The Gazell Method Harmonicas
How I taught that old dog a few new tricks
By P.T. Gazell
I’ve been a professional harmonica player for 39 years. When I began at age 19 there was only one harmonica brand that most of us knew about: Hohner. I played Hohners and endorsed them until 2005. That was the year I first heard about another German harmonica company that had been in business ten years longer than Hohner. That company is C. A. Seydel Sohne.
Located in the Saxony region of Eastern Germany, Klingenthal has been the home of Seydel since 1847. They enjoyed a prominent place in the musical instrument manufacturing community until 1945. Following WWII, as East Germany fell behind the Iron Curtain, Seydel was shut off from the rest of the world economic markets. While they continued to produce harmonicas, the supply chain had been severely weakened and the quality of the products was noticeably inferior. In addition, the instruments were not sold outside the Soviet block countries and only a few models were produced.
1989 saw the Soviet Union dissolve and the two Germanys reunite. In July 1991, ownership of the harmonica factory was returned to the Seydel family. However, having been largely forgotten during the 40 plus years under Soviet rule, and now having lost a huge share of the entire Eastern market, the family-owned company faced bankruptcy. Seydel quickly recognized that the key to success was in niche markets that the established Western competition had ignored. Developing new materials and offering to build custom harmonicas to suit professional players seemed like a way out and was an idea long overdue.
In 2003 I was made aware of a technique called half-valving for diatonic harmonica. By placing valves over certain reed slots, one could do additional bending of notes, both blow and draw. Simply put, by using a technique that most harmonica players already used — bending — one could, with the valves, fill in the missing notes on the chromatic scale. I immediately recognized the huge potential for this technique. I could now play chromatically without using a chromatic harmonica and still retain the emotional and voice like quality of the smaller diatonic instrument.
The valves in use at this point in time however, were made of plastic, and presented some serious issues concerning performance. The plastic would rattle and buzz and was also susceptible to temperature and moisture, both of which compounded the problem.
Over the course of the next year I began experimenting with different materials in search of a better valve. After 11 months of research I found a material that I felt had solved the problem. Now I began to look at how the reeds were gapped in the reed slot. I wanted the valved bends to be accessible as “spot on notes.” The factory settings of the reed gaps however, was making this problematic. I soon discovered that by arcing, shaping and finding the correct gap on all 20 reeds, along with my new valve material, made the instrument ideal for half-valved playing.
While playing a show in Columbus, Ohio, in 2005, I was approached by the Seydel USA representative about endorsing their instruments. From the moment he placed one in my hands, I knew it was crafted to exacting specs. These instruments are handmade one at a time with true craftsmanship.
While I was impressed, I also expressed a desire to be part of a company that was open to player’s ideas… something that was never considered with other harmonica companies. Seydel’s response was immediate… “Sure! What do you have in mind?”
Following my meeting with Seydel in Columbus, I began playing their instruments and soon realized just how good they really were. I became an endorsee in 2006 just as they introduced the first stainless steel harmonica with a revolutionary polymer comb.
After playing this radically new harmonica, I felt that my discoveries would make a perfect marriage to their new instrument. In 2007 I showed my research to Seydel who tested the findings and concurred with my results. The company introduced the Gazell Method Harmonica in 2009, which is currently available in two models. Through forward thinking, Seydel has vaulted from obscurity to being one of three major players in the harmonica industry.
To hear an example of what half-valved diatonic playing sounds like, or to hear a more detailed explanation of half-valving, check out the videos below.
PT Gazell with Chino & Rod Deville in Barcelona, Milano Cocktail Bar, October 2011.
6 minute snippet of video interview with BluesHarmonica.com, October 2010.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PT Gazell, “American Master of the Half-Valved Diatonic,” is known both nationally and internationally for his swinging style and emotional ballads on the harmonica. He has four solo CDs in his discography; the most recent — “2 Days Out” — was nominated for a Grammy in 2011. In addition, PT has two signature model harmonicas manufactured by the Seydel Harmonica Company. His music and harmonicas are available at: http://www.ptgazell.com.
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