“Custom” harmonicas are a minefield of a subject, especially for newer players. Like all things harmonica, there’s a lot of myths and perceived wisdom out there, much of which is half-true at best.
So let’s get this out of the way. You do not need a custom harp. You really don’t. If you can’t rattle a tune out of an off-the-shelf harp of decent manufacture the problem is not the harmonica. If you find you’re quickly wearing harps out, you’re blowing too hard and a custom harmonica will only exacerbate the problem.
There is something near magical about a harp that has been set up close to perfection. One that’s been tuned precisely and had its reeds set so they respond to a whisper of breath. The dynamics are incredible. You won’t want to put it down.
Harmonicas are produced in massive quantity on a factory line. The amount of attention given to each harmonica by a human is minimal because that’s the really expensive part. Tuning and profiling reeds is extremely time-consuming. When you buy a custom harmonica it’s the man-hours you’re paying for. And the skill and experience of the customiser.
For years I’ve been playing Hohner Marine Bands customised by Cain Hamilton of Sugar Cain Harmonicas.
Cain is a divisive figure for sure. He’s vocal, forthright, opinionated, and that does tend to get under some people’s skin. But he’s never been anything less than professional, friendly and honest in all my dealings with him. He’s always replied quickly to questions and worked with me to make sure I was getting excatly what I wanted.
And the harps he made for me are fantastic. In particular a Low F and a Bb which are the two finest instruments I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, let alone owning. And all for a very fair price. I dunno what he does to these things but it takes a long time and it’s worth waiting for.
Extremely sad then to hear he’s hanging up his tuning files, closing the shop and heading off to pastures new. It’s a real shame and a huge loss for the harmonica community in the UK. But I wish him all the best, of course. I understand there were family priorities and you can’t argue with that.
On hearing the news I went back and played some of my off-the-shelf backup Marine Band Deluxe and Crossover harps. They’re fine. They are. But they’re not Sugar Harps.
I somehow doubt we’ve heard the last of Cain, but for the moment I’m just selfishly wondering where my harps are going to come from now. Might even have to bite the bullet and spend some proper time and effort working up my own harps.