May 22, 2022
Musical instrument harmonica

Harmonicas Then and Now

Harmonicas have been through a long and interesting history that all started in China with the instrument known as Sheng. During the early 19th century, the harmonica went through further development in Europe, with the first-ever harmonica developed in Germany. This is why it is not a surprise that Hohner, the most popular harmonica company, remains based in Germany to this day. 

Matthias Hohner introduced the harmonica to America during the 19th century, marking the beginning of the harmonica’s modern history. The harmonica was easy to carry and cheap, which made it ideal for a country that was on the move, just like how America was back then. Although there were numerous types of harmonica, the one most widely used, at least in the countries in the West, was the 10 hole diatonic.

What Does the Harmonica Sound Like? 

A lot of people probably never got the chance to hear a well-played harmonica, to the point that something that this is impossible to do. However, this is far from the truth. Meanwhile, those who are familiar with the instrument seem to assume that a harmonica is exclusively used for blues. Once again, this is not the case. 

Playing harmonica
The harmonica is capable of producing both notes and chords

How are Harmonicas Put Together? 

The type of harmonica most commonly used in Western countries features 10 holes. Inside every hole are two metal reeds. Every time you blow into one hole, one of these reeds will vibrate and produce a note or a sound. 

Once you breathe in, the second reed in the hole will vibrate and produce another note. This means that every hole produces two notes. Since there are a total of 10 holes, you can produce 20 noes, or even more. 

The harmonica is made up of five primary parts, and these include the two outer cover plates, the two brass reed plates, each of which holds 10 reeds, and finally, the comb, often made from wood or plastic, which got the holes. Screws hold all of these five parts together. 

The harmonica is a common instrument used in Western music. Back in the days, harmonica bands, with a lot of harmonic players, were quite famous. Today, the harmonica is often associated with the blues. Many people who want to learn the harmonica are interested in playing blues, and there is no surprise there. After all, it can be very fun. 

Harmonica in a pocket
Harmonica is a small instrument and can be easily put in your pocket

Harmonicas are also commonly used in folk music, the most famous exponent is none other than Bob Dylan. For the past several years, players like Brendan Power and Howard Levy have come up with exciting and new harmonica styles. 

However, please note that just because the harmonica is a very cheap instrument, most people seem to think that serious musicians don’t play it. Again, this isn’t true. Similar to other instruments, there are plenty of world-class harmonica players who play beautiful and exceptional music (https://www.suedklang.eu/).

Quick History of the Harmonica 

It was several years ago when the harmonic was invented in China for the first time. The instrument named the Sheng featured bamboo reeds. It became one of the prominent instruments in Asian traditional music. It was during the latter part of the 18th century when the Europeans were introduced to the Sheng, and it became famous soon after.

The instrument makers in Europe started to experiment with instruments in the early 19th century with the use of metal reeds rather than the wooden ones that were used for making the Sheng. When 1820 came, Christian Friedrich Buschmann, a young instrument maker, developed an instrument using metal reeds that he named “The Aura.” While this instrument rose to popularity, it only produced blow notes. 

The history of the harmonica

When 1825 came, a European named Richter made an instrument, and this is what became the modern harmonica as people know it today. This instrument featured 10 holes with two reed plates that have 10 metal reeds each. It meant that every hole had two reeds, with one sounding when the player blows, and the other sounding every time the player breathes in. Richter’s chosen notes for the reeds in the instrument are similar to the present-day diatonic harmonicas. 

It was in 1829 when the harmonica started to be mass-produced in Vienna, and not long after, it was also produced in the rest of the cities. In the village of Trossingen in Germany, a man named Christian Messner, together with his cousin Christian Weiss, started to produce harmonica during their free time, with clockmaking being their main craft. Their business rose to success. 

After several years, Matthias Hohner, another clockmaker in Trossingen, visited Weiss and Messner and learned their technique for harmonica construction. He also started his very own harmonica business soon. 

Matthias Hohner was not that good of a harmonica player. But he was an outstanding businessman. Hohner bought out his competitors, and by 1862, he started to export the instruments to the US that became his biggest market later on. Hohner continued growing the business and handed it over to his five sons in 1900.

During the first half of the 20th century, harmonica’s popularity continued to boom. Harmonica bands, in particular, were quite popular, with several people playing together. The Chromatic harmonica that includes a button on its side to allow the playing of all notes, was also made by Hohner. When the 1930s came, Larry Adler became the instrument’s most popular player and remained so until he passed away in 2001.

The Harmonica and the Blues 

The harmonica rose to popularity as a blues instrument in the US. John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson became popular during the 1930s and the early 1940s. When World War II ended, Chicago became the major center for blues music, with fine players like Little Walter and Rice Miller. A lot of people consider Littler Walter as the best blues harmonica player. His death in 1968 was a sad day in the harmonica’s history. 

Blues Harmonica – A two hour long compilation

But even if the harmonicas were popular mainly as a blues instrument, most people learned about it through Bob Dylan’s music in the 1960s. Throughout the history of the harmonica, many of its great players came from the US. But thanks to the internet, the whole world is now starting to embrace harmonicas and their beauty. 

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