Regular cleaning is essential when it comes to many musical instruments. This is especially true for wind instruments, as the saliva left behind can be detrimental.
Harmonica’s are no exception to the rule. The trouble is many people don’t know how to properly clean a harmonica. And without regular cleaning, the reeds and combs can become caked with all sorts of nastiness. This WILL affect the ability for the reeds to sound the proper note, if any at all.
I’ve been playing harmonica as a hobby now for a couple decades. Regular, quick cleanings have helped keep my harp working like new.
Harmonicas that haven’t been routinely maintained may need a more thorough cleaning. That’s what we’ll be focusing on here. In the case below I have two diatonic Hohner’s that have been played by toddlers for almost two years and need some serious TLC!
How to clean a harmonica without taking it apart?
Before getting into deep cleaning, there is one preventative step to take to really keep your instrument in great shape: avoid eating right before playing! And if you do eat first, rinse your mouth out thoroughly, or better still, brush your teeth.
This simple step will keep your harmonica from ever being too much of a hassle to wash. Your harp will stay much cleaner just by keeping your mouth clean before playing.
Limiting the amount of moisture left in your harmonica after playing is another important and easy way to keep it clean. Every time you finish playing the harmonica give it a good tap with the holes against your hand to knock out as much saliva out as possible.
If you have a plastic, metal or sealed harmonica, you can also run it under lukewarm water after each use. But be sure to tap the water out to dry it as much as possible when following this method. Moisture is our enemy in this situation.
Supplies you’ll need for cleaning a harmonica
Below is a list of some supplies that will help you give your harmonica a deep clean:
- A clean towel
- Proper screwdriver
- A bowl or pan to soak the reed plates
- Lemon juice or vinegar for soaking
- Baking soda (optional)
- A soft toothbrush or makeup brush
- Dental tools (nothing to sharp)
- Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol/alcohol spray
There are also harmonica cleaning kits available with nice spatula-like blades to help clean under the reeds. But you’ll generally be fine with just a toothbrush and a soaking. If you’re missing some of the supplies above, you can still give your harmonica a nice deep clean with a light acidic cleaner and a soft brush.
I like to use a dull dental tool to help remove any tough chunks (on the rare occasions I find them). But to be clear, this can ruin a reed and damage the wood comb. Even flat spatula blades can do damage to your harmonica with too much force.
Give your harmonica a deep cleaning in 7 steps
Depending on how often you play, your harp may need a deep cleaning every three to six months. I’d also suggest a deep cleaning before playing any used harmonica you might buy.
The deep cleaning method below works for diatonic, octave and tremolo harmonicas. We won’t address chromatic harmonicas for now, as those are less common and involve more steps.
Expect cleaning a harmonica to take at least an hour from disassembling, soaking, cleaning, drying and reassembling.
1. Disassemble the harmonica
I have two diatonic Hohner Blues Harp harmonicas (C and G) my children have manhandled and need cleaning. Although it may take less time to clean them together, I’ll be cleaning them separately to avoid potentially switching parts by mistake. We don’t need a C harmonica with G reeds!
Pick one harp and start to take it apart. Often the screws on the top and bottom interlock with one another. So as you unscrew the top, the bottom will come out at the same time. Be sure to keep track of which screws belong where.
Now remove the reed plate screws and set them aside so you know the exact order to replace them in. As I take the harmonica apart, I keep the parts in a strict order, and I take pictures. This process can help you avoid confusion later when it’s time to reassemble your harmonica.
2. Soak the reed plates
Soaking the reed plates in a lightly acidic solution for 15-30 minutes helps loosen and break up any grime left on them from prolonged use. You need a light acidic solution that will do most of the cleaning, just enough to interact with any stray particles.
Here I’ll use a slightly stronger solution of lemon juice and warm water because of the harsher treatment these harmonicas have seen. But vinegar will work just as well.
Soaking in a stronger mixture is generally unnecessary. Cleaning your harmonica is all about using common sense and being careful. Let the vinegar or lemon juice do most of the cleaning for the fragile reeds.
3. Clean the cover plates
While the reed plates are soaking, clean the cover plates with rubbing alcohol or really any common instrument cleaner. The famous Formula 65 for guitars also cleans a harmonica cover plate beautifully.
Wipe the cover plates, inside and out, with a nice clean cloth. Take care not to bend the plates, which is a possibility with cheaper harmonicas. You may also want to clean the cover plate screws with alcohol. Just make sure to keep track of where each screw belongs.
4. Clean the comb
If you have a metal or plastic comb, you can simply wash it under lukewarm water with a little soap and use a soft brush to clean it. While a gentle scrub with a dry, soft toothbrush is often enough for cleaning wooden combs.
Any appearance of mold or serious discoloration on a wooden comb is typically caused by excess moisture remaining after playing. Playing a moldy harmonica can make you sick, and replacing the comb is often wise in such cases.
Some harmonicists advocate applying a bit of sesame oil on wooden combs after cleaning. Sesame oil is known to have antifungal and antibacterial properties, as well as providing a moisture barrier. These factors help keep the comb clean and mold-free.
5. Clean the reed plates
After soaking the reed plates, it’s time to clean them with the brush. A few vital points to keep in mind here are:
- Be gentle. Use the slightest pressure to brush the reed plates.
- Brush down the reeds. Never brush across.
- Avoid bending the reed plates. Even damaging one reed can make your harp pretty much unplayable. And then you need to learn how to repair on top of cleaning!
To help remove any persistent grime on reed plates, you can also scrub with a bit of baking soda. Limit your baking soda scrub to 30 seconds or so, to avoid damaging the finish on the reed plates. Then immediately rinse under lukewarm water while lightly brushing downward on the reeds.
Let the chemistry do most of the cleaning. Any difficulty here may be a sign that you haven’t taken enough care to regularly clean your harmonica after play. Even my 10-year-old harmonica that has been used by children isn’t too dirty because simple steps were always taken to keep it dry and free of particles.
6. Leave the harmonica parts to dry
Remember that moisture is not our friend here. And the last thing we want to do is put the harmonica back together while damp.
Spread the parts of your harmonica out on a clean towel to air dry. The parts will typically need 20 minutes to an hour to completely dry, depending on surrounding humidity.
You may be tempted to dry the parts with a towel by hand. But doing so can leave behind tiny towel fibers, which can end up in your mouth later during play. If you’re the impatient type, better to use canned air—usually CO2— to dry the parts faster.
7. Reassemble the harmonica
Reassembling your harmonica should be a breeze if you’ve kept track of all the parts.
Take one last look at your reeds to make sure they’re dry and have nothing stuck in them. Then place them back into the comb. Insert the screws in reverse order and avoid overtightening. Ensure everything looks good and then put the cover plates on.
You can use a tuner or a tuning app on your smartphone and check each hole to make sure everything is working fine. Find the right notes for your harmonica key and make sure each blow and draw match up with the corresponding notes.
When you take a harmonica apart you’ll realize what a simple instrument it really is. There’s no reason to not take good care of it. If you fail to maintain it, your harmonica can end up being unplayable. And any repairs necessary will often cost more than the instrument is worth!
Each time you play your harp make sure to have a clean mouth. When finished tap out any moisture and every now and again give your harmonica a deep clean. If you follow those basic steps, your harmonica will last you for many years!