The harmonica, the friendliest of all instruments. You can put this little baby in your pocket, take it out whenever the urge hits you and bang- instant music. Even if you barely know how to play, the humble harmonica is very obliging- put your mouth anywhere and blow, and a major chord comes out. Do the same thing on the inhale, and a seventh chord, a ninth chord, or a minor chord will come out. Believe it or not, you can play Jazz, Indian Music, Classical Music, Bluegrass, Irish Music, Swing, Klezmer, Middle Eastern Music, and more, all on a standard 10 hole diatonic harmonica, explains the virtuoso harmonica player Howard Levy in Artist Works.
Beginnings of the humble instrument
This versatile instrument was invented in Germany by a young German instrument maker named Christian Frederich Buschmann in the 1820’s, to play folk music. Five years later in 1825, a breakthrough occurred: Joseph Richter developed the first modern diatonic harmonica with both blow notes and draw notes. Several bright minds over the course of European history contributed to the evolution of the harmonica, but it was Matthias Hohner, a clockmaker and successful businessman, who really revolutionized the manufacturing of harmonicas and made it readily available to the public.
Hohner Harmonica's Billboard in New York City
Although his name is synonymous with the instrument, Matthias Hohner was not the first to manufacture harmonicas. He wasn't even a good harmonica player himself. As is often the case, he was simply a great businessman in the right place at the right time. He started his business in 1857, about 30 years after the first harmonica manufacturer which was in Vienna, Austria. He quickly bought out his competitors and started exporting the first Hohner harmonicas to the United States in 1862, just 5 years after opening. By the time his four sons took over for him, the company had grown to produce over 4 million harmonicas each year and was employing over 1,000 workers.
President Abraham Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket, and harmonicas provided solace to soldiers on both the Union and confederate sides of the American Civil War. In his letter, during his presidency, to to the Head of the Hohner Harmonica Company in Germany, Lincoln said: "Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe and playing my Hohner harmonica."
Rise to Stardom
It wasn’t long after the Hohner company successfully established itself that the harmonica became more widely used, particularly in blues and country music. For the first time in history, musicians became famous for playing harmonica. One of the most influential early blues harmonica players was Deford Bailey, who in 1927 started to perform regularly on the popular “Grand Ole Opry” show.
Deford Bailey's musical career spanned almost all his life.
While Deford Bailey was on the rise to national fame, another blues harmonica player arrived on the scene. John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williams made his first recordings in 1937 and pioneered the way for modern blues harmonica players with his dynamic call-and-response style.
A key member of the Chicago blues scene, Little Walter played in many blues ensembles. It frustrated him to be overpowered by the other louder instruments in the band such as the electric guitar, so he devised a solution: use a microphone. Cupped a small microphone in his hand along with the harmonica, he was able to amplify the sound as well as create never-before-heard sonic effects. Little Walter is actually credited to be the first person to ever experiment with electronic distortion. Who would have thought that distortion started from playing a harmonica?
Muddy Waters and Little Walter in 1959 and Sonny Boy Williams at the beginning and the end of his career.
In 1947, the most successful harmonica record in history was made by Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats, with the album Peg O’ My Heart selling over 9 million copies.
By the 1940's, American kids were trying their footing at playing the harmonica due to the success of the record industry in releasing tunes with the harmonica backing up the main instruments.
Hip to play me
Jumping ahead to the mid 1960s, the harmonica continued to rise in popularity and reach new audiences. Legendary acts like Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Cash, and The Beatles all made it more hip.
But how did John Lennon learned to play the harmonica? The site The Beatles Rarity explains it like this: "John Lennon was given a harmonica first by a lodger at his home in Mendips named Harold Phillips and then again later by his uncle George (Smith) when he was still a child. John played it from time to time and after his uncle’s death from a liver hemorrhage in June 1955, he began to learn more on the instrument on his own. John didn’t start to develop his technique more seriously until 1962 after meeting up with Delbert McClinton (an harmonica player of the 1960's who John admired for his prominent harmonica riff in the song “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel)."
