is jammed in the screw hole. If the bumpers are not in position correctly or are worn out, you will hear a click sound when you depress the slide. This is the slide smacking directly into the mouthpiece screw. If this is the case you will have to order new bumper tubing from the manufacturer, and cut a little replacement bumper using an industrial razorblade on a wooden cutting board, or send it in for service. To cut bumpers, them to the size of the old ones, (lay them side by side) or just a hair longer as sometimes the bumpers wear a bit at their ends. On some harmonicas, the slide hits the bumper in the middle of the bumper, on others on the low end, thus bumpers wear differently on different model harmonicas).
If you have no ability to work with your hands, I wouldn’t use the oil at all, as too much will mean the harmonica has to back in for service, as the oil will get to the little plastic breath savers.)