March 05, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story

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music: A New Harp 

Fourteen Years of tinkering have paid off for this Ashland-based inventor.ÿ

"The XB-40 is kind of a new category," he explains. "It's almost in a class of its own."

The XB stands for Extreme Bending. The difference this harmonica provides, and the reason why it is the subject of three patents held by Epping, is that both the blow and draw reeds of all 10 holes can be bent, by virtue of the incorporation of an additional set of reeds. The XB-40 will be manufactured in Germany and launched around the world this spring. Orders are already being taken in Europe, South America, Japan and the United States.

Acknowledging Epping's role in developing this instrument, Hohner put his name on the reed plate. Epping admits even his neighbors will be surprised by his status as an inventor.

"They aren't aware of the burning of the midnight oil," he noted, "which goes on all hours of the night."

In the quest to develop the XB-40, Epping often wouldn't be able to get to sleep, or would wake and immediately being consumed by thoughts of the harmonica.

"I would throw a blanket around my shoulders, head to my workshop, and start tinkering and whittling," he recalls. "I would reduce myself to a sixteenth of an inch high and imagine myself walking through the entire harmonica. There were dozens of minor stages, three major stages, and hundreds of prototypes. It took thousands of hours. And a very patient wife."

The idea for the XB-40 sprang from what Epping, a masterful harmonica player himself, calls a universal desire of harmonica players — the desire to bend all notes. "I have always appreciated that desire," he notes, "even as a youth." Epping doesn't take sole credit for the concept. "The concept was conceived by half a dozen players," he admits. "The problem, of course, was going from conception to execution. Part of this was not just making something that works, but that's practical to manufacture in its entirety. It had to be both of good quality and affordable. About 14 years ago, I determined it was achievable."

Along the way, Epping had his share of Eureka moments and frustrations, and his perfectionist tendencies also lengthened the process.

"That's why there are three patents involved. Every time I came up with a design that worked, and thus should be patented, I was never completely happy with the way it performed and wished it could be improved. Each time, epiphanies arrived, or a new solution came, or a lateral concept, or sidestep would appear — and that took me off to a completely new design."

Epping defends the use of the word "revolutionary" to describe the XB-40. "If an evolutionary step is of such size or stature that it involves a significant transformation of what went before," he offers, "then revolutionary is correct. The last development in harmonicas of this stature was in the '20s, when the chromatic came along. This has taken the limitations of flow on the harmonica — which you don't have on the saxophone for example m — way. With this instrument, the expressive limitations have been lifted. And really, expression, if anything, is more important, more fundamental, than how many notes you have to play."

Local blues harmonica player Keith "Li'l Ronnie" Owens is intrigued by the XB-40. "I haven't played it yet, but I was blown away by the possibilities when I heard it demonstrated. You have a whole lot more notes to fool with."

Owens predicts the new instrument will make an impact, but how much of an impact it's too early to say. "It's going to find its niche, for sure," he states. "It could be revolutionary, but time will tell if players really can use it. It's definitely got potential, because it's doing something the Marine Band and the chromatic can't do. Your more inventive players are going to be checking it out, and real technician guys are going to like it."

Owens says he's spent too long trying to learn to play the blues on a diatonic to throw them all away and start over with the XB-40. "It may be something I use for new things, and not for the old blues," he says. "I won't know until I hear how it sounds. I'm excited about it. I can't wait to get my hands on one." S

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