And, of course, John plays harmonica on many of the early Beatles recordings including the follow-up singles after “Love Me Do” (“Please Please Me” and “From Me To You.”).
John Lennon played harmonica on early hits as "Love Me Do"
Another prominent figure in popular music during the latter half of the 20th century was Stevie Wonder. He recorded more than thirty U.S. top ten hits and won twenty-two Grammy Awards (the most ever won by a solo artist) as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award, and was best known for his harmonica work when he started his career.
Taking it to another level
Bob Dylan is synonymous with the harmonica. Drawing on harp influences like Wayne Raney, Little Walter, and Jimmy Reed, he started playing it while he was in high school after picking up the guitar. Dylan started using a harmonica rack “when I was performing solo in coffee houses,” (via Steve Hoffman).
We should all be grateful that the early pairing of Dylan’s nasal, serrated voice with a harmonica was mandated by the folksinger idiom. Dylan’s abrasiveness obscures the pragmatic beauty of his best melodies, but the more fortunate tunes he rescues, harmonica swooping down like a superhero’s alter-ego, express Stylus Magazine on their great article Top Ten Dylan Harmonica Solos.
In the 1970s, Howard Levy introduced the overblow technique, a revolutionary way to play all notes of the scale in any key using a basic diatonic harmonica. At the young age of 19, Howard discovered that using a series of overblows and overdraws, he could play a diatonic harmonica as a full chromatic instrument - an unprecedented breakthrough.
Even movie stars are into it
Actor Bruce Willis surprise everybody in the 90's when he also showed talent for playing the harmonica. While he pursued an acting career in New York City, he took several ordinary jobs, like security guard, etc. and honed his musical talents as the harmonica player of local blues band called Loose Goose.
Actor Bruce Willis shocked the crowd with his killer harmonica chops on the One Way Out, at the Allman Brothers Band’s 40th Anniversary Run at the Beacon Theatre.
Harmonica brought back to popular music
John Popper is an American musician and songwriter. He is most famous for his role as frontman of rock band Blues Traveler performing harmonica, guitar, and vocals. He is widely considered a harmonica virtuoso, and is listed by harmonica manufacturer Hohner as a "Featured Artist".
The Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1996 was awarded to "Run-Around," a song that Popper composed, and which has a very famous Harmonica solo.
A fun fact to bring it full circle
In 2009 a Guinness World Record was set in Hong Kong for the largest harmonica orchestra - imagine 6131 harmonica players playing together all at once!
Future of Harmonica
A new generation of harmonica players is rising in NYC. One of the youngest is the French import Yvonnick Prene.
“My first harmonica teacher was my father. I quit after a couple of lessons because the only tune he knew was Oh Susanna! Anyway, he was a music lover, fan of blues and jazz” he said in a resent interview. Yvonnick has appeared at the Iridium Jazz Club, The Zinc Bar, The Miller Theater, Williamsburg Center, The New School, The Shrine, Tutuma Social Club, and Cleopatra Needle among many other venues.
Look for Prene and others musicians who use their harmonicas to spike their sound and try to identify solo riffs in some rock, and even pop music, played today.
Excellent Gift for Kids
The harmonica is an excellent instrument for kids to start playing even at a very young age, but not before five years old. It is cheap, easy to carry and easy to replace if lost. And because nursery rhymes sound great on harmonica, your kids will love it even more. Just make sure he or she knows to always play with a clean mouth. If not, the thing would get sticky, not to mention, unsanitary.
Do not buy a child a piece of junk, or he or she will simply get frustrated and give up.
We recommend the Hohner translucent harmonica in the key of C to start with. But as soon as you notice that your kid is enthusiastic about it, buy him a Hohner Old Stand By or Hohner Blues Band, that although also inexpensive, are a little more solid.
The Newberry Award Winner book, Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, is an excellent motivational story you can buy for your budding musician. In it, the protagonist, Otto, lost and alone in a forbidden forest, meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica. Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. A great read for everyone in your family.
GIFTS YOU CAN BUY TOGETHER
Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Music is Magic Pillow